It started with a group chat. It snowballed.
Hundreds of University of Kentucky students showed up on Monday night during a winter weather warning and city state of emergency to participate in a mass snowball fight that was organized through the messaging app GroupMe.
Named "Willy T snowball fight 7 pm 2/15", the chat ballooned as UK canceled afternoon classes for Monday, growing by hundreds each hour. Members planned out teams for a snowball fight (though it ended up a free for all) and recommended everyone to BYOS - Bring Your Own Sled.
Memes and trash talk flowed freely. The chat spawned Spotify playlists and parody avatars for Eli Capilouto, John Calipari, Drake and Nancy Pelosi.
By 2 p.m. on Monday more than 2,000 users were in the GroupMe - several hundred others had joined and left already. An Instagram post from BarstoolUK about the gathering was viewed nearly 800 times within five minutes of posting.
At least 1,000 of those students would ultimately show up to “The Bowl”, despite the risks of large gatherings during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Junior kinesiology/public health major James Croom was active in the chat but didn’t know how it got started.
“Just got added to the group chat last night we just got anybody out here for sure,” Croom said.
“Everybody just having a good time during corona, man, that’s all we want.”
Business major Tom Brown said seeing everyone commenting in the chat got him excited for the night.
Students in the chat were self-aware about the COVID-19 risks of such a large gathering.
“This is gonna cause another round of Covid testing lmao,” one member said.
Others commented that they had tested negative last week so they were ready to “fucking go.”
“Finna be a covid party,” another member said.
The chat was also aware of the potential for UK police to be dispatched to shut them down, and largely dismissive of the prospect.
"Very soon it's gonna turn into 2,000 students with snowball against 100 campus police," one member commented.
Another said "we been trying to get ukpd for years, nows our chance."
"Now guys UKPD won't show, Capilouto will just send a very vague email about how he's disappointed," said a third.
Afternoon chat activity got political, sexual and weird before settling on a deluge of dog pictures.
When 7 p.m. arrived, students were already at "The Bowl" and a select few had begun sledding.
The crowd quickly swelled. Students came from all over, from every direction, from each corner of campus, with their roommates and friends.
Freshman Bron Bourque said the snow was “as good as you can get for Kentucky.”
Unlike most students, Bourque had proper snow equipment – a pair of skis.
“I actually brought these to college andI was I was really excited cause I was checking the weather and like, we're supposed to keep on getting a lot of snow this week, so I'm going to get some good use out of them,” Bourque said.
By 7:20, upwards of 800 students were crowded around the rim of the hill. Croom started playing Grove Street party – "of course" – on a friend’s speaker.
“Gets everybody pumped,” he said.
That was when the night's promise came true - at the blow of a whistle, the still air was fractured by flying snowballs.
“We heard the whistle and everybody started,” said uK student Matthew McCarter.
He said at first the fight had organized sides, but soon devolved into a free for all.
“Just firing into the group, I guess,” McCarter said. “Whoever fires back, I fire back at them.”
“Started booming people,” Noah Banks described of the moment the fight started. “Hit like six people in the face.”
Participants said the icy snowballs stung on impact but that didn’t lessen the mayhem.
“They hurt especially if you can throw it right and get it like really compacted. But it's mostly ice out here so they've been great snowballs to throw, they don't fall apart on you. It's been a good fight,” summarized transfer student Amber Conner.
Enterprising students filled buckets with pre-made snowballs so they didn't have to slow down to restock.
McCarter said the night was good for school spirit.
“This is pretty big.”
Students acknowledge that the size of the gathering was dangerous but shrugged off concern. Freshmen kinesiology major Calista Robinson said the snowball fight was “not a bad thing.”
“Everybody can use a little tough love sometimes. So, you learn and you live, you know. So I think life is about taking these fun experiences. And sometimes people do get hurt,” Robinson said. “I do think this is like more on the safe side. But like it could be worse, is what I'm saying, like, no one seems no one seems to be going crazy.”
Aside from COVID-19 risks, the high-speed sledding and collisions also had a potential for danger.
“The mask thing doesn’t worry me, it's just the injuries. Everyone's going hard cause it’s been a while since they’ve been out,” business major Tom Brown said.
“I'm seeing a lot of people get hit in the face and fall off toboggans,” Banks said.
Students said the night was their only shot at a normal year.
“It's such a relief. I feel like we've all been so stressed and worried about everything that's been going on the world around us. It's so nice, just to save time and be students and really come together,” Conner said.
“It’s college and we should be having these experiences,” Robinson said.
“This is definitely like, probably the most fun that we've had so far, like this semester. So it's really cool. It's quite the community. I feel like everyone's out here just to have a good time,” Bourque said. “I don't think any of us think we're gonna have school tomorrow.”
