Men's Basketball

At 66, Union College student a two-sport athlete

Wayne King, 66, is a two-sport student athlete at Union College. (Mike Fields photo)
Wayne King, 66, is a two-sport student athlete at Union College. (Mike Fields photo)

BARBOURVILLE — At 66, Wayne King is thought to be the oldest student athlete in the history of Union College.

He looks the part, but he doesn't act it.

King is a graybeard, literally and figuratively.

He has a healthy thatch of silver on his cheeks and upper lip, and a life story that includes 20 years in the Army, a brief stint as a firefighter, two marriages and 14 grandchildren.

But King is a college kid at heart. He's the guy cheering and ringing a cow bell at most Union College athletic events. He's the guy everybody on campus seems to know. They greet him with a wave, a holler or a high-five.

Tall and trim, King carries himself jauntily, as you would expect of somebody who played on the golf and bowling teams this school year.

"He's a cool dude," said sophomore Melissa Mills of Barbourville, who mistook King for a professor when she first met him in class.

This week King has been stressed about finals as he finished his sophomore year. He hopes to keep his 3.0 grade point average as he pursues a degree in recreational management.

"I get flustered sometimes and ask myself, 'Why am I doing this?'" King said. "A lot of it has to do with my wife (Kay), because she wants me to.

"But it's also because now I know I can do it. The first year was real tough, but I survived. And now I've survived the second year."

King's story isn't about survival, though. It's about challenging himself mentally, physically and emotionally at an age when a lot of people put their lives on cruise control.

King grew up in Athens and went to Bryan Station High School. He was drafted into the Army his senior year (1965) and didn't graduate.

After a two-year stint in the military, during which he got his GED while stationed in Germany, he returned home to Lexington and worked for the fire department.

It wasn't the career he was looking for, so he re-enlisted in the Army in 1972.

King, whose ranking in the Army was E-7 sergeant first class, spent time in Korea and at several bases in the United States, including Fort Ord, Calif.; Fort Lewis, Wash.; and Fort Campbell, Ky.

After retiring from the Army in 1990, King came back to Lexington and worked as a school bus driver, and for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.

At 65, he retired again, figuring he'd spend most of his time fishing and playing golf.

But when his wife got a job as an administrative assistant at Union College in April 2011, King's retirement plans took a detour.

Kay told her husband he would get bored with a life of leisure, and that he should consider enrolling at Union.

"He's always been able to do anything else he's ever wanted to do," said Kay, who also is taking classes at Union. "There was no reason he couldn't learn, and there was no reason he couldn't compete with these kids.

"Wayne has a broad background and life experiences that these college kids don't."

King was reluctant at first, but after he talked to Union golf coach Eric Wyrick about playing for the Bulldogs, he was willing to give it the old college try.

Wyrick said it was "a no-brainer" to give King a chance to be on the golf team.

"Wayne is the type of guy that is always positive, always trying to bring those around him up to a higher level of competitiveness."

King, however, couldn't play sports until he proved himself academically his freshman year.

That was a challenge.

"Having to do things like read a book and write a report on it — something I hadn't done in 47 years — yeah, it was hard," King said.

"There were nights I had to stay up to 1 or 2 o'clock getting things done."

But he got them done.

"Some people told me I couldn't pass English because I'd mispronounce or misspell words. They told me I'd never make it.

"Well, I hate to tell 'em, I passed English."

Mary Beth Spurlock, who taught King freshman English, said "some non-traditional students don't succeed, but Wayne was diligent and stuck with it.

"He was actually a valuable asset to our classroom because he brought a different perspective to the class."

After establishing a solid GPA as a freshman, King was eligible to play golf and bowl for Union as a sophomore.

He has a 9-handicap in the Central Kentucky Senior Men's Golf Association, but that didn't lead to success on the college level.

"Seniors I can hang with. But these guys, they can play," King said. "Still, I'm part of the team."

King is more competitive in bowling. He said he had the fourth-highest average on the team.

King the athlete can't compare to King the fan in terms of enthusiasm, though.

He's a supporter of almost all of the Union sports teams, but he is most devoted to women's softball and volleyball.

When freshman volleyball player Chandler Gray, from Alexandria, arrived on campus, King was a peer mentor.

"When I first met him, he said he was the No. 1 fan at Union College," Gray said. "The first volleyball game, he was behind our bench with a cow bell and I totally understood he was the No. 1 fan. It's awesome that he cares so much and is so involved in everything on campus."

Derrick Thorpe, a basketball player from Atlanta, said King helped him get through a rough season this winter.

"Wayne's a great guy with good spirit, and I like being around positive people," Thorpe said. "He has the passion of a teenager."

At retirement age, Wayne King has found the fountain of youth at Union College, and he has jumped in with both feet.