|Lebanon native was NFL’s pioneer deaf player|
|Tuesday, January 31, 2012|
Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series.When Lebanon-born Bonnie Sloanwas drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973, he barely could speak words to express his joy.
However, the Austin Peay State University All-Ohio Valley Conference defensive tackle, who became the first deaf player in the National Football League, had volumes to say once he stepped on the gridiron and let his actions do his talking.
“I was so surprised and shocked,” said the Hendersonville resident today when recalling his being drafted in the tenth round by the Cardinals.
Going from the collegiate arena to play with the greatest football players in the world was intimidating, even for the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Sloan.“The NFL players were big, bigger than any I have ever played with. I was used to being the biggest guy. These guys were bigger, stronger, meaner,” Sloan, 63, said over the course of two interviews, one via email and the other in person with his daughter, Amy Sloan, interpreting.
The tackle made history on Sept. 16, 1973, when he ran on the field in Philadelphia as the first deaf man to play the game that has become the most popular professional sport in the land. At the age of 25, it was exhilarating for the rookie tackle to be a starter for the Cardinals in the battle versus the Eagles.
But 4 minutes into the fourth quarter, Sloan, who possessed all the physical and mental tools necessary to forge a glorious career, was clipped during a kickoff and injured a knee. He was to miss the next seven games and let go by the Cardinals during his second season with but four games beneath his helmet.
He recollected that historic and fateful day somberly but without bitterness, saying, “Wow, it was amazing. I am deaf, but the crowd was sooo loud I could feel the vibrations of them.”
As for that bad knee, which continues to give him pain, Sloan remembered, “A player came up behind me and clipped me in the knee. The doctor told me my knee was weak. The ligaments were weak and stretched.”
During his brief tenure in the NFL, Sloan tested his talents against some of the pro gridiron’s greatest stars. During the 1973 preseason he competed on the same field with Joe Namath, Dick Butkus, Larry Csonka and Ahmad Rashad, and he twice sacked Johnny Unitas, legendary quarterback of the Baltimore Colts.
These days, the former pro is a huge fan of the game as he watches NFL action every weekend. Of the recent playoffs he said that he favored the Green Bay Packers to take it all and was shocked they were beat by the N.Y. Giants. Now he is pulling for the Giants to win this Sunday's Super Bowl but suspects the New England Patriots will take the championship.
That Sloan even played football seems a minor miracle.
He was born Bonnie Ryan Sloan on June 1, 1948, in Lebanon’s McFarland Hospital, to parents Willie and Rosie Sloan. Weighing 7 pounds and 8 ounces, he most likely was delivered by Dr. Charles Thomas Lowe.
At the time, Sloan’s father was a farmer in the Smith County community of Pleasant Shade. The family still has lots of relatives in the Carthage area.
When Bonnie was 4, his family, including his younger brother Jason, who was also born deaf, moved to the Inglewood area of Nashville, and his father became a truck driver.
“My mother took us to the (Vanderbilt) Bill Wilkerson Center. That’s how I learned to read lips. I did not learn sign language until after college and that was mostly self taught or learned from friends,” Sloan said.
“I went to public school the majority of my life, some in special education classes. I tried the Tennessee School for the Deaf in Knoxville for three months but was too homesick, so my parents brought me back home.”
Sloan lived a fairly typical suburban boyhood in the 1950s and ’60s. He played all sorts of sandlot sports with his friends, and, like many boys in Nashville of that era, pulled on Sunday afternoons for Chicago Bears quarterback Bill Wade, who led that team to an NFL championship in 1963. (Wade, a native Nashvillian, was a Southeastern Conference collegiate star for the Vanderbilt Commodores.)
It was at age 12 while watching Wade on TV that Sloan began dreaming of playing college and professional football. It was also at about that age that the boy, who was big for his age, found a mentor in Hayden Ray, the physical education teacher at Jere Baxter Middle School.
“He was very important in my football career,” Sloan said. “He put in a lot of work with me to learn the rules of football and worked a lot with the coaches at Litton who were reluctant at first to give me a chance. He was a very good man and helped me so much in my career.”
Sloan proved to be so adept at the game that he started as an eighth grader and played both ways, on offense and defense for the Isaac Litton Lions. As for communicating with his coaches and teammates, he said, “We had hand signals for different plays. The coaches and players learned to face me when talking to me or calling out plays (so that he could read their lips)."
