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
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.
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."
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.
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.