There was a time last year when Jacob King faced a situation teenagers shouldn’t have to face.
On the first day of his senior year at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School, though, King received great news: He could return to sports after a long stretch of being sidelined.
It had been roughly eight months since King was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a potentially deadly condition in which a portion of the heart becomes thickened without an obvious cause, which can impede the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively.
HCM is the same ailment that has taken the lives of several well-known athletes, including Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers, Boston Celtics guard Reggie Lewis and NHL standout Sergei Zholtok. It can strike without any previous signs, but thankfully for King, he noticed something wasn’t right in January 2019.
“Whenever I would run, my eyesight would get blurry and I would start to get dizzy” King said, “and that’s when I knew something was up.”
Days later, he would faint at an LFO basketball practice, leading to multiple medical tests and, weeks later, the enlarged-heart diagnosis at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. The news was initially devastating.
“I was shocked. I never thought I would hear something like that in my life,” King said. “It honestly happened too fast for me to remember, but I know it terrified me.”
He was forced to stop athletic competition, costing him half his junior basketball season and all of spring football drills. He was allowed to do light conditioning, but as summer started and his LFO football teammates ramped up their workouts, his chances of playing seemed slim.
That realization, for someone who had built his life around sports, was often too much to take.
“I used to go to football practices in the summer to see how the team was doing,” King recalled. “I could run some, but that was about it. It would hurt watching them, though, because I knew I might not be able to play again. From February to July I was just sad because I might not get back.
“The whole summer kind of hurt me.”
LFO football coach Bo Campbell saw the change in the usually outgoing King and became concerned.
“Me and Jacob had a lot of heart-to-heart conversations during the summer because that time was very difficult for him,” Campbell said. “At the start of the summer, he couldn’t do anything. I remember we were at a 7-on-7 tournament, and I called to see if he wanted to come out and help me coach the guys. He came to one and really helped the guys out, but then he didn’t show up for the next one because it hurt too much to watch.
“I felt for him because, if anyone has ever seen him play anything, he always goes all out all the time. That’s all he knows. Jacob lives for sports, he really does.”
‘Scared for him’
Research into HCM proves why doctors were reluctant to let King participate. A large case study of sudden cardiac death in 1,866 young athletes identified HCM as the cause nearly 40% of the time. Nearly two-thirds of those were age 17 or younger.
The condition also usually strikes with little to no family history of heart problems, as in King’s case. His mother, Dorothy, kept searching for answers that never came.
“He plays sports, and he’s never had a problem,” she remembered telling doctors early on. “There is no history of heart disease in the family. They kept telling us, I guess because he was so athletic, that his heart muscle was so tight that it enlarged. They said athletes are prone to getting this.
“Honestly, I was scared for him, but I didn’t want him to see it. His life has always been sports, so the thought he might not get to play was tough. He would try not to think about it, but you knew he was struggling with it.”
King said he never lost hope of playing, even after the official start of preseason practices for the 2019 football season came and he still did not have clearance.
“I never wanted to feel too down, so I tried to smile a lot so that people wouldn’t worry about me,” he said. “I mainly just told myself to stay happy, and I prayed every night that I would play again and then it happened.”
After a checkup at Emory on what was the first day of school, official clearance to resume athletic activities was given. Medication had relieved King of the symptoms of fatigue and shortness of breath, even during heavy stress tests. Given the green light, he wasted no time.
“When I found out I could play, I promised myself I was going to put my all into everything because I knew how it felt to not be able to play,” he said. “It was a blessing to go from believing I would never get to play again to being able to get through my senior season playing both sports.”
Campbell recalled the moment, though he wasn’t sure King was being straight with him.
“I remember he called me and he told me,” he said. “Now, all summer he was kidding around with me, saying he was going to be released to play, so I just thought he was pulling that again and just trying to be positive.
“When his mom confirmed it, I felt like I hit the lottery. It was a blessing for everybody.”
Thankful to play
The 6-foot, 180-pound defensive back, after promising his mom and coaches he would let someone know if he started feeling off in any way, started the season opener at home against Heritage and played nearly the entire four quarters, even a few plays on offense, with no concerns.
Campbell gets emotional when he recalls the night, highlighted by a long King touchdown reception.
“That he was able to go out there in that first game and not miss a beat tells you everything you need to know about him,” he said. “It was unbelievable and it shows you what kind of competitor he is. It’s ironic that we’re talking about his heart. Well, Jacob plays with his heart.”
King would go on to average nearly 10 tackles a game for the Warriors, then make his return to the basketball court, where he helped lead the team to a surprising 23-5 record and the Region 6-AAA tournament title by averaging 9.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and two steals per game.
“Jacob was our anchor,” LFO basketball coach Josh Laney said. “He could defend every position on the court. We had a very young team coming into the season, but we knew we were talented and had the potential to have a good season. When the guys found out that he was going to be able to keep playing, everyone rallied behind him. Having Jacob gave them an emotional boost and a sense of confidence.”
King is now preparing for another phase in his life, and he has come to grips with the fact his athletic career is over. Prior to the discovery of his heart condition, he was on track to play collegiate football; the recruitment cooled after he was diagnosed, though, and King decided it was time to move on.
“After the season it was hard for me to decide what I wanted to do,” he said. “Should I play sports or go to a trade school? It took me a while to figure it out, and I would decide sports one moment and then I would think about coaches and everybody having to worry so much about me. So, a few months ago I decided to go to trade school to study HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning).”
In typical King fashion, though, he doesn’t look at it as an ending. He prefers to focus on the positive because he knows his career could have had another type of ending.
“I never thought my senior year would be like this, but a lot happened and I think I made the best of it,” he said. “This year was a blessing.”
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.
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