How Kentucky’s Courtney Love Became College Football’s Ultimate Humanitarian

Courtney Love accepting the 2017 Wuerffel Trophy, given to CFB's top humanitarian.

Courtney Love accepting the 2017 Wuerffel Trophy, given to CFB’s top humanitarian.Associated Press

The gun was hidden under the bed, and one night when he was eight years old and couldn’t take it anymore, Courtney Love called his father and told him he was going to use it.

His mother was out again, but she always seemed to be out somewhere, leaving Courtney to fend for himself. She wouldn’t take him to his baseball games, wouldn’t let him sign up for the same exercise program she’d let his older sister join and wouldn’t explain why she refused to do any of it. She appeared, at least in Courtney’s mind, to be projecting all of her spitefulness onto him.

Courtney’s mother, who traded custody with his father from week to week, was dating a security guard. The gun belonged to him. Courtney was a temperamental and emotional kid, and the gun felt, at that moment, like the only solution to his problem. He pulled it out from under the bed and took it into his hands.

“Dad,” he said over the phone. “I think I’m going to do something bad.”

“Put the gun down,” said his father, Cory, who was on a job in Indiana, far from the house in Youngstown, Ohio. “And get out of there.”

Courtney waited all night, until 5 or 6 a.m. the next day, when the house was quiet and still and his mother was asleep. He stuffed his things into a backpack, locked his bedroom door, pulled out the window screen, crawled onto the roof and shimmied down the outside of the house until he fell to the ground. His adrenaline pumping and his fingers scraped, he limped several blocks down the street to where his grandparents lived. He called his father, who sent a cousin to pick him up. Courtney took one last glimpse at his mother’s house, at the police car his mother had called for after realizing he was missing, and resolved to become a better kid.

“I was just going,” he says. “And not even looking back.”

Over the summer, not long after the rock star named Courtney Love facetiously tweeted about being recognized for the accomplishments of the University of Kentucky linebacker named Courtney Love—a coincidence that has trailed the latter Courtney Love nearly all of his life and has drawn incredulous stares and guffaws from airport security agents examining his driver’s license—the latter Courtney Love met an eight-year-old boy named Antonio McKinney.

Their paths converged, in large part, thanks to a woman named Destini, but they also converged because Courtney recognized a way to break the cycle of neglect that had nearly destroyed him as a child.

Courtney was preparing for his senior season as one of the leading tacklers on an improving Kentucky squad that was seeking to make a bowl game in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2011. (They’ll face Northwestern in the Music City Bowl on December 29.)

He’d already completed a degree in community and leadership development and was starting work on a second degree in communications. He had taken a service trip to Ethiopia, where he helped build houses and shoe-shining boxes that helped men provide for their families; he’d worked with local children’s hospitals and with the Special Olympics. And still, he wanted to do more, so when he heard about a local program called Amachi Central Kentucky, which provided mentors for children whose parents had been incarcerated, he applied immediately. He set up an in-home interview with Destini Engle, an Amachi counselor who had grown up in Lexington and followed Kentucky football closely enough to know exactly who this Courtney Love was, and what he’d already accomplished.

Love heads off the field after a win versus Eastern Michigan earlier this year.

Love heads off the field after a win versus Eastern Michigan earlier this year.David Stephenson/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

They were supposed to talk for an hour, but Engle stayed at Courtney’s house for two-and-a-half hours. She told him the story of her childhood, of the family members of her own who had gone to prison, and he told her his: how he’d run away from his mother and gone to live with his father, who eventually won full custody of Courtney; how his father, a former Marine who’d served in Operation Desert Storm, had made a dumb mistake a few years later, had gotten himself arrested on drug conspiracy charges and gone away to prison for a couple of years; how all of that had led Courtney out of the cycle of immaturity and petulance that had characterized his childhood and forced him to grow up fast.

Engle could see that Courtney had a presence that belied his years. He was a powerful speaker, so much so that he had once wowed the audience at a football banquet while only a junior at Youngstown’s Cardinal Mooney High School. And unlike many of the college students Engle met with, Courtney didn’t see Amachi as a short-term commitment until he left Lexington, or as a way of padding the community service aspect of his resume. Whoever he was matched with, he told her, he wanted to make a difference in their life in a long-term way.

