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Phoenix from Kentucky
Teddy Greenstein
October 02, 1995
Burn survivor Harold Dennis wants to be seen as just another Wildcat
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October 02, 1995

Phoenix From Kentucky

Burn survivor Harold Dennis wants to be seen as just another Wildcat

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Harold's emotional scars were tested three months into his sophomore year, when he testified at the trial of Larry Mahoney, the former factory worker who had been behind the wheel of the pickup. Mahoney had survived with only a concussion and a collapsed lung, but he often wished he hadn't been so lucky. While testifying, Harold glared at Mahoney, hoping their eyes would meet, but he got no such satisfaction.

The Commonwealth of Kentucky was seeking life imprisonment on 27 counts of murder, which seemed reasonable to Harold, considering that Mahoney's blood-alcohol content had been at least .21%, more than twice the legal limit. But after 17 days of heart-wrenching testimony from 124 witnesses, the jury convicted Mahoney only of second-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to 16 years in jail. Mahoney is now in prison in LaGrange, Ky. He will be eligible for parole on July 20, 1997.

Harold was angered by the outcome but realized he had to get on with his life. He knew that playing sports would help. Harold had always been the first player picked and the fastest on every team, whether in backyard football, playground basketball or youth league soccer. He had started playing soccer at six, and it was his favorite sport. Because his burns were confined to his face and left shoulder, they would have no effect on his athletic prowess. As a junior he was the North Hardin varsity soccer team's most valuable player, scoring 18 goals in 23 games.

That year his social life also took a turn for the better. In geometry class he met a sophomore named Andrea Matkey, and at a party that summer they found themselves together. That night they took a drive in Harold's blue Ford Escort. Both teenagers were R&B fans, so they played Name That Tune, and they talked and talked. "I just remember thinking he was the nicest guy I had ever met," says Matkey, now a sophomore at Louisville. "You know how when you get to know people they become attractive because of their personality? He seemed to me like the most attractive guy in the whole school." They continued dating when school started two weeks later.

But Harold was still insecure. A year passed before he and Andrea talked in any detail about the crash, and two years before Dennis allowed her to touch his face. "He thought I'd be grossed out, but it didn't bother me at all," she says. "I wanted to act like a normal couple." Despite those complications the two stayed together, and they have talked about getting married.

Meanwhile, Harold's athletic career continued to flourish. He scored 24 goals his senior year, was named honorable mention all-state, and went 3 for 6 as a field goal kicker, though he considered football to be no more than a diversion from soccer. He was disappointed not to be recruited for soccer by Kentucky, whose basketball standouts Sam Bowie and Rex Chapman had been his childhood idols. But Louisville courted him, offering him a chance to earn a scholarship as a sophomore, and that made his college choice easy.

As a freshman Dennis started at striker for the Cardinals, but he soon lost interest in soccer, not least because Louisville finished the season 4-13-3 and the team's coach resigned. With soccer in his past, Dennis decided to transfer to Kentucky.

He thought his sports career was over until he heard Kentucky needed a placekicker. He tried out in the spring of '94, but the coaching staff, after seeing Dennis's quick feet during agility drills, had a different spot in mind for him: wide receiver.

While it is rare in college football for a position player to convert to placekicker, it's virtually unheard-of for a kicker—a 5'9", 165-pound former soccer player, no less—to make the switch to wide receiver. Dennis had 4.4 speed but a dearth of experience in running patterns, so the coaches started working with him on special teams to help ease the transition to wide receiver. They couldn't have picked a better candidate. "Harold's not afraid of anything," says Kentucky receivers coach Joker Phillips. "He's fearless."

More important to Dennis than playing was his teammates' acceptance: He refused to be viewed as a walking United Way poster. If the Wildcats wanted him on the field, it would be because of his talent, not his past. Coach Bill Curry realized this. Although he loves to talk about Dennis's bravery, he has avoided the temptation to share Dennis's survival story with the team. One time last season, however, Curry did make an example of Dennis. "What I said was, 'Watch Harold work,' " Curry recalls. "I did not want to single him out because of the incident; I wanted to single him out for his work habits. Everybody knows what happened to him and how he could be just sitting around, winning honors for being courageous. But instead he's running through ropes and getting the daylights knocked out of him. He doesn't have to do that."

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