LEXINGTON, Ky. — Vince Marrow can't wait for the day when Chris Oats returns to the University of Kentucky sideline.
"Whether he's playing or he's cheering, that's going to be the joy for me," said Marrow, UK's associate head football coach.
Oats, a UK junior linebacker and 2018 Winton Woods High School graduate, is always on the minds of those within Big Blue Nation.
Oats has battled a serious undisclosed medical condition since May and is in a physical rehabilitation center.
"For a while, he felt like he was forgotten because nobody could come and see him," his mother, Kemberly Gamble, told the UK athletics website. "And I explained to him, I said, 'You are not forgotten. This is what's going on. If you can have visitors and you would want to see somebody, they would be here in a minute.' I said, 'All you got to do is ask.'"
The Wildcats didn't hesitate to embrace a campaign of support for Oats this season.
The team is wearing #22OATSSTRONG wristbands to remember Oats. UK concludes each team practice by saying his jersey number in unison.
Members of the team also have created a website, 22oatsstrong.com, with encouragement from head coach Mark Stoops to help the family with medical expenses.
The Winton Woods community also has shown its support for Oats with a T-shirt sale at the home football games.
Oats played in 12 of UK's 13 games as a sophomore in 2019, including two starts. He was fifth on the team with 46 tackles. He had 2 1/2 tackles for loss, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.
The UK coaching staff said their primary focus is the standout's well-being.
"At the end of the day, we're not worried about football," UK inside linebackers coach Jon Sumrall said. "We're worried about a young man having a quality life. Because football ends every day for everyone, and so your first thought is, 'How can I love on his mom? How can I make sure he still knows we still love him, whether he's a football player or not a football player?'"
UK also announced in late September a different player will be chosen each week of the season to wear Oats’ No. 22.
"Whoever wears it, I know they are going to do it justice," Gamble said. "And I thank them for it."
UK junior inside linebacker DeAndre Square was the first player to wear No. 22 in the Wildcats' game at Auburn on Sept. 25.
Square said Oats is his best friend, and it was an emotional time putting on the No. 22 jersey.
Square continues to pray for Oats, knowing the former Winton Woods standout is doing everything he can to return to the UK program.
"Just going through practices and not having him out there, it's kind of tough, but we just come out there every day, every week, just work hard for him, knowing that he's working hard on his own," Square said.
Square and his teammates understand Oats is always with them throughout this season. They have no doubts about his determination.
"In his mind and in his will, he's coming back," Gamble said. "He's coming back to BBN."