“He had this calm presence about him,” Engle says. “In an anxious society, it’s great to meet someone like that who has a good heart.”

That same day, Engle matched him with Antonio, a gregarious and hyperactive little boy who loved sports and lived in an apartment in Lexington with his mother, Autumn Floyd, and his older sister. Antonio was eight years old, the same age Courtney was when he ran away from home; Antonio had no real relationship with his father, who had served prison time and lived out of state. Antonio was highly attached to his mother, to the point that he sometimes had separation anxiety, and was in desperate need of a male role model—his father, says Floyd, “doesn’t really try.”

Floyd had Antonio on the waiting list for the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program for three years, but he hadn’t been matched because of a shortage of male mentors. When she saw a Facebook mention of Amachi, she figured it was worth a try.

Courtney and Antonio

Courtney and AntonioCredit: Megan Jones from Megan Eileen Photography and UK Athletics

The Amachi program called for mentors like Courtney to spend an hour a week with a child. But it didn’t take long after Courtney met Antonio for him to begin exponentially exceeding that number: twice a week, three times a week, between practice and classes and studying. Courtney would bring Antonio to his house, take him to the dog park to play with his and his roommate’s dogs, take him to Red Lobster and to a restaurant on Route 4 called Burger Shake, where the burgers are dirt cheap and the fries are plentiful. Even Floyd couldn’t believe how much time Courtney was committing to Antonio.

“You don’t have to come over the day after a game,” Floyd told Courtney one week after the Wildcats traveled to Mississippi State and suffered one of their worst losses of the season.

“I’ll be there at noon,” Courtney told her.

From the beginning, Engle says, Courtney was conscious about being a consistent presence in Antonio’s life, and he was conscious about it because even when his father couldn’t be there physically, he’d found a way to remain present. It was Courtney’s father who encouraged his son to go out of state and get far away from home for college. (Courtney played one season at Nebraska before transferring to Kentucky.)

Even now, Courtney winds up talking to his father for hours on the phone several days a week—sometimes, if a teammate is struggling, he’ll actually put them on the phone with his father to have them talk through their issues. And without that constant presence, Courtney admits, there are several moments when his life might have taken a far darker turn.

“Honestly,” Courtney says, “I think this story should be done about my dad. For keeping me together. For keeping my family together.”

After he ran away from his mother’s house, Courtney Love was raised almost literally by a village, by sisters and brothers and surrogate mothers and family friends and cousins. For a time after Cory went to prison, Courtney lived with his father’s then-girlfriend, Faye Madison (whom Courtney now refers to as his stepmother), and his three sisters and stepsisters, the younger of which Courtney wound up watching over as much as they watched over him. Yet as much as Courtney remains thankful for every one of those women, it is still his father that Courtney points to as his primary influence. It is his father who Courtney says did the most to transform him from a petulant little boy into the magnanimous team captain at Kentucky who is universally respected by his teammates.

“That’s his hero, his dad,” says Courtney’s roommate and best friend, Kentucky tight end Greg Hart. “And I’d say he’s a really good hero to have.”

When Courtney was a kid, Cory Love says, his mother’s lack of discipline led Courtney to think he could get away with almost anything. When Courtney was seven and Cory was on a hunting trip in Minnesota, he got a call that Courtney had given a ring to a girl in his class. Turned out he had shoplifted the ring from a store in the mall. Cory canceled his hunting trip, called the police on his own son and had Courtney do chores until he’d paid back the store everything he owed them.

A few years later, Courtney was still acting up, repeatedly talking back to a bus driver and letting his grades slip, and Cory Love could take no more. They went to a Burger King, and Cory gave him a cup and told him to go outside and start begging for change so he could get used to the future he faced.

This was a reflection of Cory Love’s strict military background. And yet at the same time, Cory had lost sight of the sense of discipline he’d picked up while serving in the Marines and was attempting to instill in his son. It led to Cory’s arrest on drug conspiracy charges, and two years spent in a prison in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Cory had several talks with Courtney before he went away, telling him it was time to grow up, to become the man of the house, especially when Faye was working late and couldn’t take them to appointments herself. But Cory also realized he needed to become a better father himself, even while in prison. He enlisted uncles and cousins to be his surrogate disciplinarians, to punish Courtney if he got out of line or acted up over the course of those two years.

