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November 9, 2002

‘He’s an Inspiration’

From: Winchester Star, VA
Nov. 9, 2002

J.W. Cox Is (and Isn’t) Just a Regular Guy

By Michael N. Graff
The Winchester Star

Picture this.

He’s 18 years old with dirty blond hair, wearing a blue No. 75 Clarke County High School football jersey to school on Friday with his girlfriend by his side.

His smile is always bright, but oh how it beams when he thinks of his truck. He’s got a white Suzuki Samurai covered with a layer of dirt just above the extra-large tires.

Picture that.

Now picture it with him being deaf.

The image doesn’t change much, does it?

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about J.W. Cox is that he’s not extraordinarily different at all.

That’s why, to the 30-some guys on the Clarke County High School football team, J.W. is more than just a teammate.

“He’s an inspiration,” Matt Ernst said.

“I don’t know how I’d be able to do that,” Jeremy Tipton said. “I’ve tried to help him out the last couple of years, and he’s pretty talented for doing it.”

“It gives us more of a spirit,” Matt Parr said.

J.W., a senior, never has known the hearing world. He’s been deaf since birth. But by going to a public school, earning a 3.6 grade-point average, and participating in sports such as football and wrestling, he has opened eyes at Clarke County by proving he’s just as normal as you — and the person sitting next to you for that matter.

J.W. is the first deaf student to attend Clarke County High School, a decision he and the school are glad he made.

“In the past, most deaf students were schooled at other locations,” Principal Clyde Harrell said. “I thought it was great. We certainly want to welcome all students here. It has worked out very, very well.”

In turn, J.W., an outwardly shy person, has opened up since transferring from the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton before his sophomore year.

“I’ve got a lot of team friends,” J.W. said through his interpreter and mother, Brenda Cox. “It’s helped me socially.”

A Teammate

It’s one of those chilly, cherry-cheek days as Clarke County prepares for its matchup with rival Strasburg.

J.W., a scout team defensive player, stands on the side, trying to stay warm while waiting for his turn to go in.

Clarke County coach Chris Parker and his assistants shout commands to the Eagles.

J.W. can’t hear the instructions. Brenda, as she did every day last season and continues to do twice a week this year, signs the coaches’ words to J.W.

“Everything the coaches say, everything the kids say, everything is interpreted,” Brenda said. “I’m an environmental signer.”

While J.W. focuses on his mom, teammate Ernst sneaks up from behind. When J.W. turns around, his facemask is inches from Ernst’s. J.W. jumps back, before giving Ernst a shove and a laugh.

“We don’t see him as the deaf kid on the team,” Ernst said. “We just see him as part of the team.”

J.W. is a reserve nose guard on the Eagles’ defense and a blocker on the extra-point team.

He has memorized the defensive signals that come in from the sidelines, meaning he’s hardly a burden for coach Parker and staff.

“As far as the communication,” Parker said, “if I have to talk to him directly, I just get into a position where he can read my lips. All other times, the interpreters do the communication. Sometimes, in sprints or in hitting drills, we’ll wave our hand to have him start and stop.”

J.W. admits he likes wrestling more than football. Wrestling is more of an individual sport, and communication isn’t as important. He qualified for the regional tournament by finishing third in the Bull Run District Meet last year in the heavyweight division.

“I like the experience of playing [football], but it’s hard for me since I can’t hear the plays,” J.W. said.

Deaf athletes aren’t uncommon. In fact, the football huddle was invented at Gallaudet University in 1894 when team captain Paul Hubbard worried that other teams were stealing his hand signals.

Gallaudet, an all-deaf school in Washington, D.C., played a football game at Shenandoah University last fall. J.W. and his family went to watch and talk to Gallaudet coach James Grayton.

“He wanted J.W. to come play for him, but J.W. has absolutely no desire to go to D.C.,” Brenda said.

J.W. will be attending college after high school, probably at Northern Virginia Community College.

But Brenda said she has scheduled a visit to Rochester Technical School for the Deaf in New York.

“No,” J.W. says upon hearing mention of the visit.

Family Matters

One of the largest and loudest cheering sections at football games and wrestling matches comes to see the one player who can’t hear the screams.

J.W.’s fan club travels in a pack of about 20 people.

Aside from his parents, Brenda and John, J.W. has both sets of grandparents, two aunts and several friends of the family who attend every game and match.

“We take a van,” Brenda said.

During the last 18 years, Brenda and John have devoted their lives to J.W. Brenda works at Grafton School, and John is a self-employed stonemason.

From fourth grade to ninth grade, J.W. went to the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind. His parents moved to Staunton for him.

“Any parent is going to make changes for your children,” Brenda said. “We’re not doing anything different than any other parent would do. You’ve just got to go with the flow. You’ve just got to take things like they are.”

Most of the family has learned sign language. And because J.W. is an only child, communicating through sign language is first-nature to his parents.

“We’ve never known what the norm was,” Brenda said. “I have friends who have children the same age as J.W. To us, J.W. was normal. The only aspect was that he couldn’t hear. He spoke ‘Da, da. Ma, ma.’ like any other kid. We’ve never treated him any different. When he was 15 and eight months, he got his learner’s permit.”

When J.W.’s sophomore year of high school came around, the Coxes moved back to Clarke County, where the entire family went to high school.

Expectedly, J.W. encountered some ignorance from classmates at first. He has a classroom interpreter, so he’s pretty easy to spot in a lecture hall.

“He’s in my advisory class,” Ernst said. “The first day, I saw a translator in there and I didn’t know what was going on. Now, it’s really no big deal.”

“I’m very proud of him,” Brenda said. “He’s overcome a lot of animosity, being in a public school and being the only deaf kid and having an interpreter follow him around to classes. He’s integrated. The kids here at Clarke County have really accepted him and supported him.”

A Boy Like Any Other

After tiptoeing through his first year of public schooling, J.W. decided he’d jump all the way into the high school scene by joining the football and wrestling teams in his junior year.

Last year, Brenda came to every practice and every game to interpret. This year, Kristy Vinson, J.W.’s classroom interpreter, helps out by interpreting three nights a week. That includes Friday nights, so Brenda can sit in the stands and watch.

“It’s nice to be a mother in the stands,” she said.

J.W. didn’t see much playing time last year in football. But the Eagles enjoyed their best season in quite some time. They snapped a 22-game losing streak and finished 4-6.

No matter how limited his role, J.W. can always say he was a part of the revival of Clarke County’s football team.

And the Clarke County football team was a part of the revival of J.W. Cox.

“He became more disciplined than I’ve ever seen him be,” Brenda said. “He’s become more motivated and more wanting to be a part.”

Now, J.W. is as close to your stereotypical high school boy as it comes.

He’s awestruck with cars and trucks. “He blasts his music, too,” Ernst said. “I guess he likes the vibrations or something.”

Next spring, he’ll be the first deaf student to graduate from Clarke County High School.

“I’m proud of that,” he said.

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