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November 12, 2005

Winning signals

From: Knoxville News Sentinel - Knoxville,TN,USA - Nov 12, 2005

It's more than football at Tennessee School for the Deaf

November 12, 2005

Driving to the field for the Tennessee School for the Deaf's final football game of the season feels like a Sunday drive to the local park. The foliage and tranquility practically coerce you into relaxation — and if some kids are playing football, then so be it. It would only sweeten the deal.
Nestled into a wooded area near Island Home Airport is TSD. Its football field and stands are pleasing to the eyes. Each has an aged look, yet neither reveals the taints of modernistic updates.

The stands are dark-stained concrete edifices permeating with history but give the feel as if they could crumble after a subtle sneeze. The field, when illuminated, reveals its character. It only has marks for every 10 yards. Individual yard-line marks are nonexistent. Keeping statistics at Chambers Field is only for the trained football eye.

A surreal quietness monopolizes the arena 45 minutes before kickoff against South Carolina School for the Deaf. A smattering of talking by parents and fans and signing by students and players floats about, but it's almost as if the crowd is too respectful of and unwilling to disturb its surroundings. But as the opening play creeps closer, the audio level reaches a comfortable football height.

The same ol', same ol' is visible in the crowds and on the field. Teenage boys and girls still bicker and flirt, but here it's by perceptible signing and facial expressions. (Knowing sign language can allow the enjoyment of anyone's conversation).

The football team gathers in a circular formation, bounces and screams to pump themselves up, just like any other team would. But these battle cries are different. Some players can use their vocal chords better than others, so the yells hardly harmonize. Initially, the players' yelps persuade your attention their way; the sound is so striking. But once you see the sound originators, you observe pure love of football.

Two barrels of Gatorade rest on the sidelines. Concessions are sold. Fanatic TSD supporters are present. (One dorm supervisor even spray-painted his head purple with white horns to resemble the Vikings' helmets). There's no pep band, of course, but there are two drums — a large bass and a small snare — for the student section to bang. Vibrations let the kids know they're doing it right. Those around the percussionists feel the vociferous reverberations, and their faces radiate excitement.

Just before kickoff, the Vikings venture over the fence, which separates field from fandom, and the players interact with family and friends. It's evident what matters most to all of them — people, the people who have always loved them.

Although TSD would go on to defeat the Hornets 64-20 and possibly lay partial claim to a national title, it's clearly evident that football is really only a game to them.

First Quarter

TSD has the ball on the SCSD 12-yard line. Two plays later with 5:25 remaining in the quarter, Marcus McKinney scores the game's first points on a 7-yard run.

McKinney has the legs of an ostrich — and the speed and tenacity to boot.

He's slight in size, at least for a running back, measuring maybe 5-foot-10, 155 pounds on a good day. He's one of coach Dick Henley's standout seniors, and his maturity is no more evident than in his face, which perpetually dons the Fred Flintstonelike five o'clock shadow.

Earlier this season, McKinney topped the single-game rushing record by totaling 415 yards against East North Carolina SD.

"Marcus is everything," Henley would sign after the game. "You just name it."

OK. A hero. An inspiration.

"Marcus is a role-model," said James Vaughn, McKinney's dorm/cottage supervisor of four years. "All the kids like him. ... The smaller kids look up to him. He's a positive role model. He's just a positive kid."

McKinney is a Jackson, Tenn., native, so living in dorms, or cottages as the TSD clan calls them, is necessary. His parents don't get to see him play much, especially since TSD often plays on Thursdays. However, his mother did get to see him become the school's all-time rushing leader earlier this season.

If his family's absences did bother him, you'd never know it. The consensus is that a grin is permanently glued underneath McKinney's nose.

"He's always got a smile on his face," Vaughn said. "I've only seen him mad once, and I'm the one who made him mad."

McKinney is the only one of his immediate family without the ability to hear, yet his loss of a sense has never prevented him from wowing crowds throughout his years at TSD.

"It's like magic," Vaughn said of McKinney's running. "He's a wonderful, wonderful football player."

With 4:41 minutes left in the first quarter, play stops. Talking and signing stops in the crowd, too. Panic abounds. Henley and assistant coach Chatman Sieben are hurrying alongside a referee to the fence near the front of the stands. An interpreter is needed to understand a call on the field. Normalcy is not resumed until one is found. One is, and the call ends benevolently with coaches and referee in smiles.

