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May 18, 2004

A man named Bonnie

From: Nashville City Paper, TN - May 18, 2004

By Dominic Bonvissuto,
May 18, 2004

No one ever told Bonnie Sloan he couldn't make it in the NFL. Good thing, because he wouldn't have heard 'em anyway.

In 1973, the 6-5, 260-pound Nashville native made NFL history when he lined up at defensive tackle for the St. Louis Cardinals in their opening game at Philadelphia. Sloan, who played locally at both Isaac Litton High in East Nashville and Austin Peay, was the first deaf player to make it in professional football.

"I dream about those days everyday," Sloan said through his interpreter and eldest daughter Amy.

Those days didn't last long for Sloan. He injured his knee in that game against the Eagles and would only play in three more games that season. His career continued in St. Louis in '74 and New Orleans in '75, but the knee injury kept Sloan off the field both seasons, forcing him to leave the game entirely in 1976.

Despite the short career, Sloan's impact on the game was great. He blazed the trail for Bill Donckers and Kenny Walker, the only other two deaf players to make it in the NFL. When Walker came up with Denver in the early 1990s, the Broncos hired a full-time interpreter to help him adjust to the NFL. Sloan, who communicates through lip-reading and sign language, had no such luxury during his time in the game.

"In the huddles, the captain would stand and face me and I would read his lips to find out the play," Sloan said.

Despite his hardship, Sloan was able to accomplish a lot throughout high school, college and the pros, including never being flagged for offsides ("I just watched the ball. Jevon Kearse could've learned from me.") or hitting after the whistle ("When people's bodies stopped moving, so did I.")

Sloan moved back to Middle Tennessee in 1976 and began working as a shipping/receiving clerk at Odom's Tennessee Pride, where he's been ever since. Sloan, 55, now makes his home in Hendersonville with wife Joan (also deaf) and daughters Amy, 25, and Jamie, 21, who can both hear perfectly.

Sloan remains an avid fan of football and says he's attended a handful of Titans games over the years.

"He screams at the referees on the TV every Sunday," Amy reports with a roll of the eyes. "I don't think dad understands that they can't hear him."

Can you hear me now?

Nashville native Bonnie Sloan, the NFL's first deaf player, has a very vivid memory of his brief time in the NFL. Some of his favorite stories include:

• His first game against the Eagles in front of a crowd of 61,103: "I'd never been able to hear a crowd before, but I felt that one even before we stepped on the field."

• The players he played against, including Johnny Unitas, Dick Butkus, Larry Csonka and Joe Namath, the latter of which he sacked during a preseason game.

• A Nov. 11, 1973 game at Green Bay's Lambeau Field: "Coldest I've ever been."

• Archie Manning showing him around New Orleans when Sloan joined the Saints in 1975: "One of the nicest men I've met."

— Dominic Bonvissuto

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