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October 28, 2008

Faith of a family paves Kevin Hall's pathway to PGA Tour Q-School

From: - Oct 28, 2008

(Part 2 of a multi-part series)
The Hall family – Percy, Jackie and their son Kevin – live in a modest split-level home at the end of a cul-de-sac on the north edge of Cincinnati. Their tidy neighborhood is pure Joe the Plumber working class.

The Halls' living room is adorned with family photos and framed Biblical passages. The downstairs family room is given over to Kevin’s golf trophies and the one household indulgence – a 42-inch high definition TV that’s usually tuned to a ball game.

Percy and Jackie would like nothing better than to one day see Kevin's image on that screen during a PGA Tour telecast. Kevin will try to ascend the next rung of pro golf's ladder Oct. 29, when he begins his fourth attempt to reach the finals of Q-School.

He already has scaled heights that were unfathomable 24 years ago, when Kevin became deaf. Unfathomable, that is, to everyone except his parents.

On an overcast day last spring, Percy Hall took a break from watching Round 1 of the Masters and played a DVD he wanted a guest to watch. It was CBS Sports’ coverage of the Arete Honors for Courage in Sports. Kevin was among the featured athletes “who made a choice to ignore great obstacles in order to excel in sports and in life.”

The show recounts that fateful day day early in 1985 when Jackie Hall noticed an unusual listlessness in 2-year-old Kevin. She took his temperature. It was pushing104, prompting her to rush him to the emergency room at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

Kevin had H-flu meningitis. Doctors warned Jackie and Percy that if their son survived, he might be in a vegetative state. But the toddler defied the odds and pulled through, seemingly unscathed.

It wasn’t long, however, before Kevin’s behavior hinted something was amiss. A spontaneous experiment confirmed Percy’s suspicions. He took one of the balloons that decorated Kevin’s hospital room and when his son’s back was turned, Percy popped it. Kevin was unresponsive to the sound.

At the time of Kevin's illness, Percy Hall was well into what would become a 35-year stint as a meat cutter at Hillshire Farms, a Cincinnati food distributor. His wife was an office worker for Ryder Transportation Systems, a trucking logistics company.

The prospect of raising a child with profound hearing loss was daunting, but the Halls aren’t ones to wallow in misfortune. As Christians, they accepted their son’s fate, thankful he was alive. More important, together they resolved to treat Kevin not as a child with a disability, but as a child like any other.

"We knew nothing about deaf culture," Jackie Hall says. So they set about learning all they could about hearing loss. More important, they refused to accept the prognosis that Kevin likely wouldn’t learn to read beyond a 6th grade level. They spurned special treatment, insisting that their son grapple with his disability on a level playing field.

"Kevin made a decision at an early age, too," Jackie says. "He could do one of two things: sit in a corner and feel sorry for himself, or live a normal life. If we had sheltered him or not exposed him to things, he would have been more bashful and not as comfortable in the hearing world."

At age 5, Kevin was enrolled at the St. Rita School for the Deaf.

St. Rita is Catholicism’s Saint of the Impossible. The campus occupies a hilltop on the west side of Interstate 75, about 14 miles north of downtown Cincinnati. The main classroom building, circa 1924, is imposing. Its architecture and aura are familiar to anyone who attended an urban Catholic school, absent the chatter of students.

Bright and gregarious, Kevin Hall stood out.

“He’s done amazing things,” says Dr. Gregory Ernst, St. Rita’s executive director. “The hearing loss has not prevented him from accepting a challenge and being successful at it.

“Then you add the outgoing personality,” Ernst says. “He has an excellent attitude. And he kind of took a path that was a little bit different than the rest.”

Kevin’s athleticism first became apparent in baseball and bowling (the latter was Percy’s specialty). When Kevin was 7, a friend from the Halls’ bowling league, Donald “Sonny” Barnes, introduced him to golf.

Kevin immediately demonstrated an uncanny ability to mimic Barnes’ swing. In short order, he was winning local junior tournaments. When Kevin was 13, his parents successfully petitioned the Cincinnati School Board to allow him to compete on the golf team at Winton Woods High School, his home district in the public school system. As a senior, Hall drew the attention of college recruiters by winning the Cincinnati Junior Open, qualifying for the U.S. Junior Championship, and winning Ohio high school sectional and district tournaments.

If a St. Rita grad goes on to college, he or she typically enrolls at Gallaudet University, a school for the hearing impaired in Washington, D.C. But Gallaudet has no golf program, and Hall was determined to play college golf. Ohio State won out among several suitors.

“Instead of going to Gallaudet, his golf takes him to Ohio State. That was unbelievable to us,” Ernst says.

The initial adjustment from St. Rita, with 170 students, to OSU, with more than 50,000, was difficult. But with help from interpreters and tutors, Hall blossomed. Ernst also credits Kevin's "thumbs-up" parents, who recognized the "need to let him experience successes and failures, and be there to support him."

Kevin majored in journalism, envisioning a career as a sports reporter. Ernst says the journalism track gave Hall an insider’s perspective on dealing with the attention he attracts as “the deaf black guy."

“He’s one of the few black golfers; he’s THE deaf golfer,” Ernst says. “So you have two stress factors there.”

Everywhere he goes, Hall must deal with deferential treatment.

“He uses humor to help him get through some of those situations,” Ernst says. “I think he’s handling the stress. You may see it pop up when he’s not playing well, but that’s part of the game of life, too."

Journalism became Career Plan B after Hall won the Big 10 championship by 11 shots, posting scores of 66-65-68 – 14 under par – at the University of Michigan Golf Course.

“Winning the Big 10 really motivated me,” Hall says. “I started practicing more. I showed up at tournaments confident I was going to do well, and I started believing in my ability to win.”

Hall turned professional in September 2004, during his final semester of college. (He graduated with honors.) He entered Q-School that fall, but didn’t make it beyond Second Stage.

Hall's college days may have been over, but his education as a golfer was only just beginning.

(Next: School of hard knocks)

© 2008