King finds fresh start at Texas

AUSTIN, Texas -- Alex King thought about giving up.

He was graduating with a degree in history from Duke University. The punter had one remaining year of eligibility, but what was the point?

After the most devastating year of his life, King was ready to be done. Emotionally exhausted. He didn't know what came next.

"I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do," he said. "I took that time and thought and sort of realized I'd be crazy if I didn't go back and play football for one more season."

He needed football because King knew he needed to get away. He couldn't stay in North Carolina. Ever since Oct. 7, 2011, football has provided a much-needed escape for the Texas senior punter.

On that day, he lost his father. Dr. Michael King, a man who loved his five children, his art and tending to his garden, committed suicide. He was 65.

He'd been sick for a while, his son says now. Dr. King battled depression, and rheumatoid arthritis had stripped from him a happiness he feared he'd never get back.

"He couldn't work anymore," King said. "He was an orthopedic surgeon, and his work was everything. Helping people was his whole life. His job was everything to him. I think he just kind of felt like he didn't have much else to give."

Dad had played some football back in the day. He was the starting quarterback and captain for Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia back in the late 1960s before attending medical school at North Carolina.

The game that has let King get away might have played some role in his father's death. That's what his family feared when Dr. King passed, that the longstanding effects of his playing days had altered his mental state.

"We sent his brain in to get it examined, to try to get it checked for concussion testing," King said. "We don't really have a ton of information yet, but it's one of those things where, you know, it's a tough game."

And yet, it's a game that the father passed down to the Longhorns' 24-year-old punter. Before he got to Duke, he'd played quarterback his whole life. He learned to kick in college just so he could get on the field. He wanted to make his father proud.

"He taught me so much," King said, "and I couldn't think of a better way to honor him than to keep playing, especially here."

Eight days after his father's death, King was back on the field for Duke's game against Florida State. He played out the rest of the season and earned second-team All-ACC honors. The outpouring of support he received from the Duke community, from friends and family and even Dr. King's patients, helped him keep going.

When the season ended, he hit his crossroads. He had a few job offers, but going home to Winston-Salem, N.C., wasn't the answer. He wasn't sure if the NFL was a possibility.

Going back to Duke wasn't, though. He met with coach David Cutcliffe and asked if he could return for a fifth year, but the Blue Devils didn't have a scholarship to offer.

By February, King figured out what needed to happen next. He had to find a place to play out that final year of eligibility. Time for a new beginning.

"I just was looking for something new to turn to and focus on and have fun with," he said. "I just kind of wanted to turn the page and start with something fresh."

So he made a list. King identified schools that were losing their senior punters. The Longhorns, who desperately needed help after do-everything kicker Justin Tucker graduated, were a natural fit. Cutcliffe helped put him in touch with Mack Brown.

Texas was the only school King contacted and the only one he visited. He quickly grew enamored with the school's tradition and its coaching staff and enrolled in grad school at UT at the end of May.

When he joined the program, King was randomly assigned the No. 15 jersey. He had to chuckle when he found that out. That had to be more than a coincidence.

"Fifteen is an important number for me. It was my dad's number in college," he said. "It's one of those things I take a lot of pride in. I'm happy to be able to wear that in honor of my dad."

King got a rather unwelcomed opportunity to make his first major impact for Texas this weekend against Oklahoma. He had to punt eight times in the 63-21 loss, but averaged 49.6 yards per kick with a long of 65. His season average of 47.4 per punt would be good for No. 3 nationally if he had enough attempts to qualify.

"We punted too many times, but he did a great job," Brown said. "He's been great for us. We haven't used him much until Saturday, but he really helped us change the field."

By now King is used to the culture shock of leaving Durham, N.C., for Austin and a school with nearly six times more students. No knock on Duke, he said, but he has found there's nothing quite like running out of the tunnel and seeing 100,000 fans packing DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium. He appreciates the added pressure.

"I think a challenge is exactly what I needed, and coming here with new experiences, making new friends, new teammates and all that, it's really just been an awesome experience," King said. "I have absolutely no regrets, and I'm extremely happy with my decision to come here."

He has one last year to play, and he doesn't intend to waste it. Not a game goes by that King doesn't think about his father.

His death has only made the opportunity at Texas more meaningful. He knows this is exactly what his father would've wanted for him.

"Ever since it happened I've been playing in his memory, and I think about him all the time," King said. "I tell him I love him all the time."