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Passion for sports helps Orlando, Florida family deal with Tourette's syndrome

October 11, 2006

Ken Mitchell inched his way up Mount Everest with his broken body. His knees ached. His hands throbbed. His shoulders could barely carry the weight of the 50 pounds he carried in his backpack, full of oxygen canisters, rope, clothes and extra equipment.

He hardly ate. He never slept. It took hours to move a few precious yards toward the glorious summit. When it felt as if he could go no further, he thought back to his family in Orlando.

His wife and nine kids urged him to climb Everest, knowing how much he loved the rush of conquering the unexpected. He made the UNLV football team that way in 1970 as a walk-on. He did the same with the Atlanta Falcons, harassing them into a tryout, then making the team. He completed two Ironman triathlons on knees so swollen he was unable to walk afterward.

His kids became mini-Kens, each one playing sports. When three of them were diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome, Ken told them to keep playing, to face their own challenges the way that he faced his.

Now it was time for the kids to encourage their father.

So Mitchell pressed on, slowly marching toward the summit last May. When he reached 24,000 feet, a massive storm moved in, making it impossible to go another step. He turned back, more than 5,000 feet short of reaching the top.

On the long trek down, Mitchell, 57, tried to remember the last time he failed to finish a challenge. But it hardly mattered. Making it to Everest was enough.

"It's not about summiting to me," Mitchell says. "The kids said, 'Dad, you need to do this.' My wife said she wanted me to do it. I just had a wonderful trip."

His journey embodies everything Mitchell has taught his children.

Missi, at 27 the oldest child, remembers how Ken would drop her and sister Mandi off at Red Bug Park to play pickup basketball against grown men when they were 13.

"We were these two little blonde girls with ponytails who were like, 'We got next!' The guys were like, 'Yeah, right!' But I would be boxing them out and taking rebounds. It was funny," Missi said.

Matt, 16, once blocked a shot from Larry Bird's son during an AAU game two years ago.

"I blocked it right into Larry Bird's lap!" Matt says. "Then I said, 'Guess your son doesn't take after you!' "

Everyone plays

Missi was the first to play sports, starting in gymnastics at the age of 2, then playing basketball, volleyball, Powder Puff football, softball and baseball.

Mandi, 25, played every sport Missi played.

On and on it goes.

Monte, 23, played basketball. The three oldest kids, who are Ken's from a previous marriage, no longer live at home. The six who do keep Ken and his wife, Candy, on their toes.

Matt, at 6 feet 6, plays basketball and offensive line on the Winter Park High varsity team.

Michelle, 15, plays on the Orlando Christian Prep basketball team, which recently was rocked when Coach Buck Lanham was charged with possession of child pornography and possession of marijuana.

Mike, 12, plays basketball and football. So does Mickey, 11, who is already 5 feet 8 in the fourth grade. The youngest boys, McKinley, 9, and Morgan, 6, also play hoops.

"Sports is in our blood," says Missi, who has a 7-month-old son named Caden.

"I can't wait for my son to get started playing," she added. "I was trying to figure out what's the first thing a little boy can do. I guess karate?"

Devastating diagnosis

Watching everyone interact, it is impossible to tell that Matt, Mike and McKinley have Tourette's syndrome.

Matt was the first one diagnosed when he was 7. He was constantly twitching, but Ken knew something was wrong when he saw Matt's arm and head jerk back simultaneously in one long, reckless motion. He took Matt to the doctor. They got the diagnosis. The family was devastated.

"There's been many times tears come out of our eyes, they can't sleep, they can't study or maybe somebody was making fun of them on the court," Ken said. "There's just tremendous pain because the tics are so severe."

There are 200,000 people in the United States known to suffer from the neurological disorder, which causes involuntary tics and movements.

But Ken refused to let Matt, Mike and McKinley feel sorry for themselves, and kept them in sports. In fact, sports have helped them focus, make friends and learn the value of hard work and discipline.

Tough times for all

Still, there have been tough times for everyone.

Candy remembered a time standing at the checkout line in Publix. Matt was making all sorts of grunts and noises. The woman behind them started backing away.

"So Matt turns around and says, 'I'm not contagious. I have Tourette's syndrome," Candy says. "Well, the cashiers all knew me there, so they looked at me and gave me a huge smile."