Long-time Lebanon resident Randy Boyce, 63, a Wilson County deputy, grew up in East Nashville and played on the Litton High School football team for four years as the second-team offensive end backing up Sloan. He met Sloan in a two-on-two pickup football game in 1964.
“I remember how big he was but never realized he was deaf,” Boyce said of the original encounter. “He knew exactly what was going on on the football field. The most amazing thing I remember is that he played offensive end and defensive tackle all through high school, and at no time was he ever called for being off sides. I asked him how could that happen, and he said, ‘I always watch the ball out of the corner of my eye.’
“As freshmen we got our hair cut off as part of the initiation of being on the football team. The seniors came into cut Bonnie’s hair. They were playing a joke on him. They didn’t even have the clippers turned on, but they were going to see what he was going to do, and I never saw so many players flying as he brushed them aside. They didn’t cut his hair,” Boyce laughed.
“As sophomores, I remember we went to Linden, Tenn., to a football camp with Two Rivers and Hillwood High Schools. Hillwood had an outstanding team. Nine of their players were going to sign scholarships. We stayed in these cabins which had bunks for us to sleep in. One of the bunks had a bent leg, and the guys tried to straighten it, and Bonnie went over there and straightened it up with his strength. I told the other teams’ players, ‘and he's just a freshman.’”
Boyce also recollected that The Nashville Banner sent a photographer to the camp to take photographs of Sloan and two other star players. The man with the camera wanted to snap a shot of the trio leaping into the river, but Sloan shook his head no. “They asked him why and he said, ‘Snakes!’” Boyce said.
“Bonnie drove a black ’57 Chevy with a great sound system, and he could keep up with the beat. He always had the best-looking girlfriends. I was jealous. Bonnie has a great personality. I never seen him mad. He didn’t hang around with the wrong people. He didn’t have a big head. He was just one of us.
“I just think the world of Bonnie. Everybody looked up to him, respected him and admired him. He was a great guy,” reflected the former high school teammate.
At Litton, Sloan made Nashville’s All-City team and was named to the second All-State football team. Because he started in the eighth grade and used up his four years of eligibility, he was not allowed to participate his senior year.
Recruited by a number of colleges including the University of Tennessee and Alabama, he chose Austin Peay State University because several of his childhood and high school friends were going to the school.
APSU’s head coach Bill Dupes related with Sloan's loss of hearing from personal experience.
“Coach Dupes had a hard-of-hearing son, and I thought he would be more patient with me and know how to communicate better with me,” Sloan said.
Dupes, who died in January 2011, holds the longest coaching tenure in APSU football (1962 to 1973) and was also an assistant coach at Tennessee Tech from 1956 to 1962. A member of four halls of fame (Tennessee Tech, APSU, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame), he said that a highlight of his career was coaching Sloan.
In an interview with APSU Alumni Magazine writer Charles Booth two years ago, Dupes recalled how he found out about the Nashville prep star via a phone call from a coaching friend at Isaac Litton High.
“When he told me he (Sloan) was deaf, I thought, ‘Well, how would we coach him?’ I was just about ready to say no, and my friend said, 'Don’t be as foolish as I was.
The first year I wouldn’t let him play. He’s a terrific athlete. Just come and watch him play.'”
Dupes drove down to Nashville to observe the behemoth in a Friday night game and was awestruck.
“At the end of the first quarter, I said I needed to put him in the car and take him back to Clarksville because he could play for us tomorrow,” reflected the college coach, who offered Sloan a full scholarship.
For Sloan the transition from high school to college was “OK,” he said. “I had to get used to just playing defense, not both ways. It was more serious than high school and the players were bigger.”
As a freshman in 1969, Sloan made the second team all-conference squad. A strong man, he was also the first player at APSU to bench press 500 pounds.
During his sophomore year, the tackle injured his knee and missed most of the season but was back with a vengeance his junior and senior years when he made all conference. His final season as a Governor, he led the squad with 89 solo tackles and 35 assists and was made an honorable mention All-American. His career totals stacked up to 204 solo tackles and 119 assists.
Skill and desire were the factors that carried the athlete to be one of the finest linemen in the nation.
“I had a lot of tackles and was good at pass rush. Yes, I loved playing football and wanted to play the best I could all the time and wanted to be the best,” said Sloan, who was headed for the pros.
by Ken Beck