Sports Legends: Protecting Tech's Smiles
Yellow Jackets’ Team Dentist Never Misses A Game
If you’re a Georgia Tech football player and all you want for Christmas is your two front teeth, it’s almost certain you can have them.
Thanks to the volunteer work of Aaron LaFayette King, DDS, who serves as team dentist, Yellow Jacket football players haven’t lost a tooth in 49 years. Not one, mind you, despite absorbing hit after hit from forearms and shoulder pads worn by some of the biggest, roughest players in the game.
During his almost five decades with the team, King has made some 8,000 custom mouthpieces that not only protect the teeth and tongue, but greatly lessen the chance of brain injury.
It’s now mandatory that all football players in NCAA schools wear mouthpieces, but King was fitting mouthpieces at the Flats long before it became the rule. He got the idea for the mouthpiece from the cover of an old Life magazine: 22 players from the University of Notre Dame were pictured – 19 of them had missing front teeth.
Although the NCAA doesn’t require it, all Tech basketball players are also fitted with a custom made mouthpiece. When a freshman joins the team, that mouthpiece becomes a part of his equipment, along with his shoulder pads, headgear, game jerseys, etc.
King, who is assisted in his efforts by Dr. Steve Sanderson, his dental partner, may be the only team dentist in America who custom makes every mouthpiece. The NCAA only requires that players use a generic, one-size-fits-all mouthpiece.
You’ll see King on the sidelines at every Tech football practice and every Tech football and basketball game. You can recognize him by the black leather case he carries with him; in it is a duplicate mouthpiece for each player who dresses out for a game.
A native Atlantan, King has been a Tech fan since his days at Boys’ High and Bass High schools. He became involved with the team by making Tech coach Bobby Dodd an offer he couldn’t refuse: If Tech paid for the materials, King would donate his services free of charge.
King is a third generation dentist. “It was a family thing to do,” he says, “and I just grew up with it.” He went to pre-dental school and dental school at Emory University, where he served as president of his dental fraternity and was inducted to both the National Honor Society and Phi Beta Kappa.
In his spare time, King has flown airplanes and has served as a photographer at the national air races at Reno, Nev., and Cleveland, Ohio.
But from the start of fall practice in August until the end of spring practice in May, his heart and time belong to Tech. On game days, he’s at the stadium three hours before kickoff to ensure that everyone has his mouthpiece. The players showed appreciation in 1990 by giving him a game ball from the national championship season and making him an honorary member of the team. He also was voted into the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame.
From basketball’s Dodd to football’s Paul Johnson, Tech coaches have sung his praises. “I know of no one who loves Tech football more than he does,” says former Tech head coach Chan Gailey.
“The only time I have missed a game or a practice is when it conflicted with football,” King says. “I speak to each individual player and stress to them the importance of protecting their teeth. It is more difficult to wear the mouthpiece in basketball than it is in football. In football you can take it out occasionally ... between plays. In basketball you are going a mile a minute and you tend to get a dry mouth. That dryness disappears when you get used to it.
“Georgia Tech is my family,” says King, a confirmed bachelor. “I have had the pleasure of being associated with a class bunch of people; people like Bill Curry, Kim King, Doug Weaver, Homer Rice, Coach Dodd, Johnny Gresham and all the coaches, the coaching staff and athletic directors. I have been blessed by their friendship.”
In reality, it’s the Tech athletes who have been blessed – with perfect smiles.