|Part 2: Lebanon native was first deaf NFL player|
|Wednesday, February 8, 2012|
By KEN BECK
Lebanon native Bonnie Sloan, 63, who grew up in Nashville and played college football for Austin Peay State University, dreamed as a youth of playing in the National Football League.
It was during his third season in college that he realized the dream could become reality.
"It was my junior year when I found out that NFL scouts were coming to the games to watch me. I was so surprised,” recalled the giant, gentle man, who lives in Hendersonville.Drafted the 242nd overall pick in 1973, he was thrilled to put on a Cardinals jersey with the number 79 that summer, a sure sign that he had overcome a variety of challenges that come from playing such a brutal sport without the sense of hearing. The toughest obstacle, Sloan said, was “not being able to hear the whistle and the coaches and other players on the field. I was always worried about getting a penalty for false starts, but I never did. I kept my eye on the ball and did not move until it moved.”
As a rookie for the Cardinals, Sloan proved he had the ability to hold his own with the best that the NFL had to offer. The big guy ran the 40-yard dash in 5.1 seconds. In a preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the rookie made nine solo tackles, had five assists and three quarterback pressures.
In a short NFL documentary film from 1973 that can be seen on the Internet, Cardinals defensive line Coach Sid Hall said of Sloan, “Bonnie Sloan has one great thing that most great football players have to have. He has a great sense of desire to play and a great sense of pride. He’s one of the hardest working people we have on our football team, and this is what it takes to be a great football player.
“We don’t look at Bonnie as being deaf. We look at Bonnie as strictly a fine football prospect. If he can perform on the field, that’s the only way we can judge him. That’s just exactly what he can do, he can perform.
“And actually I think the challenge was more to us than it was to Bonnie, because we knew he was a pro football player. He’s big, he’s fast, he’s quick he’s tough, he’s dedicated. It was our challenge then to be able to communicate with Bonnie, to communicate with him so he could reach his goal,” the coach said.
Cardinals coaches and players communicated with the deaf athlete by facing him so he could read their lips as well as working out hand signals passed along from APSU coaches.
Nevertheless, while Sloan played the game on the same field as the others, it was within a sphere of silence, something Coach Hall knew could prove formidable.
“As a football player being in a silent world, you could get no outside emotional help like a crowd would do for most players, because I think it’s a very emotional thing to a player to hear the great roar running out to be introduced to football games with 50, a hundred thousand people cheering and not being able to hear it. It would get to a lot of people, being in a silent world like this,” Hall said.
While Sloan’s single goal was to play pro football, a knee injury from a blindside block in his fourth game was to prove a knockout blow to the big lineman from Nashville. For three years he poured out sweat as well as his heart and soul into trying to make it back on the field.
From St. Louis, he signed a contract with the New Orleans Saints where quarterback Archie Manning befriended him and showed him the sights of the Big Easy. But Sloan only got into a single game as a Saint before reinjuring the pesky right knee.
Next he traveled to the Big Apple and joined the New York Giants, where during the first day of practice he banged up the knee and came to the realization that it was time to hang up his cleats, not an easy decision to accept.
“It was very hard,” Sloan said simply. “I loved playing football.”
Abandoning football, he returned home to Nashville and found a job. For 29 years he worked as a shipping/receiving clerk at Odom’s Tennessee Pride Sausage until they closed the Madison plant.
It was also back in Nashville that Sloan found his wife, Joan, who is also deaf. They will celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary on Feb. 19.
“My brother and his ex-wife got us together. We had known of each other since we were younger but did not start dating until my brother set us up,” he said.
Joan and Bonnie were schoolmates at Julie Andrews Elementary and Jere Baxter Middle School but went to different high schools.
“He was good-looking, very handsome, a very good guy; a sweet man and good guy,” Joan said, "and still is," daughter Amy said, continuing the thought.
Joan and Bonnie have another daughter, Jamie, and a 9-month-old granddaughter, Emma.
The Sloans all know sign language to some degree but communicate in other ways. Their daughters are hearing.
“My wife and daughter Amy know the most (sign language). Jamie mostly uses homemade signs. We don’t use it that much. Mostly, we all talk to each other. Our household is surprisingly loud for my wife and I being deaf,” said Sloan, who does talk out loud. "Of course, my family is used to my voice and understands me. Others have a hard time until they know me well."
Since the death of his father last May, Sloan has moved into his mother’s home in Madison as he, his wife, daughters and other relatives care for his ailing mother.
As for those who inspired him most in life, he names his father and mother along with his long-ago P.E. teacher and coach, Hayden Ray.
These days, Sloan’s story continues to inspire others. In 2008, he was named the inaugural winner of the Bonnie Sloan Courage Award by the Middle Tennessee Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.
Each March the organization honors 56 high school and seven college scholar/athletes, and the Bonnie Sloan Award goes to “a professional athlete, coach or staff member who overcomes obstacles and fought back to succeed.” Last year’s honoree was former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who has since died of cancer.
The retired Sloan enjoys time with his family and loves fishing and hunting. He fishes Percy Priest Lake and Old Hickory Lake for lunker bass and has more than a half-dozen mounted on his den wall including an 8-pounder of which he is mighty proud. A couple of years back, he bagged a 10-point buck, weighing 225 pounds, that he shot on friend’s farm. Three times a week he goes to the YMCA and does water aerobics in the Y swimming pool.
But his No. 1 pastime is watching NFL games, thus you can expect to find him camped in front of his TV set on Sundays.
“During football season that’s all I watch,” he said. “As far as NFL, I like Titans and, of course, Cardinals and Saints.”
The former football star continues to reflect on what might have been if not for that cantankerous knee.
When asked if he still thinks about it, he answers, “Yes, all the time. I wish I was able to play a full career in the NFL,” says the deaf man who one day in the fall of 1973 could hear the vibrations of the crowd, a moment he cherishes.