Henley grew up at TSD.

Since he was 11 years old, he has been there. He became a New York Yankees fan there. He played football there, and under the coaching of former University of Tennessee football player John Hudson, Henley became a national champion there. Henley was a center on the 1967 TSD team, which went 6-4 and won the national championship.

"We were national champions, and that was so exciting," Henley signed through Elaine Alexander, the TSD director of instruction. "That's my goal (now), for us to be national champions."

Henley met his wife at Gallaudet University, a college for the hearing impaired in Washington, D.C. The two were married in California but have lived in Knoxville for almost 40 years. They have three children, one hearing-impaired.

"My oldest daughter, her husband just arrived back from Iraq," he said. "She's very excited. My son is a UT student. And my other daughter graduated from TSD, and right now she's at Gallaudet. We page each other, but today we communicated by videophone and we enjoyed it very much."

Henley's disposition is perfect for the job; he comes off as a care-giver. He's often open to the youngest player's input.

Watching Henley convey feelings in his signs can lure even the most inattentive child's eyes. His face is receptive, and his hair and beard-scruff are gray. Excitement pervades his being; he's had all he needed for a successful football season.

Standout running backs. Check.

Senior leadership. Yep.

Lucky shirt. Got that, too.

The shirt was given to him early in the season, and Henley used it for good luck.

To the eyes, the shirt is nothing out of the ordinary. It's purple with white embroidery — the two colors of the TSD Vikings — but it's soaking wet with magic.

"This year's been unique," Henley signed. "A student's father gave me a purple shirt with the tag still on it. I decided to keep the tag on the shirt (for good luck), and I didn't wash the shirt, either.

"We won two games with it, then a third, fourth and fifth. My shirt became very smelly, but I continued to wear it until last week when we lost. I finally washed it; it didn't bring us good luck last week."

Under Henley and Sieben, the team's only coaches, the Vikings stormed out to a 7-0 record, until a 42-22 defeat to North Carolina School for the Deaf on Oct. 26 halted their momentum.

A national title still is possible. The Vikings need a Louisiana SD loss to hopefully garner the vote of Barry Strassler, the sports editor of the Deafsportzine. Strassler is the BCS, of sorts, in deaf high school football.

"In my 15 years of coaching and Dick's 20 years, we've almost won the national championships in 1994 and in 2000," Sieben said. "This year, we'll see what happens."

On fourth-and-7, Anthony Bender scampers 37 yards for a touchdown. The two-point pass is good and TSD leads 16-0.

Second quarter

McKinney scores on runs of 42 and 51 yards in a matter of 18 seconds, and TSD's lead is 30-0.

Followers of the program begin whispering about not counting their chickens too soon. After all, SCSD nearly mounted a colossal comeback against TSD only five weeks ago. The Vikings squeaked out a 50-48 victory after the Hornets scored three touchdowns faster than a hummingbird wing flap.

Five minutes removed from McKinney's last score, SCSD has scored twice and the lead is down to 30-12.

The 8-on-8 football game is comparable to watching an Arena Football League game, not so much in the aesthetics but more so in the high scoring.

"You mean the basketball scores?" Henley replied to a question about the 8-on-8 game. "Our offense averages 55 points per game. Last week, we lost due to our two best runners (McKinney and Justin Everhart) being injured."

Henley said that in 8-man football, the fullbacks and the tackles are eliminated and that five men are on the line instead of seven. TSD seems to place a wide receiver out, drawing a defender out near the sidelines, and the quarterback hands off to either McKinney or Everhart. If either gets past the line, all he has to do is shake one, possibly two defenders, and a touchdown is imminent.

McKinney scores the final touchdown of the half on a 19yard run. TSD leads 38-12.

Third Quarter

Quarterback Jeremy Wilson hits Bender for a 10-yard touchdown. The two-point pass failed, and TSD leads 44-12.

"They're all like brothers," Wilson's mother said. "They've been together for so long."

Eighth-graders can play football at TSD. That's what McKinney did. Playing football for five years helped him form brotherly bonds with teammates and coaches. That's likely what 5-3, 100-pound running back Dakota Thompson will do.

Seeing a kid grow from a 100pound eighth-grader to a young adult is a life element Sieben cherishes.

