Dr. Michael E. King was a distinguished Winston-Salem, North Carolina sports-medicine physician and orthopedic surgeon for over three decades, loving husband, devoted father of four children and one step-daughter, and caring brother for four siblings. To many people, everything seemed perfect, but Dr. King was suffering both physically and mentally.

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Dr. King in 2008

On October 7, 2011, Dr. King tragically took his own life at his home in Midway, NC at the age of sixty-five. After years of playing youth, high school and college football, Dr. King had suffered through a lifetime of both physical and mental pain and in 2012, his family learned that he had suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.

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King family in 1996

Over a short series of blogs, I will delve into Dr. King’s life, the current research underway on CTE, and his family’s thoughts about the disease and how they are moving forward and honoring his memory.

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Dr. King in the mid-1950s

Why doing this blog was so important to me:

I grew up playing sports with and against Dr. King’s oldest son, Mike, from middle school through high school. We stayed connected through social media, and I always found the articles intriguing that he posted about CTE, but I never really understood his connection to the disease. His father would have turned seventy on April 27th of this year, and Mike posted several pictures of his dad. I did some research and found out the story of his father’s death and diagnosis and I knew it was a story I wanted to share.

As a women’s college soccer coach, one of my primary concerns is injury prevention, and primarily preventing concussions. I am in talks with local medical departments about developing concussion testing for my program. Over the last several years, my team has suffered numerous concussions on the soccer field. It is my goal to find a path to help reduce these concussions, so that my student-athletes can enjoy their experience during their four years playing for me, and also to not suffer any of the negative effects that one can suffer later in life after concussions.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE):

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found only in people who have suffered a history of repetitive brain trauma. This brain trauma causes an abnormal build-up of a protein called tau, which kills brain cells. Some of the symptoms include: confusion, memory loss, paranoia, impulsivity, aggression, depression, and eventually progressive dementia. One of the most troubling facts is that there is no timetable for when the symptoms will begin; sometimes they don’t develop until decades after the trauma. Another bothersome fact is that currently there is no diagnosing CTE until after death through brain tissue analysis.

When most people think of CTE, they only think of former NFL players like Mike Webster, Junior Seau, and Ken Stabler. One of the most influential advocates for CTE research and awareness is Dr. Bennet Omalu, who was portrayed in the 2015 controversial, hit movie, Concussion, by Hollywood star, Will Smith. Dr. Omalu went head-to-head with one of the country’s most powerful organizations, the NFL, in his battle to protect football players from suffering from CTE.

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Dr. King playing quarterback for Hampden-Sydney in the late-1960s

What most people don’t know is that CTE can also be developed in athletes from other contact or collision sports besides football (and even in extreme athletes like the late BMX biker Dave Mirra), in military veterans, and also in successful surgeons who never played in the NFL. Dr. King was a very good football player, and captained and quarterbacked the teams at Greensboro Page High School in North Carolina and Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia in the late-1960s. His family knew of him as the “bionic man” due to all of his surgeries resulting from football injuries, including shoulder replacements, knee replacements, a hip replacement, a fused ankle, and severe rheumatoid arthritis.

Dr. King’s Life:

Dr. King was born in Michigan in 1946, and grew up in Greensboro. After his four years at Hampden-Sydney, he went to medical school at UNC-Chapel Hill, before doing his residency at Wake Forest. During his time in medical school, he was nicknamed Hubbell, after a movie character portrayed by Robert Redford, due to his good looks.

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Dr. King in the mid-1960s

He spent several decades as an orthopedic surgeon at Orthopedic Specialists of the Carolinas. Dr. King also enjoyed coaching his children’s sports teams, gardening, traveling, and reading about history and politics, and he was an artist and craftsman.

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Dr. King and Susan at their wedding in 1973

For most of his adult life he suffered from depression, though it worsened rapidly during his last few years. Dr. King’s first wife, Susan, and the four King children (Katie, Mike, Marylynn and Alex) all dealt with Dr. King’s varying bouts with depression in their own ways and helped however they could.

After he and Susan divorced in 2001, Dr. King married Donna Dillon, in 2007 and welcomed a step-daughter, Meagan, into his life. Even though he was remarried, he still remained very close with Susan.

In the last year or so of his life, Dr. King would occasionally mention that he thought he might have CTE given his injury history and worsening symptoms. His family knew he had suffered numerous concussions, and when they received the horrible news about his death, they didn’t give up on Dr. King. They donated his brain to the Veterans Affairs-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation brain bank, whose researchers later diagnosed him with CTE.

Remembering Dr. King and his legacy:

Throughout Dr. King’s life, despite his own suffering, he was there for others who were in need. He continued to enjoy the Friday night lights of high school football during much of his medical career, as he donated his time to treat young Winston-Salem athletes. He treated all of his patients with the utmost respect and cared for them like they were a part of his family. After Dr. King passed away, the condolences poured in from both friends and patients. I will leave this blog post with some of those comments:

“If there was a surgeon that did a perfect job-it was Dr. King.”

“His ability to put you at ease while facing surgery was remarkable.”

“He was more than our doctor, he was our friend.”

“He was a football hero, tall and larger than life to us and he always had a kind word for us.”

“When my son was in surgery, he had woken up and told Dr. King he wanted to be a doctor someday, which was a surprise to us (and I think to our son, too). Now he is in medical school. I hope that he will be as good of a physician as Dr. King was!”

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King extended family at Wrightsville Beach in 1990

Coming soon, I will speak to the family about their thoughts on Dr. King and CTE and about how they are moving forward, and I will dig further into how medical research and awareness are helping to protect athletes from this disease.

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