His bags and boxes were packed long before his final game in a Kentucky uniform.
That’s how eager Freddie Maggard was to get off campus, to escape the anger he felt in his final season as a Wildcat.
“I was mad at UK when I left,” said the former Cats quarterback, who had lost the starting job after struggling with injuries that eventually led to surgeries. “It was not a good way for me to leave. ...
“I was lost,” he recalled. “I went back to the mountains, coached some football, which I enjoyed. Sold some insurance, which I did not enjoy, just tried to find my way in life.”
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That aimless man — the one who thought he was destined to go on and play professional football or baseball — had no clear plan.
“I really would’ve benefited from player development, having someone help me transition to the next area of my life,” Maggard said before the start of this season from his new office as UK’s director of player development.
Life has its share of twists and turns.
It certainly has for Maggard. More twists and turns than the mountain roads he grew up driving in Eastern Kentucky.
Ultimately every twist and turn of that life has led the 49-year-old former high school star back to this point, an office in the football training center on Mark Stoops’ support staff with an eye toward making sure other players don’t leave the building feeling the way he did so many years ago.
“I want the players to have as positive experience exiting UK as they do entering UK,” Maggard said.
That’s where his work starts. There’s help with résumés, interview techniques, getting “dressed for success,” career counseling and making community connections.
They’re all roles with which Maggard is familiar. He performed similar ones during his time in the U.S. Army.
After many years as a mortar specialist, Maggard transitioned into recruiting and community outreach and relations. Almost all of his jobs helped prepare young men and women for life after the military.
All of that prepared him for this, a job that seems to fit him like a No. 18 Kentucky uniform.
‘I had no clue’
When Stoops took over as Kentucky’s head coach in December of 2012, there was much work to be done in facilities, recruiting, development and personnel.
One by one, Stoops and his staff knocked things off the meandering to-do list.
But as the head coach sat in his shiny new office in the Joe Craft Football Training Center meeting with current and former players, Stoops still felt like there was something missing.
“It breaks my heart when you’ve got a guy who bleeds for you and works their tail off for four or five years and then they’re just left hanging,” Stoops said.
The coach would ask players about their future plans when football is over. He’d offer help in any way he could.
But it’s an impossibly tough transition for many.
“I don’t like that feeling that they’re just alone when they’re done,” Stoops said. “It’s already a bittersweet time in their life and then to feel like that connection is over. We never want them to feel that way.”
Football ended abruptly for former UK wide receiver Alexander Montgomery, whose career was halted early after multiple knee surgeries. He earned his degree, but had no idea what was next, what was even possible.
“I had no experience in the work field, so me looking for a job, I didn’t even know where to start,” Montgomery said. “Nobody in my family had real career jobs, so I didn’t have any background in anything. I had no clue.”
Stoops tried to help Montgomery, but the coach also is responsible for the managing of 100-plus players on the current roster along with many other duties.
Enter Maggard, who helped Montgomery get an inside sales position at Galls in Lexington this summer.
“He helped me with the whole process,” Montgomery said. “We had practice interviews, helped me build my résumé, which was great because my résumé really sucked. … Practiced speaking, how we enter the room in interviews, how we exit the room, everything.”
The speaking part is especially important to Maggard, who was terrified of doing interviews when he got to UK as a player because of his “mountain accent.”
“In some ways, I’m still that shy, 18-year-old kid,” said Maggard, who keeps his father’s small lamp from years of coal mining in his office to remind him to keep his head down and go to work.
“I was very, very shy to talk when I first got here as a player because everybody made fun of me. Barriers come in many shapes and forms like accent, geography.”
Now some 30 years later, that barrier helps create a connection to Kentucky’s current players. Feeling out of place or awkward isn’t just reserved for kids from the mountains.
“It’s one of the best hires Coach Stoops has made because it’s helping us with the future, whether you realize you need that help yet or not,” said center Drake Jackson, one of many players whom Maggard helped get an internship this summer.
“A lot of us didn’t realize you need a job to make some connections, get some experience,” said Jackson, who has aspirations of being in the media when his playing days are done.
Jackson did his internship on The Big Blue Insider sports talk radio show this summer with Dick Gabriel. “It blows my mind how many people Freddie knew.”
Those connections have made Maggard a near-perfect fit for the position, which is still evolving less than six months into his tenure at UK. Sure, Stoops could have hired any number of career counselors and résumé builders to help the Kentucky players plan for the future.
But Maggard also is a unique bridge to the past.
“This is their building,” Stoops said in his office a few months ago. “I want (former players) around and I want them part of it. Freddie has a connection to a lot of them and no one knows the history more than him.”
Maggard is regularly showing former football players and their families around the facility, introducing past to present in hopes of developing futures.
“I’m not some transient coach,” Maggard explained of his unique qualities that help him in this job. “This is my home. I’m a Kentuckian. I’m a UK guy. I know so many people and I have a passion for it. … I have a connection because I’ve been a lifelong fan.”
The player development guru picks the brains of successful former players about how they got to where they are, what steps they took, hoping to lead current players down those paths eventually.
If a current player wants to go into medicine, Maggard can find him a former player in that field. If a current player wants to become an engineer, Maggard knows a guy or will find one.
There are thousands of former players in jobs like architecture, law enforcement, teaching, coaching, business management. Maggard is reaching out to as many as he can to build the bridges.
“I try to learn from them about how they got to where they are,” he said. “You can read books about it, which I do. … But I prefer hearing it face to face.”
Hundreds of alumni have reconnected with the program via Maggard in the few short months on the job. Many like former NFL tight end Jacob Tamme have spoken with the team.
There have been community relations projects, branding and social media seminars. Maggard developed a “Behind the Facemask” series to help fans put a face to a number.
“It allows their personalities to show,” he said. “So many times football players are just numbers, so my goal is to take the facemask off. They’re not numbers. They’re names. They’re humans. They’re individuals.”
Anything Maggard thinks can help build a player is considered.
His job description gets broader by the week.
“He hit the ground sprinting, but I love that,” Stoops said of Maggard. “He brings the passion, energy and talent. He’s done it. He has experience in it.
“He’s passionate about Kentucky football. He’s passionate about the players. He knows a lot about them and their stories and he works extremely hard. He’s here for the players.”
Vanderbilt at No. 14 Kentucky
7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)