'You can always lend a helping hand'

You can find Kentucky Wildcats sophomore Antoine Huffman on the football field at cornerback and nickelback. But that's just on the football field.

Off it, you can find Huffman everywhere:

  • The hospital. No Wildcat visits more sick kids more often. In the last year he's become a personal hero to Josh Adkins, a 9-year-old boy he befriended in the oncology ward at the University of Kentucky Children's Hospital. Whenever Adkins came to the hospital for chemotherapy treatments, Huffman was there to cheer him up. When Adkins had his final chemo treatment a couple of months ago, Huffman brought in some cheerleaders and then went with Adkins on a limousine ride around Lexington.

    "He's A-1 in my book," said Adkins' mom, Linda.

    Huffman also took a group of players to a recent auction to benefit the American Cancer Society.

  • The retirement home. Huffman organized a group of football players to visit senior citizens recently. They're going back again this Sunday.

  • The local elementary and high schools. If a class needs a speaker, or someone to help hand out Christmas presents, or someone to spend time with an at-risk youngster, Huffman will answer the call. He's currently mentoring a 14-year-old at Paul Dunbar High School.

  • The boardroom. Huffman was recently made a student member of the university athletic board. He's also a member of the student-athlete advisory board, which has a representative from each sport.

  • The pulpit. Huffman has spent about 10 Sundays this year preaching at a couple of churches in Lexington, and also has sermonized back home at his church in Georgia. He organizes the team Bible studies, and has invited in a variety of ministers and pastors to give pregame devotions to the team.

    Wherever someone needs a good turn, a smiling face, an uplifting word, an inspirational role model -- that's where you can find Antoine Huffman.

    "He's unbelievable," said Keri Naeger, a former graduate assistant in the Kentucky athletic department's community outreach program. "He'll come into our office on a Thursday and say, 'I have a group of guys who can do something on Sunday. Can you find us something?' He's always willing to help."

    "That's the way I was raised," the telecommunications major said. "You may not be the smartest or the prettiest, but you can always lend a helping hand."

    The wall next to Huffman's locker in the Kentucky dressing room is blank. He fills the space by plastering signup sheets, encouraging his teammates to join him in the next good deed.

    "He's just got a heart for everybody," said his mother, Aspie Huffman.

    It's one thing to have a heart for everybody. It's another thing to make time for everybody.

    It's very much in vogue these days for jocks on campus to feel undercompensated and overworked, with only a lousy full-ride scholarship and inordinate celebrity status to show for their academic and athletic labors. That attitude is helpful when it's time to rationalize accepting handouts or short cuts from boosters, coaches, agents, teachers or anyone else willing to coddle a student-athlete.

    Those takers should spend some time in the oncology unit with a giver like Huffman.

    Last year he spent 2½ hours on a cold December day visiting with children whose bodies had betrayed them. Many had gauze bandages on their arms, covering the intravenous ports used to drip chemotherapy drugs into their veins.

    Huffman and some other Kentucky athletes played with the kids who felt up to it, had their pictures taken with others who didn't. No room visit was a hit-and-run stop. Every child got quality time.

    You just wonder how Antoine Huffman has so much quality time to give to so many worthy causes.

    "Sometimes I get five or six hours sleep," he said. "But if I see a happy face, that takes me over the edge. It's like medicine for me. You're tired and sore, and you go in there (to a hospital room) and just light up. They're going through worse than I go through. I figure I'll sleep when I get old."

    Actually, multitasking started early for Antoine and his twin brother, Antonio. They were playing football at age 4 and cleaning the house at age 5 -- with Aspie overseeing both as an assistant coach on the field and taskmaster at home. She was only 18 when she gave birth to twin boys, but she's demanding the best from them ever since.

    "They called me Sergeant," Aspie said. "Everyone said I should have been in the military."

    Antoine Huffman could tell a sob story or two himself. He's never had a relationship with his father, and he misses his brother Antonio.

    He'd hoped that Antonio would have joined him last winter at Kentucky coming out of Garden City Community College. But the coaching change from Guy Morriss to Rich Brooks ended that hope, with Antonio instead matriculating to Texas Tech and becoming a nickelback there.

    "He's doing great there," Antoine said with pride.

    Neither brother is a famous football player yet -- and it might never happen. But Antoine Huffman couldn't reach any more people playing football than he does in his endless off-the-field largesse. He might not be Kentucky's Most Valuable Player, but he's the Wildcats' Most Valuable Person.

    "As long as the Good Lord has given me the ability to walk and breathe," he said, "I'm going to do this."

    Pat Forde covers college football for the Louisville Courier-Journal.