Lift Them Up

“Freddie Maggard came up to me one day and was like, ‘Hey, we’ve got a really cool idea that Toyota’s trying to do and UK wants to be a part of it. Would you be interested?’ I didn’t even really know any specifics and I was like ‘Sure, why not? Let’s do it.’”

Four football players pose in a hospital room. Courtney Love, a young-looking Black man in a blue shirt, holds a young boy who is a patient at Kentucky Children’s Hospital.
Led by Director of Player Development Courtney Love, UK Football is actively involved with Kentucky Children’s Hospital. (Photo taken pre-COVID-19)

December 2018. In the middle of UK Football’s Citrus Bowl preparations, Freddie Maggard, then the team’s Director of Player Development, approached offensive guard Luke Fortner with an idea. What if the team was led down the Cat Walk, not by their coaches, but by a Kentucky Children’s Hospital patient, riding in a custom-designed car? Luke, a mechanical engineering major and honor roll student who was already involved in community service at Kentucky Children’s Hospital, was on board immediately.

Luke Fortner, a young white man with a football player’s build, brown hair, and a brown beard, helps a young girl into the cart. She is wearing UK blue and has a bow in her hair.
Luke helps a member of Little Blue Nation into the Lift Them Up cart at a College of Engineering event. (Photo taken pre-COVID-19)

“I kind of jumped in,” said Luke. “At first I was just listening and collecting my thoughts and seeing what it was all about, but I thought it was a really cool project. All the people involved, they put a ton of time and effort into it—and it was all volunteer, which I think is the coolest part.”

Luke and the rest of the project team spent the next eight months bringing the idea, now called “Lift Them Up,” to life. It was a unique joint effort of UK Athletics, UK College of Engineering, UK HealthCare, and Toyota Motor Manufacturing of Kentucky—an echo of the interdisciplinary approach that defines UK HealthCare. The team had three priorities: Making the experience safe for the kids involved, making it fun for the kids and their families, and making it street-legal for the Cat Walk.

Maximo Shemwell, strapped into the cart, leads the football team down the Cat Walk between rows of cheering fans. Luke Fortner is pushing the cart. Coach Stoops and Courtney Love are visible to either side of the cart.
Maximo Shemwell leads the team down the Cat Walk at the very first Lift Them Up event. (Photo taken pre-COVID-19)

“When we first started, we all had this picture in our heads of a souped-up golf cart,” said Luke. “But they said ‘No, you can’t do anything motorized’ because there’s so many fans and people around. And so it became the pushcart that it is today.”

Luke was the first to push the cart during its debut at UK’s August 31 game against the Toledo Rockets. Maximo Shemwell was in the driver’s seat, riding in honor of his brother, Marco Shemwell.

Luke and Max Duffy, a wiry-looking young white man with brown hair, pose for a photo with Dr. Erich Maul, a doctor in a white coat with glasses and short hair.
Luke and Max are regular visitors at Kentucky Children’s Hospital. Staff members like Dr. Erich Maul love seeing them. (Photo taken pre-COVID-19)

“Seeing Maximo smile that first day was absolutely incredible,” said Luke. “You can’t put it into words. That first time that he sat in that car and really enjoyed it…it made it all worth it and then some. It was really surreal.”

“I was lucky enough to be able to push it for that second game,” said Max Duffy, the team’s celebrated punter. “To see the kids be able to go down the Cat Walk and have people cheer them on, it’s a really unique and awesome experience. For them to lead us on the Cat Walk is pretty great.”

Six people pose for a photo on the football practice field. One man is holding Kase Chaney, an active kid who is holding a football. Coach Stoops, Courtney, and Luke are all in the photo, along with Kase’s parents.
The entire UK Football family gets involved in hosting kids like Kase Chaney. (Photo taken pre-COVID-19)

The Cat Walk is only one aspect of Lift Them Up. Kids and their families also get to hang out with the team in the days leading up to the game—sharing a meal, goofing around with players, touring the locker room, attending practice, breaking huddles, and bonding with the team and the coaching staff. When they finally get to lead the Cat Walk before the game, surrounded by cheering members of Big Blue Nation, it’s the peak of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

DJ Johnson, a young Black man in a Kentucky sweatshirt, poses for a close-up photo in the cart. A Black man on the UK football staff poses with him. Both are smiling.
Former patient DJ Johnson gets comfortable in the cart, which was designed to accommodate kids of all sizes and conditions. (Photo taken pre-COVID-19)

“It’s awesome for us to help out and give back,” said Max. “We’re just fortunate—we’ve been lucky enough to be blessed to be able to play football. So to be able to give back to some people is awesome. I just hope it continues on—hopefully we’ve built the foundation and gotten enough guys involved where it continues to happen throughout the years. And we can continue on that partnership for a long time, because I think both the kids and players get a lot out of it.”

Coach Stoops shakes the hand of Audrey, a young white girl with blonde hair and a blue hat. She is sitting in the cart.
Coach Stoops greets Audrey, a Kentucky Children’s Hospital patient with Type 1 diabetes. (Photo taken pre-COVID-19)

“I would love to see it continue as it is in football, and possibly expand to other athletic events,” said Luke. “Something where there’s a child who would love to be there at every athletic event—every basketball game, every volleyball game, every baseball, soccer, football game. I think that would be incredible, because the more children we can get at these events, the more lives we can brighten.” 

Luke and Max pose for a photo on the field. Both are wearing their practice gear and are smiling.
“We've been lucky enough to be blessed to be able to play football. So to be able to give back to some people is awesome.” (Photo taken pre-COVID-19)

See how we care for Little Blue Nation

at Kentucky Children’s Hospital.

Kelley Buffano, a middle-aged white woman with blonde hair, stands in a park hugging her three daughters: Gabriellla, Olivia, and Isabella.A portrait shot of Jaida Garrett, a smiling young Black woman with curly black hair pulled back into a bun with front braids. The lower half of her body is in the pool, while her arms are crossed in front of her and her chin rests on her hands.