Courtney began getting more serious about football, in part, he admits, as a way to work through his anger at his mother and build up his toughness. Every month or so, Courtney would go visit his dad, and they’d sit at a long table, and if Cory heard anything about Courtney misbehaving, “I was still going to get my butt beat,” Courtney says. “Nothing was going to change.”

But things did change. Both Cory and Courtney changed. Courtney, feeling the weight of his dad’s absence from the house, became a role model and mentor for his younger siblings and cousins, and Cory, too, began to re-examine who he was. Eventually he wound up starting his own industrial cleaning business in Youngstown, a company that sometimes offers up second chances to people looking for a fresh start, the way Cory once did when he emerged from prison. (Father and son have matching tattoos that say “Last laugh.”)

“It did make him grow up, but you know, with Courtney, as a single father, we kind of complemented each other,” Cory says. “Having Courtney made me grow up, made me realize a lot of negative things that I might have been into. I had to turn my life around to give him a fighting chance. He was just as much an inspiration for me as I was for him.”

On a crisp November night at the Burger Shake on Route 4, Antonio bounces out of his seat and seeks out extra ketchup for his french fries, and then he bounces back and mentions to Courtney that it was career day at his school.

“What do you want to be?” Courtney says.

“An Army person,” Antonio says.

Courtney pulls up a picture on his phone of a young Marine.

“That’s my dad,” Courtney says.

Courtney, quite literally, lifts Antonio up.

Courtney, quite literally, lifts Antonio up.Credit: Megan Jones from Megan Eileen Photography and UK Athletics

Antonio, whose mother says he has attention-deficit issues, is gregarious and energetic, and the conversation turns quickly to cartoons and horror movies and things on YouTube that Antonio probably shouldn’t be watching and what he wants for Christmas (“Ketchup,” Antonio says).

Still, Autumn Floyd has seen the difference in Antonio since he connected with Courtney. Antonio treats her with more respect. He’s less worried about being away from her, and he treats his older sister with a newfound reverence that Courtney has drilled into him. Floyd has heard it from his teachers, too—that they don’t see as many behavior problems as they did in Antonio the year before, that sometimes he’s so quiet they don’t even notice he’s there. If Antonio has a bad day, or if he acts up, Courtney will take him for a drive and remind him to respect his mother and respect his teachers, to “do good by the people that take care of you,” Floyd says.

Their relationship has become, for Destini Engle and Amachi, the quintessential example of what the program—which started in Pennsylvania in 2000—can do. Amachi is in the process of building a new headquarters in Lexington, and they’re hoping more high-profile athletes at Kentucky and beyond will become involved, not just those who, like Antonio and Courtney, have firsthand experience with incarcerated parents—but those who are seeking to disrupt the same cycle of neglect that nearly broke Courtney.

“If I can help add to our society by helping one African-American male, that’s huge,” Courtney says. “For Antonio, or whoever else it is, that just spreads, and one day hopefully he’s going to want to give back. I’ve seen my dad change so many people’s lives. It becomes like a domino effect, and maybe one day, Antonio will be a leader and change people’s lives.”

In early December, Courtney traveled with his father to Atlanta after he learned he’d won the Wuerffel Trophy, awarded to college football’s top community servant. He won it in large part because of what he’d done for Antonio, because of the way his own life story had helped to alter the trajectory of an eight-year-old, who sought the same guidance and direction that Courtney himself had once so desperately yearned for from his own father.

“It’s a blessing and you told me it would happen as long as I followed your lead and it is HAPPENING!” Courtney texted his father after accepting the Wuerffel Trophy. “YOU are the BEST and I can’t repeat that enough.”

Someday, Courtney says, he can imagine taking over his father’s cleaning company in Youngstown. Already, Cory says, they’re making tentative plans to have Antonio spend part of the summer in Youngstown as well. He’s a member of the family now, and Courtney has no plans to let him go.