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Karate kids: Twin high school seniors juggle school, church, friends, business

Inside a west Fort Worth, Texas, karate studio one August day, Jeremy King prowls the floor. He is fleet but quiet as he weaves in and out among his students, eyeing each of them with precision. He taps an arm, pokes the back of someone's knee, and firmly tells the whole class: "Try to keep your hands up, guys!"

It is here that he and his brother, Jamal, found the balance that changed their lives.

Jamal and Jeremy King came into this world a minute apart, fraternal twins poised for a sibling rivalry face-off. Their childhood battles formed a trail of broken bunk beds and broomsticks, couches and chairs.

But when they raise their fists to each other today, the moving image is still intensely fierce. But it lacks the wild-eyed, off-kilter fury of a childhood skirmish. It's instead filled with control, respect, and balance - always balance. And it had better be.

They are role models, mentors and businessmen. And they've only just turned 17.

AN UNEXPECTED TURN

Jamal and Jeremy have just started their senior year at nearby Brewer High School, so like many of their classmates, one sense, they're in step with their peers when it comes to they're juggling the honor roll, advanced-placement classes, social lives and college applications. They've both got their eyes on the future: Jeremy wants to eventually enter the Air Force Academy to train as a pilot. Jamal, the older twin by a minute, is a born teacher, and has his sights on a degree in early-childhood education.

But unlike their friends, every other waking minute is spent running the karate studio, something they've been doing since they were 16.

In karate tradition, when the leader of a studio, or dojo, leaves, he or she does not technically sell the dojo; the leader hands it down to the next-highest-ranking, most-deserving student. So in January, when their teacher, Machelle Eastham, announced she was moving out of state, it was according to this custom that this opportunity came to the Kings.

What was not customary, in this case, was the age of the heirs.

"Ordinarily, one of our academies would be run by a mature person or couple, who have graduated college and had probably 10 years' work experience," says Joan Wilcoxen, who co-owns the Oklahoma-based Wilcoxen Family Academies, where the King brothers were certified with their black belts. Wilcoxen's husband, Eddie, developed his own karate program, called Kihido karate, which uses martial arts for both self-defense training and character-building. Kihido is taught at all four of their academies, in Fort Worth, Omaha, Neb., and two in Oklahoma.

In fairness, Jamal and Jeremy's parents, Robert and Roberta King, are the owners of the Westpoint Family Academy, on Cherry Lane south of Interstate 30. They operate the business side of the dojo, along with office manager Lisa Jones. But the brothers are the ones who keep things running.

Jeremy, a second-degree black belt, is the chief instructor and, unofficially, Master of Intensity. Jamal, a first-degree black belt studying for his second-degree, is program director and Clown Prince of the Tiny Tigers and Karate Kids.

"These guys have been training since they were children," Joan Wilcoxen says. "And part of their training has not only been for their personal development in martial arts skill, but they have also become certified instructors."

A NEW DISCIPLINE

When he was younger, Jeremy was small and a bit chubby. In old classroom photos, she says, you can't find Jeremy easily. "He was usually the guy standing in back of the classroom, off to himself," Eastham recalls.

Jeremy was a sixth-grader when he started taking karate through the after-school program at Tannahill Intermediate School. He was one of Machelle Eastham's very first students in her Kihido karate class.

At first, karate was just something fun to do. "I wanted to do the cool stuff," Jeremy says, speaking so softly that you sometimes strain to hear him. "I thought: I've seen Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles - oh, yeah," he says, smiling with a slow, cool nod. "Just like them."

Robert and Roberta King wanted their other son to take karate, too. And so did Eastham. But Jamal refused. "That's Jeremy's thing," he told Eastham early on.

Jamal remembers himself as a bully back then. "I wasn't always the nicest person," he says with a polite, humble smile. "I was the typical mean big brother. I was one minute older, so I had to prove to Jeremy I was the big brother."

His behavior spilled over into school, where he would pick on other kids. "I would have to prove to everyone else that I was big and strong," Jamal says."It definitely wasn't good."

But his main target was Jeremy.

And when Jeremy started karate, that only made things worse. "It was: `Oh, you know karate? Let's try it again,'." Jamal recalls. And the fists would fly.

About a year later, after some persuasion from his parents, seventh-grader Jamal finally started taking classes, too.

"Jamal came in overweight, very shy, quiet, very unsure of himself," Eastham recalls.

When he first started training, she says, Jamal couldn't run one lap of the dojo without stopping. But once he got into it, the discipline kicked in.

Even the brotherly warfare was about to turn a corner. One day in 2003, the boys got into a scuffle outside of class. But someone was watching. Eastham. And her one disapproving look was transformative.

"From there," Jamal says, "we knew: `Oh, OK. That's it.' Pretty much all it took. We have a good healthy sibling rivalry now, but nothing like those fights."

MUSIC AND MASTERY

Jeremy likes to incorporate music into karate, and his taste is wildly varied: the ear-bleeding rock of Linkin Park, the harmonizing country of Rascal Flatts, and the throbbing beat of techno. But over the din,of this modern soundtrack, Jeremy floats Zen-like and calm. His mantra? "Do it the very best you can do it. Lead by example.".'

His teacher knows exactly when that ethos kicked in for Jeremy.

About a year into his training, Eastham asked Jeremy if he would like to help others learn. "It was like a little light had popped on in his head that said: `You want me?'."

Things connected for Jeremy when Eastham told him that teaching wasn't just about karate in the dojo but about the way he lived his life. "I started learning that what we learn in class is not just about how to protect ourselves," Jeremy says, "but how to make ourselves better."

GUIDING THE LITTLE ONES

The sight is disarmingly, comically sweet. With his recently shaved head and his 6-foot-1 frame, Jamal towers like a giant teddy bear over the 5- to 7-year-olds in his Karate Kids class.

