Healthy choice: UT doctor selected as best in SEC

Friday, December 31, 2021, Vol. 45, No. 53
By Rhiannon Potkey

No matter the time of day or amount of work he’s accumulated, Dr. Chris Klenck is always available. Every athlete or coach at the University of Tennessee knows they can walk into his office on campus or call, and Klenck will provide his undivided attention.

From a common cold to a season-ending ligament injury, Klenck treats every case as his highest priority.

Klenck’s importance has long been valued within the Tennessee Athletics department. It’s now being recognized on a broader scale.

Klenck was recently named the 2022 SEC Team Physician of the Year. The award is voted on by the sports medicine staff at each Southeastern Conference school.

Klenck will be recognized at the Southern Orthopaedic Association SEC Sports Medicine meeting in Birmingham in May.

The honor includes a $1,000 award in the physician’s name to the sports medicine department at UT to be used toward funding for student assistant scholarships in the athletic training program.

“It was a huge honor for me. What made it so special is that each school’s sports medicine staff voted, so coming from our peers within our conference means a lot,” says Klenck, in his 16th season as the UT Athletics team physician. “We are in the trenches together and we kind of share the same heartaches and triumphs.”

Nobody at UT was surprised by Klenck’s selection. They have admired his dedication and devotion since he arrived on campus.

“He is extremely deserving,’’ says Jason McVeigh, UT’s associate athletics director for sports medicine. “Clearly he is very good at what he does and is a very intelligent person. He is such a hard worker and has a true passion for taking care of our athletes.

“He will stay the extra hour, go the extra mile, come in at night and do whatever it takes when an athlete has an issue.”

John Fulkerson knows all too well. The super senior has spent a lot of time with Klenck over his six seasons playing for the Vols basketball team. He’s had broken bones, concussions, torn labrums and dislocations.

“I really can’t put into words how much Dr. Klenck means not only to me, but to my teammates, as well,” Fulkerson says. “He is always available to us and knows a lot about what he does. He is very, very good at his job and always puts us in the best possible position to perform at our best. That is something I really admire.”

Lady Vols softball coach Karen Weekly values Klenck’s input on just about anything medically related. Not only has Klenck treated her players, he’s helped Weekly with her own injuries over the years.

“He is knowledgeable, he is very patient, he is thorough and he is accessible. He is just the greatest guy you know,” Weekly says. “He really takes his time with everybody and is just a tremendous resource for our student-athletes and our coaches. You really feel like you are in the best care possible when you are dealing with Dr. Klenck.”

Born and raised in Evansville, Indiana, Klenck played wide receiver and defensive back at a small, rural high school with 100 students in his senior class.

He earned his Doctor of Pharmacy from Purdue University and his medical degree at Indiana University. Klenck completed a combined residency in internal medicine and pediatrics at IU before starting a sports medicine fellowship.

Once Klenck finished, he saw the job at Tennessee was available and didn’t hesitate to apply.

“The overall care of athletes and some of the uniqueness of athletes and demands that are placed on our student-athletes is quite significant, so it really interested me,” Klenck notes. “I was blessed to come here starting straight from my fellowship and the job is something that has become a passion and something fun to do.”

Klenck is employed by Knoxville Orthopedic as a third-party medical professional to maintain independence. He started the job by splitting time between UT and general care.

But once the men’s and women’s athletic departments at UT merged, Klenck began devoting nearly all of his time to caring for UT athletes and moved into an office on campus.

“Having a physician embedded like we have here is still pretty rare even in this day and age at the large SEC-level schools,” McVeigh says. “It’s a big advantage for the student-athletes and for our staff. He is right there in the training room with us and in the trenches every day. He understands the athletic trainer’s role and how important those roles are and also how hard those roles are sometimes.”

For all the medical expertise Klenck possesses, the most vital component of his care runs much deeper.

“Our athletes trust him, which is a huge thing in our world,” McVeigh acknowledges. “You want the athlete and the parents to trust the medical staff and know they have their best interest at heart to help them achieve their athletic goals.”

Klenck is humble about his role at UT. Like many of the athletes he treats, he views himself more like a team player.

“I can’t say enough about the people around me. They have played a huge role educating me and helping me take care of the athletes better,” Klenck continues. “I am proud of everybody and proud of the sports medicine program we have created. It’s really like a family away from family for me.”

Klenck’s work at UT gained national attention when former UT offensive lineman Trey Smith, now a rookie starter for the Kansas City Chiefs, was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs that kept him out of spring practice in 2018.

Klenck helped Smith navigate the potentially life-threatening condition and teamed with other medical professionals to carefully coordinate a way for him to return to play safely.

“I think that was a huge success story for all of us,” Klenck acknowledges. “We had to think outside the box for him and he had enormous goals he had set for himself and we certainly wanted to make sure he achieved those safely and his health being the highest priority. I am really proud of how well he has managed that success already in the short time he’s been a professional.”

UT’s coaches have worked with Klenck more frequently in the last two years given Klenck’s role as UT’s representative on the SEC Return to Activity and Medical Guidance Task Force, which was formed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were so fortunate to have him leading us because everybody trusts him completely,” Weekly says. “They know how good he is at what he does, and whatever he has said we need to do, that is what we were going to do.”

Although he can never guarantee an athlete will fully recover, Klenck does his best to give them the chance while keeping their long-term health in mind.

He wants to see them all reach their full potential – in sports and in life. Klenck is heartened by the relationships he still maintains with many of the UT athletes he’s treated.

“I would hope they would say that I really care about them,” Klenck says. “I would hope they would say I care about their well-being and their success and the goals they set for themselves as athletes and as people.”