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October 5, 2003

Not Your Average Players: Deafness Can’t Shut Him Out

From: Southern Pines Pilot, NC - Oct 5, 2003

BY HUNTER CHASE: Sports Editor

Bodie Strong breaks down into a three-point stance, gets his knees low to the ground and waits for the center to snap the ball.

From his defensive tackle position, he springs off the line, knifes between two offensive linemen and crashes into a ball carrier. Then he jumps up and heads back to the line of scrimmage.

A whistle blows, and Strong and his teammates form a circle around New Century Middle School head football coach Aaron Dye. Joining them on the practice field is Donna Brown. She positions herself slightly behind the coach and begins to move her hands as Dye speaks.

While the rest of his teammates listen to Dye’s instructions, seventh-grader Strong does his listening with the help of Brown.

Strong is deaf. Brown supplies his hearing with the use of sign language, while Strong provides the ability to play.

“He just wants to hit someone,” Dye says of Strong. “He really enjoys the camaraderie of the team. They (teammates) don’t treat him any differently. He wants to fit in. It’s a credit to the students. They understand he uses sign language, and to them it’s no big deal, which is the way it should be.”

Brown is unobtrusive, hanging on the sideline during the action, but taking the field when it is time for the coaches to communicate with the players. She admits that she didn’t know a thing about football when the season started, but that she has grown to appreciate the game.

“I love football now,” she says. “Now I know there is an offense and a defense. Before I just thought they went out and played. The main thing is that Bodie gets to play. He gets no different treatment. The coaches treat him just like the other kids.”

Hard Worker

Strong, born prematurely, has been deaf since birth. He learned to read lips at an early age, and he wears hearing aids, but not while on the football field.

During a break in practice, Strong talks about playing the game, and the main obstacle he has to overcome.

“The hardest part of playing is listening to the coach when he tells me to do something,” Strong signs while Brown interprets. “Demonstrating what they (coaches) want me to do helps.”

They don’t have to demonstrate how to be physical, and they don’t have to demonstrate but once, according to his mother, Belinda Strong of Carthage.

“I am amazed by him,” she says. “Sometimes I wonder how it feels not being able to hear, but he surprises me. He has always been very visual. He sees something one time and he has it.”

Coach Dye agrees.

“He’s got the skill and the talent to play and do it well,” Dye says. “You show him once and he does it.”

His teammates know how well he does on the field. Having been on the receiving end of some of his aggressive tackling, they admire his ability.

“He’s good,” says Chris Holt, an eighth-grade teammate on the New Centurions. “He watches the ball and goes.”

Derrick Ross, another teammate, says, “He hits you hard.”

Dye laughs about the comments and tells a story about what Strong did during practice one day.

Coach Jim Cole, the offensive coordinator for the team, was playing quarterback at practice and got to experience Strong’s tackling ability firsthand. Dye explains how they tell the players that if a coach is playing then they are fair game. Strong took the coaches at their word, going after Cole and bringing him down with a good, firm tackle.

“He (Strong) brings his tool belt to work every day, that’s for sure,” Dye says.

‘A Real Teenager’

Strong benefits from a program of inclusion offered by the Moore County school system. Basically, the program ensures that students with disabilities are included in the classroom with accommodations. In Strong’s case, the schools provide an interpreter in the classroom, a speech therapist and a teacher of the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

That teacher is Robin Homesley. She meets with Strong once a week.

“He’s a joy,” she says. “A real teenager. I enjoy my time with Bodie. He has a great sense of humor. He is not shy and is willing to take a risk. He will disagree with me — I like that. He has good self-esteem. He is a very bright young man.”

The program includes about 25 students throughout the school system. Strong is one of the few who are also participating in sports.

“He’s very tough,” his mother says. “I taught him to be. I figured he had to be. This is his first year playing after-school sports. I was worried about letting him do it at first. I wasn’t familiar with the program, I had to learn about it. I was glad when I found out they supply an interpreter.”

Her son was happy when he found out that the Cameron school supplied an organized football program. He and his mother got together with Brown before school started, and Bodie indicated at the time that he wanted to play.

“I know I’m tough,” he says. “I went and talked to the coach about playing and he said, ‘Come on.’”

Dye, who teaches math and science at the school, says there wasn’t much hesitation when it came to letting Strong try out for the team.

“With his size, I knew he could play,” he says, “but it was a new challenge for everyone. We really wanted him to succeed. You could tell he was driven, a leader, someone who was always working hard. I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’ I was very optimistic.”

No Different

Brown, who is one of eight educational interpreters employed by the county school system, follows Strong not only to the football field, but also into classes. As on the football field, Strong’s classmates soon forget about his disability, Brown says.

“He’s an all-around better kid,” his mother says. “He enjoys football, and if he wants to play he has to keep his grades up. He’s changed a lot at home, and his grades are a lot better. Football has really been good for him. It’s changed his attitude a whole lot. It’s been something constructive.”

Homesley, who started working with Bodie last year in sixth grade, has also noticed the positive impact of playing football on Bodie.

“It’s a difference of night and day from last year to this year,” she says.

Part of the reason is that all New Century athletes, not just Strong, have to do well in the classroom if they want to play sports. Teachers supply reports on how the players are doing in the classroom, and if the school work is not up to snuff or if they are misbehaving then they are not allowed to practice. And if they don’t practice, they don’t play. Dye has a closeup view of many of his players because they are students in his classroom. Strong is one of them.

“We strive to do well in the classroom,” Dye says. “In the classroom, he motivates those around him. When it comes to schoolwork, he asks a lot of questions. He wants to know the answers. He can be mischievous, he can be stubborn, he can get testy. But he’s quick to come back. He is very respectful, he never crosses that line.”

Sounds like just about any other seventh-grader, doesn’t it?

“I’ve been mainstream all my life,” Strong says. “I’m no different than anyone else.”

© 2003 The Pilot LLC