LEXINGTON, Ky. — It was a nice enough speech about a farmboy from Minnesota who helps his family with the pigs and the corn whenever he’s home from college. But Luke Becker really got his Kentucky teammates’ attention when he showed the video of a building exploding while he was inside.
He gave them no warning as he rolled black-and-white footage from a security camera outside the grain elevator where he cheated death on Dec. 28. He pointed to the spot where he had been loading a wagon with corn that day and told them to watch closely.
“A lot of them didn’t know what I was getting at with this random video,” said Becker, the Wildcats’ starting second baseman, “but I wanted to show them that everything can change in a matter of seconds, that we never know when our last day or last game will be, kind of like I found out that day.”
It’s difficult not to yelp involuntarily when the fireball blasts across the screen, from right to left, blowing walls out and the roof off that grain elevator. There is smoke and chaos and debris raining onto the snow-covered ground, but there is no sign of Becker.
“I was in the office,” said his father, Lonny, “and I thought a semi truck or snowplow hit the building because of the way it shook. I had no idea what happened, but one of the office gals actually saw the fireball and she says, ‘Go find Luke.’ I said, ‘Luke was in there?’ I was pretty scared. I ran like never before.”
Luke Becker had been standing on a catwalk about 12 feet off the ground when he heard a boom just above his head and to the left. He whirled around in time to see a flash of flames that scorched his hair, burned his face and sent him flying some 20 feet onto the ground below.
After a few foggy seconds, he realized large chunks of the roof and entire steel beams were landing all around him. He scrambled to his feet and ran away from the carnage, toward a snowbank into which he dived headlong because his skin was so hot he thought he was on fire. The quick escape meant that when his father got to where Luke should have been, he found only wreckage.
“We had a really nervous moment there,” Lonny Becker said. “I was afraid I was going to have to dig through the rubble to try to find him.”
He initially hoped Luke was inside his tractor — sturdy, covered and parked outside the blast zone — until he got close enough to that tractor to see a giant piece of debris had flattened the cab down to the seat.
“Nobody would’ve survived in that tractor,” Lonny said. “So I’m running around with my hands in the air saying, ‘Where is he?’ ”
Finally, one of the hired hands pointed to a dazed, disheveled young man in the snowbank, his emotionless face speckled with soot and his formerly flowing locks now singed and standing straight up like he’d just grabbed a live wire.
“I still say that’s the best sight I’ve ever seen in my life,” his father said. “He looked … fine. He doesn’t get real excited ever, but if ever there was a time he should’ve been talking 100 miles per hour — I know I would’ve been. He wasn’t. He just said, ‘You seen my stocking cap?’ ”
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On Friday, when 21st-ranked Kentucky plays host to Mississippi State to open the final home series of his college career, Luke Becker will celebrate a senior night that almost never came. He can’t figure a good reason he’s alive today — other than divine intervention.
“These accidents have happened around our area throughout the years, and there’s been a lot of times where people have been in there filling their wagons and the explosion hits them and they die,” Becker said. “So the fact that I got out of there with burnt hair and some burns on my forehead, it’s literally a miracle. When I was on the ground and the pieces were coming down, I didn’t get touched. I’d be delusional not to realize that God was there protecting me.”
The Becker family, which has owned and operated its farm since 1920, long has been a fixture at St. James Lutheran Church in Northrop, Minn. All of Larry and Linda’s grandchildren — Lonny and Lynn’s children — siblings Leanna, Levi, Larrisa, Lance and Luke Becker attended school at St. James. You can see why their company is named LB Pork.
As Luke tells it, he heard all about God growing up, but he didn’t feel an almighty presence in his life until the day it nearly ended.
“It was a wake-up call,” Becker said. “My relationship with God has definitely strengthened because of it. There’s not a day that goes by now that I don’t thank him that I’m still here. He saved me that day, and there’s obviously a reason.”
He hasn’t figured out what that reason is yet, but he thinks telling this story is part of it. That’s why, when coach Nick Mingione asked Kentucky’s seniors to give 5-minute speeches before the season, Becker played the video for his teammates.
That’s why he wears a blue bracelet now that is etched with the date of the explosion and a message: GOD HAS A PLAN FOR ME. That’s why he wrote G2G and FOF — Glory to God and Faith Over Fear — under the bill of his baseball cap.
“My sole purpose when I play is for people in the stands to watch me and go, ‘Well, he’s got something different.’ I hope they can see that I’m playing with a thankfulness in my heart,” Becker said. “It doesn’t mean everything is all sunshine and rainbows out here, because SEC baseball is hard and there’s a lot of failure and perseverance is kind of the key word, but it helps to keep a spirit of thankfulness.
“We’ve gone through some tough stretches this season, and I’ve been up and down myself, but I can come out here and work my butt off every day and embrace the struggle because I’m grateful to even be able to do that.”
Becker has started all 48 games for Kentucky as a senior, hitting .287 with 18 extra-base hits and 31 RBI. He has reached base in 90 of his last 94 games, counting summer league. He’d love to help the Wildcats reach their first College World Series and then get drafted, but he has a backup plan.
Whenever baseball is done, he’ll head back to the farm and use a degree in agricultural economics to run the family business alongside his siblings. Becker seems undaunted by the freak accident that nearly killed him, the cause of which is still unknown.
Neighbors say the blast rattled their windows more than a mile away, yet Becker’s worst injury was some sore ribs. He declined a ride to the hospital.
“Guardian angel was working overtime,” said his father, who this weekend made the last of his regular 12-hour drives to watch Luke play at Kentucky. “When the dust settled and everyone was OK and Luke got out of the ambulance, one of the office gals goes, ‘Now go have an explosive season.’ It was a little early for him to laugh, but I think he’s been doing pretty good since then.”