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It took only a few days of actual experience for Kovach to question the wisdom of his and the admissions committee's decision. The week before Kentucky's season opener at South Carolina—the first week he combined school and practice—Kovach was so tired from studying that he failed, for the first time in his career, to run "gassers," the drills in which linemen are required to sprint the width of the field four times—a total of 212 yards—in 36 seconds or less.
"I was never so worn out in my life," Kovach says. "I couldn't get my breath. When you miss, you have to run another one, so I did. On the way in. Assistant Coach Charlie Bailey came up to me and said, 'Jimmy, I'm going to help you get through this thing, whatever it takes me.' You just don't find concern like that in major-college football."
By the end of the week, Kovach was so exhausted from the rigors of practice combined with the long nights of study that he couldn't keep his food down. He was still feeling bad Friday afternoon, when a Lexington police squad car picked him up after his conjoint sciences class and took him to the airport to catch the team plane to Columbia. By game time Saturday afternoon, Kovach was weak and dehydrated, and his weight had dropped from 226 to 212.
"The South Carolina game was sheer torture," Kovach says. "It wasn't any fun at all. That week had been really hard in school. They threw a lot of stuff at us. Every night I was up late studying and I was exhausted. The main thing about playing football and studying is to not let yourself get run down, and that's exactly what I did."
The Kentucky coaches were angry at Kovach for not telling them how sick he was. So was Debbie, who reasoned, not unreasonably, that an aspiring doctor ought to know how to take care of himself. "He could have died," she says, "but since this was his first game back and there was all that publicity about him, he wanted to play and make a good showing. I could have killed him."
By the third game, against Maryland, Kovach was playing closer to his potential. The 20-3 loss could have been much worse had not Kovach and his defensive mates made a couple of goal-line stands. On one, Kovach was so excited that he yelled across the line, challenging Maryland to run at him. At such times, Kovach, the hard-nosed All-America, seems to be totally at odds with the dedicated medical student, but he doesn't feel that he has a split personality.
"Really, I'm not violent," Kovach says. "I never want to kill anybody out there. Football is my art. I can't play a musical instrument or anything, so I try to take an artistic approach to this game. In order to perform my art well, I've got to have good technique. I don't like to hurt people. But I do like to perform my art. I remember a game against Georgia when I hit the quarterback, Ray Goff, and he got up and said, "Nice hit." I was surprised, because nobody had ever said that to me before. But that's the kind of team I like to play. I said to myself, 'Hey, there's someone over there across the line who thinks like I do.' "
One aspect of college football that Kovach dislikes, though, is that he seldom has a chance to mingle socially with opposing players. He thinks the NCAA ought to sponsor mixers for players so they can exchange ideas and experiences. Before the season, Kovach went to McAfee, N.J. to pose for Playboy's preseason All-America team. He roomed with Jack Thompson, the Washington State quarterback, and "had the time of my life." Now Kovach follows Washington State in the papers.
Kovach faced what he called "the toughest week I've ever been through" before the Oct. 7 Penn State game. Getting ready for Penn State was demanding enough because, he says, "If you miss one signal, it could be Touchdown City." And on top of that, he had to miss practice Thursday and Friday to take his first round of med school exams, the ones that would determine whether he could continue to play football or would have to quit and devote full time to school. "I told myself if I didn't do well, I'd drop the football," Kovach says. Despite the odds, Kovach got three A's and two B's for an 89% average. And as he becomes accustomed to his schedule, things are getting a little easier—almost possible. "Somehow your body manages to get used to the strain," he says, "to do things more efficiently, to do what you know you have to do." And Kovach is doing more than all right on the field, too. Through last Saturday's 28-0 defeat of Virginia Tech, he was the Wildcats' leading tackier (72 solos, 56 assists).
"He's got a natural instinct for the ball," says Kentucky Defensive Coordinator Bailey. "Defensive football is a game of recognition. We practice all week against our scout team, then hope we can go out there and recognize what the other team is doing. But Jim isn't out there too often against the scout team, so what he's doing is unbelievable. He might get fooled once or twice early in a game, but that's all."