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LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 27, 2024) — Former University of Kentucky Football player Harold Dennis is drawn to opportunities to impact the lives of others — through his career in health care and willingness to share his life’s story.

His son Trey Dennis is among those impacted.  

Trey grew up hearing his father speak publicly about how, at age 14, he faced extraordinary circumstances. Trey also saw how working in patient care and medical sales gave his father’s career purpose.

Trey always felt he would attend UK to become a health professional, too. The chance to play football solidified that decision. Now, he is at UK in the same major and playing the same football position his father did during the 1994-96 seasons.

“He can guide and help me every step of the way,” said Trey, a junior wide receiver. “He's just a great role model for anything related to school and football.”

As kinesiology-exercise science majors, both father and son saw the program as a route to advance Kentucky through a career in health care.

“I want to go to physician assistant school, so I felt like that was probably one of the best majors that I could have chosen to help me on my path,” Trey said.

His father’s path to becoming a physician assistant began 35 years ago when Harold survived the Carrollton bus crash. It remains the nation's deadliest drinking and driving-related crash, killing 27 people on May 14, 1988.

“Initially, my motivation to become a physician assistant came from tapping into when I was a teenager and went through that very trying time. I spent three months in a hospital, in and out of surgeries, and working with physical therapists to help gain motion back in my left arm. I thought, you know, this is a field that I could see myself doing.”

When Harold transferred to UK for his sophomore year in 1994, he studied in the College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion to gain a broad educational basis in science and exercise physiology, thinking he would attend graduate school for either physical therapy or physician assistant studies.

“I think the kinesiology degree really prepared me with a background to pursue the type of training that I would need to enter the health care industry,” he said.

During a job fair at UK, Harold connected with pharmaceutical sales companies. He landed an interview and soon faced deciding between working in sales or starting graduate school.  

“I wasn't really certain that I wanted to go back to school right away,” he recalled. “I needed to grow up a little bit more and hit the workforce first.”

Going through the rigorous industry training required for pharmaceutical sales, Harold found his background in kinesiology-exercise science helpful. He needed to not only know about the products, but how they work.

“In pharmaceuticals and device sales, you get multiple phases of in-house training, but you must understand the concepts of basic anatomy and physiology to even have a start in learning about what you are going to sell. You need to know what you’re doing before they release you to walk into a hospital and talk to a surgeon,” he said.

The pharmaceutical sales job later turned to orthopedic device sales, with Harold spending time in operating rooms.

“Being in the OR, covering those cases, really reignited the fire for me. I thought, I need to be on the other side of that sterile field,” he said.

Harold decided to return to UK to get his master’s degree in physician assistant studies in the College of Health Sciences.  

It was a tough decision for Harold, putting his career on hold at age 38. He and wife Donna Dennis had three young kids at the time. In the end, he listened to what his brain was telling him, but also to his gut.

“When people say they have a gut feeling, I just feel like whatever it is, something's driving you to be thinking about it. Mine is sort of a convoluted career path. But I don't regret the experience I've had. It’s never too late. You grow up trying to figure out what you want to do with your life, and sometimes that changes.”

Those life experiences have guided Harold when sharing his story, something he continues to do, between work and family, a few times a year.

“People still want to hear my story, and I still glean something positive from doing it, so I can't ignore that,” he said.

He speaks on topics such as motivation, self-esteem, goal setting, courage, perseverance and dealing with adversity – some of the same skills Trey is developing as a student-athlete.

“Football being a team game, I have learned a lot of skills like leadership and teamwork,” Trey said. “And I've learned to keep a routine. I'm up early in the morning and I've got class all throughout the day. Football really helps me manage my time and know what I have to do at every point throughout the day. Plus, I am able to connect some of the training side of football to classes I’m taking right now. I think it’s interesting how those go hand in hand.”

After becoming a licensed physician assistant in 2016, Harold got back to the operating room, playing a new role in surgeries.  He has practiced in orthopedic surgery, interventional cardiology, and vascular surgery. Currently, he is back to the industry side as an account manager for surgical products at a medical device company.

Harold credits his UK Football and academic program mentors for helping him get to where he is today. He was also deeply impacted by support he received as a UK College of Education undergraduate through the Lyman T. Johnson Torch Bearer award for his outstanding academic achievement and ability to impact the lives of others. Last semester, Harold was back on campus to receive another Lyman T. Johnson award – the Torch of Excellence, as an alumnus of the College of Health Sciences. It is presented to Black alumni whose faith, hard work and determination have positively affected the lives of people on the UK campus, the city, state or nation.

Both Harold and Trey hope to influence the next generation of physician assistants. Harold recalls growing up knowing adults who did not trust doctors, partly due to a lack of diversity in the medical field. Only 3.3% of physician assistants in the U.S. are Black/African American, according to data shared by the AAPA.

For Trey, making a difference will start with proving he can be among the next to increase diversity in the profession.

“I feel like that drives me to stay on my path, to make sure I’m getting good grades, and preparing for all this,” Trey said.

Both father and son don’t want young people, seeing a lack of representation in the profession, to be deterred from chasing their goals.

“That lack of diversity has motivated me to be the very best PA I can be. I hope young kids see they can also put on that white coat. They can make it to the point of getting a master’s degree. The more minorities we can get to take on health care roles and provide comfort for patients, the better it can be,” Harold said.

As Harold continues his career and Trey prepares for his, they only need to look to each other to remember sometimes it only takes one mentor or one moment to influence positive change.

“He can really lead me,” Trey said. “He can help me every step of the way. It's great knowing that I have somebody there for me.”


As part of its "Advancing Kentucky" series, throughout February UK is spotlighting Black alumni who are trailblazers in their fields and whose passion and perseverance are advancing the Commonwealth of Kentucky. We will showcase their remarkable achievements, honor their lasting legacy and continue to champion their incredible contributions to the advancement of the state. 

You can follow along on UKNow, FacebookTwitter (X), Instagram and on digital signage across campus.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.  

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