Even though he’s no longer suiting up in his No. 22 uniform and making tackles on the field, Chris Oats remains an integral part of the University of Kentucky football program.
The linebacker was poised for a breakout junior campaign when he suffered a debilitating stroke in May 2020, and since then, Oats and his family have been fighting an uphill battle to recovery. The 21-year-old remains at the forefront of the Wildcats’ thoughts, however, with the team honoring Oats in any way they can — a different player wears a No. 22 jersey every game, everyone dons “#22OATSSTRONG” wristbands, someone carries a large “22” flag when the squad takes the field before games, and every huddle is broken with shouts of “22!” from players.
In recent weeks, the UK athletic department has also been pushing efforts for fans to visit and contribute to a GoFundMe page, in which fans can donate money to help Oats and his family with the ongoing medical bills and costs associated with his rehabilitation. Currently, the fundraiser is less than $30,000 short of its $150,000 goal — which will help Oats’ mother, Kemberly Gamble, pay for transportation and offset other financial burdens.
UK coach Mark Stoops put out a plea last week and reiterated his message at his weekly press conference Monday.
“It’s monumental, the help that she needs,” he said. “When I heard that we had gotten her a handicap-accessible van to get Chris to his rehab and everything and it broke down on her on the highway and she can’t get him to rehab, that’s a problem. That’s when I called on the Big Blue Nation. Certainly, I’ll do my part, and everybody will, but I need the help of the BBN.
“He’s a wonderful young man, she’s amazing. She has to do an awful lot for him right now. And we love him, and we love her. They’re an inspiration to us but we need help. ... We appreciate it and we want to take care of her.”
Oats and his family were on hand for Saturday’s 35-28 win over Missouri, and he was recognized between the first and second quarters. Chants of “Oats Strong!” rang throughout Kroger Field as he was shown smiling on the scoreboard. He even got to meet and take pictures with Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, whose son, Rahsaan, is a walk-on wide receiver with the Cats.
Gamble has shared updates of Oats’s recovery on social media, documenting his progress that includes meeting with his UK coaches and teammates, standing with assistance and, more than anything, pictures of him simply smiling.
She spoke to the UK Sports Network before Saturday’s contest to express her gratitude.
“We are blessed because we know in sports, it’s ‘next man up’ when anything happens,” she said. “We were just talking about how we chose to come to Lexington four years ago, out of all the places we could’ve went, was because it’s family-oriented. They made us feel like family. This actually proved that.”
She repeats that message to anyone who will listen.
“I tell them no other school would have done or will do what you all have done for my son,” she said. “We thank you, we thank you, we thank you, because we know we made the right choice, on and off the field.”
His medical emergency came following a sophomore season in which Oats played in 12 of 13 games, including a pair of starts. He finished fifth on the team with 46 tackles, along with 2.5 tackles for loss, one pass break-up and one forced fumble. Coming out of Winton Woods High School in Cincinnati, Oats was rated a four-star prospect.
In addition to the GoFundMe page, which was set up by Oats’ former roommate, UK tight end Keaton Upshaw, the Oats family is selling T-shirts to help raise money. Those interested in donating can visit 22OatsStrong.com for more information.