Sanford native Kenneth Horsey hitting his stride in return home for Citrus Bowl

Orlando Sentinel
Orlando Sentinel
Former Sanford Seminole offensive lineman now playing for Kentucky is in town preparing for Saturday's Citrus Bowl against Iowa. Chris Hays/Orlando Sentinel

Kenneth Horsey Jr. once thought he would never play football again. After this season at Kentucky, the former Sanford Seminole star is thinking he may never stop.

Horsey, who was the winner of the 2020 Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year, has been back home this week preparing with his Kentucky teammates for Saturday’s Vrbo Citrus Bowl matchup against Iowa.

Saturday will be Kentucky’s 13th game. Each one has featured Horsey, a redshirt junior, as the Wildcats’ starting left guard.

It’s an amazing turnaround for a teenager who had to undergo open-heart surgery toward the end of his senior year at Seminole High in 2018. His diagnosis was a bit fluky. Horsey had a painful blockage in his kidney that originated from a growth on his heart valve.

“After the many tears, the first thought was, ‘Wow, how do I tell my son, who has received all these offers for football and college, that he’s not going to be able to play football again?’ " his mother, Shari Horsey, said just before her son played in last year’s Gator Bowl. “We were definitely scared to death. Any surgery is serious, but open-heart surgery ranks right up there … so yeah, we were nervous.”

His surgery went quite well, which prompted his surgeon to tell him there was no reason he couldn’t get back on the football field.

It took Horsey a while to get reacclimated to the game, but eventually everything began to click again.

“To be honest, at first it felt kind of slow and frustrating,” Horsey said, “but I feel that some of the things that process taught me, such as patience and endurance, that paid off in the long run in my football career.

“Being able to stay locked in, stay focused, stay on task and just being able to take it one step and a time, one play at a time, that’s the only way you can progress.”

The Kentucky coaches were more than willing to give him the opportunity to become the player they had recruited.

“That was huge. Even at times when I didn’t believe in myself, they were always supporting me, believing in me from Day 1, since I stepped on campus,” Horsey said. “I definitely owe a lot to them for continuing to push me and keep me on track and just helping me to being the player that I am now.”

Horsey’s progress has come right along with Kentucky’s ability to put itself in the upper echelon of the SEC. Kentucky (9-3) always had that expectation in basketball, but it was an afterthought in football until head coach Mark Stoops arrived in 2013.

Nearly 10 years later, and the Wildcats are no longer an SEC punching bag.

“At the University of Kentucky, unfortunately we’re always battling adversity,” Horsey said. “Whether it’s a coach being sick or one of our players going down, it has felt good to be part of that group that continues to fight adversity and that’s exactly what we did at Seminole.

At Seminole, football is bred into the boys who wear the orange and black. It’s not just a culture. It’s a way of life. Being from the Bokey — Sanford’s unofficial nickname — they play hard and even through injuries.

Even when to the point of vomiting in practice, they get it over with and get back out there. That’s what shaped him into the player he has become.

Seminole won the 8A state championship in 2020, and 6A title in ‘08.

“We did everything we could to prove we were the top teams,” Horsey said. “And we go through that kind of adversity at Kentucky, so it all just kind of fits the mold.”

And even though he was derailed in 2018, the Horsey Train is still rolling up the tracks.

He looks svelte and mobile at 6-foot-3, 300 pounds. He’s made it through every obstacle in his way and after two more seasons at Kentucky, one being a extra COVID-19 year, the NFL will start to being weighing on his mind.

“That’s the ultimate goal, always and I’m just blessed to have been able to make it this far,” Horsey said. “I’m definitely not there yet, but hopefully that’s another story for me.”

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