On this September dayin September, they are practicing front falls.

"Cross your arms, grit your teeth, and turn your head," Jamal says, then quizzes them: "What are we protecting when we grit our teeth?"

"Teeth!" shouts Jacob Strode.

"Yes! And what else?" Jamal prods.

Silence.

Jamal, now sitting cross-legged on the floor, sticks out his tongue. "Ah-la-la-la-la!"

"Tongue!" the class shouts.

"Right! Now, ready, and ... fall!"

They dutifully fall with arms crossed, heads turned and teeth gritted.

"Very good job, Mr. Jacob!"

Jeremy, who teaches students 8 and older, says his brother has found a calling as a teacher of young children - in this case, the Tiny Tigers and Karate Kids, who range in age from 3 to 7.

"Some are really shy when they walk through the door for the very first time, and Jamal can make `em laugh and giggle and roll around on the ground," Jeremy says. "And he'll be rolling on the ground right there with them."

Eastham says Jamal was born to teach the little ones. "They are his," she says. "He has a special gift for them. He teaches with humor, with joy and caring. Discipline was hard for him, but he expects them to do what they are supposed to do."

One of the guiding principles at the dojo is respect for adults.

Delyn Simmons, whose sons Joshua and Cody have been studying karate for about three years, recalls whenan instance where they were dragging their feet about something she wanted them to do. Jamal took the boys by the shoulders and said, "Hey, your first response needs to be: `Yes, ma'am.'."

"They're amazing teenagers," Simmons says of the King brothers. "They've been a huge good influence on my own boys. Huge."

Joshua, 12, and Cody, 9, are now one the leadership team, which means they help Jeremy, Jamal, and another instructor, Christina Whitbeck, with some of their classes.

"They're good friends (to us)," Joshua says, "and they just help us keep going."

THE COMMITMENT FACTOR

When they got the offer of the dojo from Eastham, Roberta King had extreme reservations. Not only would her boys be forfeiting part of their childhood, but she and her husband had day jobs - she works at Brewer Middle School, and Robert King is a senior corrections officer for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

There was the financial commitment, the time commitment and the fact that she didn't know anything about the business end of karate.

"I was scared," she says. "My husband and I talked about it, and prayed about it."

Then her husband had a moment of clarity. What if, years later, their sons came to them and asked why they couldn't have done this for them. Robert King wondered: How could he not give his sons their own dojo?

So retirement funds were exhausted. The Kings took the plunge.

"I knew it would be their lifetime dream. And for us not to accept it was incomprehensible."

And then there were the brothers, who realized they were about to drastically alter their lives.

Jeremy smiles when he recalls his initial reaction: "`There goes my free time. I'm gonna miss that Gameboy.' I really thought the responsibility was going to be overwhelming, especially during high school. But I kind of used my calm personality to ease on through it."

FORGING A BALANCE

There is sacrifice in this teen-age balancing act. Well in advance of taking over the dojo, Jamal quit playing flute in the band to devote more time to karate and his grades; he's an honor roll student in the top 10 percent of his class.

Jeremy balances karate, color guard and honor roll, and As if that weren't enough, he's recently gotten a weekend job at Albertson's.

They're also active in the youth group at Bethany Christian Church.

Next year brings, the responsibilities of the dojo will work in tandem with college demands; both want to attend school locally, partly to keep the business so they can keep the business going.

Meanwhile, they're still learning, still teaching. - not quite ready to pass the dojo on to the next disciple.

"I used to think: `I'm just gonna get my black belt and then I'm gonna be done with it,'" Jamal says. "Now, it's like, `OK, whenever I get tired of it, I'll stop.' I don't know when that's gonna be. I've convinced the instructors that they can't get rid of me."

Their teacher says both young men have very selfless teaching styles. "They're not in this for themselves," Eastham says. "They're in it for what they can do for others. That's why it was so easy for me to say I'm leaving my legacy in good hands in Fort Worth. Jeremy and Jamal will continue on and never miss a beat."

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WHAT IS KIHIDO KARATE?

Kihido karate, the type taught by the King brothers, is just one of many eclectic, blended karate styles that have been developed by American instructors. In fact, Randall G. Hassell, co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Karate estimates that there are hundreds of these styles.

However, Hassell says, most of the American eclectic styles have their roots in officially sanctioned Japanese- and Okinawan-style karate.

Goju-ryu, for example, is a Japanese style known for its hard and soft techniques, and emphasizes strengthening the body and mind with supplementary exercises. Another Japanese style, Kyokushinkai, is known for its knock-down system of fighting, and characterized by strenuous training, conditioning and full-contact sparring. Okinawan Kempo also known as kenpo; they're interchangeable karate places equal emphasis on the use of hands and feet.

Kihido, developed by Oklahoma instructor Eddie Wilcoxen of Wilcoxen Academies, means "the shining spirit way," and is a blended art that incorporates elements of Kempo and Shotokan karate, and kickboxing. It also strongly emphasizes character-building.

So with all the official styles and their blended offshoots, how do you know which style of karate is right for you?

When you're looking at different karate studios, ask how long the style has been around and how many times removed from the original the current one is.

Ask what style is emphasized in instruction. If it emphasizes sport and you're more interested in self-defense, you might want to move on.

Look at the students and the instructor. Are they huffing and puffing and out of breath all the time? Do their attitudes and the attitude of the instructor seem like something you'd like to emulate?

Take in the big picture. If the style is primarily external (physical), you'll be doing a lot of vigorous, controlled exercise. If it's primarily internal, you'll likely be doing a lot of slow, heavy breathing and strengthening exercises.

Source: "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Karate," www.all-karate.com, www.martial-arts-info.com.

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