One Sunday at church, all three boys sat next to each other in a pew, grunting and twitching. A new member of the congregation approached after the service and said to Ken, "You need to teach your kids some social graces." Ken explained. Her face turned white. She apologized.

The three boys have gotten technical fouls during games because their twitches are misconstrued as showing off. At one game, two boys were making fun of Matt in the stands, mimicking his twitching. Missi walked over and confronted them. They quickly stopped.

Now that he is older, Matt is more in control of his Tourette's than his brothers. But he never let it bother him.

"I never really got embarrassed about anything," Matt says. "A lot of my friends, if I wouldn't have told them, they wouldn't know I had it."

Ditto for his coaches and teammates at Winter Park.

Though he started playing football this year, Matt has earned significant playing time.

"Once he started you could see he had the natural instincts to be a football player," Winter Park Coach Larry Gergley says. When asked whether Tourette's has been a problem, Gergley said, "It hasn't even been a factor."

Matt wanted to play football because of Ken. Though Ken started out playing basketball and baseball -- spending a short time in the Angels organization after high school -- he wanted to give football a try his junior year at UNLV in 1970.

He begged for a spot on the team. Coach Bill Ireland said no, then left to teach a class. When he returned three hours later, Mitchell was still sitting in his office.

"I'm not leaving until you give me a uniform," Mitchell told him.

Finally Ireland agreed, but warned Mitchell that the athletic department was running short on equipment. Mitchell was issued oversized pants with a hole in the rear.

He got old, crusty shoes three sizes too big. He got a helmet so big that he was forced to look out of the ear hole half the time. Ken was mortified when he walked onto the field.

"I have never seen so many people laugh so hard in all their life," Ken says.

But he used that as motivation and stuck around, playing offensive line in his first year, then linebacker in 1971.

Though Mitchell went undrafted, he was desperate to play in the pros. He decided to phone every NFL team and offer his services. Mitchell was rebuffed each time. He finally decided to pester the Atlanta Falcons, hoping that might increase his chances of success.

Mitchell phoned the Falcons every hour on the hour every day for three weeks. Each time, the answer was no. Finally, he got lucky. Director of Player Personnel Tom Braatz happened to answer the phone because the switchboard operator stepped away. Mitchell once again begged for a tryout. Braatz relented.

Finally a Falcon

"You'll have a tryout," Braatz told Mitchell. "But the deal is, we're going to have an attorney present so when we cut you, you're going to sign an agreement saying you'll never call us again for the rest of your life."

Mitchell blew them away at his workout, and earned a trip to training camp.

He arrived three weeks early to start working out. Broke, he slept under the bleachers. Finally the first day arrived. Using the same work ethic that got him a spot at UNLV, Mitchell made the team.

He ended up playing with the Falcons from 1972-75. Mitchell stayed active in sports after he retired. He coached his kids in basketball and took up mountain climbing. But eventually the pain in his knees became too intense. He had his right knee replaced in 2000, the left in 2002.

He refused to let that slow him down. Before he had his left knee done, he told his doctor, Richard Konsens, he planned on scaling Everest. The two have since developed a close relationship, and Mitchell has given talks with Konsens at different hospitals around the region.

"He's been an inspiration to me, to people he's come in contact with at the hospital and some of the patients I've introduced him to," Konsens said. "I'm sure he's an inspiration to his children, his friends and his family."

There is no doubting that. Why else would his children be so crazy about sports? Successful, too.

Missi played at Flagler College. Mandi played at Lynn University. Five of the kids won state youth basketball championships last year. Mickey won four himself, playing on two different AAU teams and two different Youth Basketball of America teams.

Garbage cans full of trophies line the garage. But those are not as important, given everything the Mitchells have gone through.

"You learn from the tough things in life," Ken says. "It's the hard stuff that will give you the love of the fight. Winning is great, but you have to take pride in that journey."

The Mitchells know that better than anyone.

Orlando Sentinel


You are most welcome. It's always inspiring to read about people who focus on their strengths to overcome personal challenges such as a disability or disorder.

Thanks for taking the time to read the story. Do you happen to know someone with Tourette?
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