This weekend, six former UK athletes will be inducted into the UK Athletics Hall of Fame. Among them is popular wide receiver and kick returner Derek Abney. Abney, who played for the Wildcats from 2000-2003, has been hailed by UK Athletics as, “arguably the greatest kick returner in college football history after setting seven NCAA records, 11 SEC records and 14 school records for kick returns and all-purpose yardage.”
Digging into the numbers, Abney’s accolades are not only impressive in terms of UK records, but also his accomplishments on a national scale. “Abney was named a first-team All-America as a junior, second-team All-America as a senior and a three-year first-team All-SEC performer, becoming only the fourth player in school history to accomplish that feat. The talented star was the first player in NCAA history to accumulate 2,000 receiving yards, 2,000 kickoff return yards and 1,000 punt return yards. In all, Abney returned eight kicks for touchdowns during his career (six punts, two kickoffs), while he ended his UK career ranked second in three statistical categories: receptions (197), receiving yards (2,339) and touchdowns receiving (18)” (UK Athletics).
What few fans know is that Abney excelled on the field while undertaking the equally arduous task of earning an undergraduate degree in civil engineering. In fact, when Abney’s aspirations to play in the NFL were sidelined by injuries, his engineering background helped secure him a job as a site design engineer at Woolpert, based in Dayton, Ohio. During his time at Woolpert, Abney became an Accredited Professional for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, which rates the design, construction and operation of “green” buildings. In late 2011, Abney left Woolpert to take a position with Kinder Morgan, an energy infrastructure company. In less than a year, Abney has already been given significant oversight over three ambitious projects.
“My official position is Engineer and Maintenance Manager for the Southeast Region, but I would consider myself more of a project manager than a designer,” Abney explains. “I am managing major repairs of two liquid-products docks, one in Charleston S.C, and one in Wilmington, N.C. I’m also coordinating the repair of two ship-to-shore gantry cranes at our break-bulk facility in Fernandina Beach, Fla.”
Given that he used to run into opposing defenses at full speed during kickoffs and punt returns, it is not surprising Abney relishes the challenge.
“My favorite parts of my responsibilities are my freedom to be creative in addressing infrastructure issues and the fact I’m busy. Being very busy can be challenging, as well; as for everyone else, it can be a struggle to balance work with home life.”
With his playing days long in his rearview mirror, it is understandable Abney was completely surprised when UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart called him with the news about his selection for the Hall of Fame.
“I was shocked. I had no idea why he was calling,” he remembers. “It didn’t sink in at first but as the days went by I started to understand what it meant; I was voted in by faculty, current UK reps and coaches, media and other Hall of Famers as being one of the best athletes ever to be a Wildcat. What a fantastic honor!”
As he continues to establish a career at Kinder Morgan, Abney hopes to one day obtain an MBA—something he originally planned to do during his senior year, opting instead to prepare for the NFL combine. When fall arrives, Abney still feels an inner tug back to his days as a player and a student.
“I still miss the camaraderie and the competition that went with playing football. It’s a special bond and it doesn’t come cheap or easy. I also appreciated working in groups with other civil engineering majors. I really enjoyed the team projects and learning from the other students.”