Croom said he wanted to sponsor a sense of connection with the gathering.
“I don't want anybody to be lonely, you know what I’m saying? I'm a social butterfly myself so I like to go outside make friends and stuff this a perfect opportunity to do you got pretty much you got the UK community out here,” Croom said.
Most students said they heard about the gathering through the GroupMe, but others like Bourque were told by friends.
“It was supposed to be a snowball fight, but I guess it more turned into like a kind of sledding competition,” Bourque said. “So it's been a lot of fun.”
Slinging snowballs continued sporadically throughout the night. Some students set up a makeshift baseball game using snowballs and a floor-is-wet sign as a bat.
Conner said she was joined to the chat when it had less than 200 members.
“It was crazy. But I told my roommate, it was kind of amazing to see everybody, like come together, especially with everything that's been going on and just take a day to relax and enjoy the night and have fun playing in the snow,” Conner said.
As the night wore on, increasingly outlandish items were used as sleds.
A mattress made an appearance, as did shopping carts, a cabinet and a door that would later snap in half and be used as snowboards.
Sophomores Hannah Jones and Kassidy Slotum said the craziest thing they saw Monday night was people sledding in a canoe.
Two kayaks and a canoe all went down the slope, sometimes with five or six people aboard.
Junior forestry major Britney Hughes owned one of the kayaks being used at the beginning of the night.
“I get further than everyone else out here,” Hughes said, adding that the ice made a good base layer. Hughes, several of her friends and her dog all went down in the kayak on Monday night.
“There's some kind of words that it was rescheduled for Thursday, but I don't know there's still supposed to be a bunch of people coming out so this will be a good time,” Hughes said at the beginning of the night.
A folding table first used as a sled was transformed into a ramp that had students hitting five or six feet of lift.
Combined with dropping temperatures refreezing the ice layer, more and more students were wiped out by sledders, leaving those at the bottom of the bowl to scramble out of the way.
Students also tore down one of the trees on the lawn after one student climbed into the branches. Monday night's wreckage - discarded signs, boxes and trash - still sits outside of William T. Young Library.
Jones said sledders looked like “a whole bunch of idiots, no cap.”
Sophomores like Jones and Slotum did not experience campus traditions like this before the pandemic shut UK down in the spring.
“This is like the most before COVID experience we’ve had at school while being like kind of safe. I mean, the majority of people are wearing masks,” Slotum said.
“I mean, I wish more people would like wear their masks correctly, or like, you know, not trash the campus and break trees. But I mean, that's what happens when you get a whole bunch of college students together,” Jones said.
UK spokesperson Jay Blanton said the university had extra patrols out on Monday night, but no shutdown occurred despite students violating UK’s mask, student gathering and alcohol policies.
Some students admitted they were inebriated, while others carried flasks or beer with them.
“I’m not too functionable right now,” one participant told the Kernel.
“My wine!” said another after dropping it while sledding.
UK student Zach Coleman took a time lapse of the gathering from a nearby parking garage that shows the number of students who participated for part of the night. He said he thought it was a cool opportunity for videos but wanted to be cautious.
“I didn’t want to go down with the rest because they didn’t look like they were being safe about covid regulations,” Coleman said. “The roof was pretty empty, the few people up there were very spread out.”
By 8:30 p.m., the crowd had dropped to approximately 500 students, likely half of its peak.
Blanton said the university does not plan to do extra testing following the mass gathering.
The university did receive reports to the Office of Student Conduct and will follow up on those cases.
“At the same time I think many students were doing the right things and there’s a balance,” Blanton said. “We’ve to encourage and engage in healthy behaviors. At the same time they were outside, and we’re going to have to find ways to let students engage and socialize.”
At least a third of the crowd were not wearing masks at all, and more were wearing them improperly. Students did not maintain social distancing guidelines, instead clumping at the top of the hill and in rings around Oklahoma drill pits.
Blanton said the university would not comment on safety plans for Thursday night.
“We think we’re taking the right kinds of measures,” Blanton said, adding that UK has seen its share of challenges just like other universities.
Following the event students took to social media, posting videos of the night on TikTok, tagging their posts with #coronavirus and #precovid.
Hundreds had left the group chat by Tuesday afternoon. Those that remained suggested anyone who was there Monday night to get tested for COVID-19 while planning for a repeat outing on Thursday.
On Thursday afternoon, some students remained committed to a second gathering to take advantage of the fresh snowfall from the third wave of winter weather that hit Lexington overnight.
“I’ll be here,” Brown said. “Of course.”
Editor's note: Students getting tested for COVID-19 following the snowball fight should know that it can take up to a week for a positive exposure to show up in a COVID-19 test. Experts recommend, even with a test one or two days after exposure, testing after the three day mark.