"The seniors, who have been here for five years, I remember when they were small," Sieben said. "Now, they're all grown up. It's a wonderful experience (to see)."

With only 20-25 players on the team, the coaches get to know the kids quite well. They love to recollect stories of road trips — especially the one where the kids ate butter from a buffet bar because they thought it was mashed potatoes. They love to remember how bug-eyed their players get every year they participate in the preseason jamboree at Neyland Stadium.

Those memories pile up and keep the coaches coming back, because every year new eighthgraders come in. Every year, new stories unfold.

With 8:15 remaining in the quarter, Everhart, a 1,000-yard rusher, finally gets his first carry of the game.

Everhart is the team captain and a senior and carries the prototypical mold of a linebacker. His legs are like tree trunks. His arms, the same. Long, thick brown hair is his trademark feature.

He is a football player.

He's the one who gives the proverbial halftime speech, and the players yell in response to his emphatic signing. They adhere to what he says. He's one of Henley's senior leaders, playing through multiple injuries to gain the team's respect.

"Justin Everhart is the best because of his attitude," Henley said. "He always listens to me. I will really miss him next year, and I hope our boys will follow in his footsteps in the future."

Fourth Quarter

Before the quarter is a minute old, Everhart rushes for 37- and 35-yard touchdowns. TSD leads 58-12.

Noticing TSD's insurmountable lead, a fan remarks: "Chatman's still coaching."

Sieben, like Henley, is laid-back off the field. But on it, he's a fiery competitor, never stopping until the game is over. He even uses his voice while coaching, and his control over his speech is quite astounding; nearly every word Sieben speaks while he signs is easily audible and understood.

Sieben grew up and played football at Illinois School for the Deaf, where his coach, James Bond, proved to be a significant influence on his life.

"We called him 006 1/2," Sieben joked of his coach's name. "But, he was very interested in seeing us grow up and become men."

Sieben would meet his wife, a TSD graduate, at Gallaudet. He teases that she dragged him down to Tennessee with her after they married.

They've been at TSD since. He is the assistant coach/offensive coordinator, and she is a night supervisor at the cottage. And they love their Vikings — the TSD ones, not the Minnesota Vikings, which caught heat early this season over a sex scandal.

"I have a Vikings sweatshirt," signed Sieben. "It doesn't say Minnesota, but it has the Vikings logo. I went to restaurant, and a woman said, 'Boo!' I said, 'It's not Minnesota! It's TSD!' The whole restaurant laughed at her. She was so embarrassed."

With 9:18 remaining, McKinney takes his last handoff of his career and races 42 yards for a touchdown. The kick was blocked. TSD leads 64-12.

McKinney finished the game with 206 yards rushing, placing him over 2,000 yards on the season and over 5,000 yards in his career. Both are school records.

"Marcus is very important to our team," Sieben said. "I love to coach Marcus. I love to coach the team, and, of course, there have been some frustrating times; but, that is normal."

The game's last score comes on a SCSD 29-yard run. The Hornets convert the two-point run, and the final score is 64-20.


The team huddles near midfield for Henley's speech.

The coach opens his coat, a la Clark Kent, to reveal his lucky, purple shirt. It's clear that the shirt had been washed to get rid of the loss it caused, but Henley finally removed the lucky tag. The season is over, and players loudly emanate their emotions.

Henley and Sieben begin thanking the seniors through sentimental signing and clapping. Hugs become the going gifts of the moment.

Fans and parents begin leaving. Silence once again drifts back into the area, returning the stands and field back to their original stately status, not to be used again until next fall.

The Vikings' quest for a national championship is still up in the air. Two days after TSD's victory, Louisiana School for the Deaf won its final game 86-64. But Henley said it will be tough to decide the outright champion since LSD finished 6-0 and TSD was 8-1. TSD's loss came without the services of McKinney and Everhart in the second half. A co-championship may be the answer, Henley wrote in his e-mail to Strassler.

Title or no title, Henley knows his players are already champions. They have become young men, and the adversities they have overcome reach farther and deeper than a title can measure.

They're not children with a distinct disability to Henley. They're people, young men, friends, football players — and Vikings.

Jesse Smithey may be reached at 865-342-6290.

Copyright 2005, KnoxNews. All Rights Reserved.