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"Neither of the time-outs had anything to do with med school or missing practice," he says. "I called the first one because the coaches changed their minds. A player came in and flashed me one sign, a coach flashed me something else. On the second one, I called time out because I couldn't pick up the signal from the sidelines. All our coaches were wearing blue and, as a result, they all blended together."
Because Kovach is up at 7 a.m., generally not home much before 10 p.m. and usually studying until 2 a.m., Debbie and Jim Jr. have barely seen him this fall. "It's been difficult on little Jimmy," she says. "He's such a daddy's boy that he's having a hard time understanding what Jim is doing and where he is and why he's not home. He's getting used to it. though. At night, I don't care how sound asleep he is, he wakes up when he hears that door open. And Jim gets to talk with him and be with him for a few minutes, at least."
One of the reasons Kovach has survived his grueling regime is that it is not that different from that of his high school years in Parma Heights, Ohio, near Cleveland. His father Joe saw to that. A high school principal, Joe wanted Jim and his older brother David to be athletes, and he coached them in baseball, basketball and football. However, Joe also coached his kids just as hard in hitting the books.
"In high school, I couldn't believe it when I would hear people say they went out on weeknights," Jim says. "I remember getting up and going to school before it was light and coming home after basketball practice when it was dark. I never saw the light of day in high school. At night, I could talk to Debbie on the phone for 15 minutes, then Dad would get on the line and tell me to get back to studying. It was like that every night, but it got me ready for what I'm going through now."
While Jim's father wanted him to be a football player, his mother Sue, a registered nurse, encouraged him to be a doctor. At first, "I just laughed at her," he says, but the more his mother talked about the miracles she saw performed every day in the operating room, the more Jim thought about a medical career. One reason he decided to attend Kentucky was its medical school. Another was that almost nobody else wanted him.
When Jim was going into his senior year, Ohio State and Notre Dame were among the big-time colleges that expressed an interest. But when he was injured that season—"I strained my medial collateral ligament," he says of the knee injury—almost everyone pulled back except Kentucky and Northwestern. "Had it not been for that injury, I probably never would have come to Kentucky," he says. "And if I hadn't come to Kentucky, I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. This is a case of the right guy, the right coach, the right team and the right place."
By the time he was a junior, Kovach was one of the best linebackers in the SEC. He was so good in 1976, when UK was 7-4 and beat North Carolina 21-0 in the Peach Bowl, that he was named the school's Most Outstanding Athlete. Agents and pro scouts started calling and they managed to turn Kovach's head, at least temporarily. He forgot about becoming a doctor and began thinking, instead, about nothing except pro football. However, another injury—"I displaced my humerus anteriorly," he says, describing his shoulder separation—altered the course of Kovach's life.
On the third play of Kentucky's 1977 season opener against North Carolina. Kovach slipped and fell on his shoulder while defending against a pass. He did not play again until the Wildcats' fifth game, against Mississippi State, when he reinjured the shoulder after 13 plays and was declared out for the season. So Kovach had to watch from the bench while the Wildcats rolled to their best season since 1951. Being unable to participate was so depressing for Kovach that he walked out at halftime of the season-ending game against archrival Tennessee.
Figuring his career was over, Kovach concentrated on getting into medical school. Last spring, however, Curci told him that because he had played fewer than two games he had another year of eligibility under a retroactive rule that had just been passed by the NCAA. Kovach began entertaining thoughts of trying to play ball and go to med school at the same time. For one thing, he could use the scholarship help: books for the first semester alone cost $300.
Everyone told him he was crazy, that it was impossible to do both, but that was just waving a red flag before Kovach. When he finally informed medical school officials last spring that he intended to play another year of football, they were so surprised and skeptical that they asked him to write a paper about why playing football was so important to him. After it had been reviewed, the medical school admissions committee approved Kovach's application.