LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 2, 2022) — You’ve heard the saying, “the sky’s the limit.” It’s an uplifting phrase often uttered to us as children meaning we can be and do anything — explore space as an astronaut, score the winning touchdown as a pro athlete or both.
For some, those aspirations fade and more realistic ones emerge — not for Luke Fortner. “I’m a graduating senior. I have an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, a master’s in aerospace engineering and an MBA,” he said.
Humble — that’s how most would describe Fortner. That’s certainly apparent as he nonchalantly lists his many accomplishments throughout his six years at the University of Kentucky.
If you're a UK Football fan, you know Fortner as No. 79 — the dogged offensive lineman. Since 2017, he’s been a key member of the Wildcats' dominant offensive line, affectionately known as the “Big Blue Wall.” And now, he can also add professional athlete to that list. On Friday, Fortner heard his name called by the Jacksonville Jaguars as the top pick in the third round of the NFL draft.
But he is equally determined off the field as he is on.
When choosing where to attend college, the then 18 year-old from Sylvania, Ohio, knew he needed a university that would support his lofty aspirations.
“When visiting UK, I really fell in love at first sight.”
Fortner was immediately drawn to the Big Blue Nation — a welcoming community that would quickly become a second family.
The stakes are high when it comes to college football. But the stakes are just as high when pursuing a degree — let alone a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees. It requires diligence to keep up with schoolwork and determination to stay focused at practice.
But when it comes to football and education, Fortner refuses to give up.
“It was tough,” he said. “There were a few semesters where I wasn't sure I was going to make it through.”
If time wasn’t already difficult to come by, while pursuing his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Fortner was approached to work on an innovative project that intertwined both of his passions.
"Freddie Maggard started to describe how we could help out children in need through both engineering and football — my interest was automatically piqued."
Once again, Fortner seized the opportunity. And in that moment, a unique partnership was formed.
UK Athletics, UK College of Engineering, UK HealthCare and Toyota Motor Manufacturing of Kentucky (TMMK) came together with a common purpose: to provide an honoree chosen by the Kentucky Children’s Hospital (KCH) with a life-changing experience through a mobility project.
The challenge was to construct a pushcart with all the exciting bells and whistles, that would also be safe for a child battling a health condition. The team spent countless hours conducting research to assess the wants and needs of KCH honorees.
"Work has a new meaning when it’s for something bigger than money or a company," Fortner said in a previous interview. "When it’s for people who really need your help, it’s a lot easier to get up every day."
Through "Lift Them Up," some of the youngest fans were able see their heroes in a personal setting.
On game days, Fortner pushed the cart onto the field — allowing each child to escape the reality of their diagnosis and feel like a member of the team for a day.
“The ‘Lift Them Up’ project was incredible, but afterward, I felt like I could do more. That’s why I started visiting the kids at the hospital,” Fortner said. “The experience has been rewarding for both myself and the kids.”
Fortner’s plan was going according to plan.
Then, the unprecedented happened — the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the lives of many, including student-athletes.
When Fortner was afforded another year of eligibility, it was the silver lining following a disruptive year.
True to his character, Fortner didn’t enroll in one master’s program. He set his sights on becoming the first graduate of UK’s newly launched aerospace engineering program, while also earning an MBA from the Gatton College of Business and Economics.
The MBA program is designed for young professionals, recent graduates and emerging leaders across all academic majors. The program aims to help students discover their passions and position them for success in their future careers.
“Dr. Alexandre Martin took me under his wing. In a similar fashion as mechanical engineering, I dove into aerospace engineering and really fell in love. And you know, who doesn't like to say, ‘I’m working on research related to space,’” Fortner explained. “As for the MBA, I’m really glad I did it, because I’m learning a lot and loving every second of it.”
“I was always — and still am — impressed on how Luke was able to balance schoolwork, complex research and football. The work he did was thorough and will likely be used by many over the coming years,” Martin said. “It is not often that a student ends up passing up the opportunity to work at NASA because he is going to play in the NFL. But with Luke, who knows, maybe he will end up doing a Ph.D. at the same time.”
In his sixth year, Fortner continued to pull off the ultimate balancing act — with grace and grit.
Though he is proud of his accomplishments, Fortner admits he has a lot of support when it comes to reaching his goals. On and off the field, he has teammates — they serve as his foundation for success. Bringing true meaning to the phrase “For the Team.”
“You’re doing homework all night, then you’re waking up to go to workouts and practice. It’s a tough schedule to balance,” Fortner said. “I’m incredibly thankful to the coach staff and the academic staff. Everyone came together and made it possible.”
From NASA to the NFL — anything is possible. Just ask Fortner.
He began his journey at UK with chants from a roaring crowd at Kroger Field and will end it with cheers as he crosses the Commencement stage at Rupp Arena this Friday.
Fortner hopes to continue his time on the field by playing professional football.
But no matter where life takes him, perseverance — the ability to keep going in the face of adversity — is what Fortner says he will take with him.
“For me, it's just about being able to work hard every single day — waking up and knowing that I'm lucky to be here. And every single day that I got to be here was just truly incredible, and I'm grateful. I’m proud to call myself a Wildcat.”