Part of a Series
In this sixth edition of our ongoing series, we visited high school football games in each part of Knoxville to record what we saw, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city.
The stands are full for the Tennessee School for the Deaf Vikings' last football game of the season, but you'd never know it by listening. In fact, you've probably never heard as quiet a crowd as this one at any football game—and it's not because the Vikings are losing. They're already up 52 to 6 in the second quarter.
No, the majority of people in the stands for the Vikings' game are like the kids on the football team: They're deaf. And because they're deaf, they're cheering on their team—or cheerfully ignoring the game—with their hands, using sign language.
You don't need to know sign language to get the gist of the trash-talking some of the players are doing on the sidelines. But it helps that as the small group of cheerleaders moves their hands in sync, cheer coach Ginger Henderson shouts out the words for the few hearing parents in attendance.
"Be! Aggressive! Be, be, aggressive!" Henderson shouts, as her squad signs the words. The hands move mostly in sync, up and down, right and left. One cheerleader mouths the words quietly.
There are five girls cheering—two left at halftime to go home, because it's cold—but Henderson says it's the biggest squad they've had in years. So big, in fact, there weren't enough cute uniforms for everyone, which is why all the girls are wearing purple Vikings T-shirts and jeans instead of short flippy skirts with matching sweaters.
As you might have guessed, this isn't exactly your conventional cheer squad. There are no competitive tryouts, there are no pyramids, there are no back flips. But there is still school pride and team spirit on the squad, which consists of Angela Ferrell, Tasha Ferrell, Moesha Gribble, Ashley Hindsley, Amanda Ibezim, Michelle Mancer, and Tiffany Paul.
Take Moesha, a 15-year-old sophomore at TSD. Moesha's not shy when she's cheering, but off the field, she seems nervous about talking to a reporter, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the translation help provided by Henderson and her assistant cheer coach Sarah Presby. (In fact, all the cheerleaders are incredibly shy when they aren't cheering, a rarity indeed.) Eventually Moesha is persuaded to talk. Unlike most of her friends, she can speak a little—she is the cheerleader who actually gets vocal when she cheers.
"I really like to be in cheerleading for my first year," Moesha signs. She explains that it can be hard to get the crowd's attention—like most high school football games, there is a purely social aspect to much of the crowd, and, according to Henderson, the games are often the week's biggest social event for the Knoxville deaf community. So for next year, Moesha is working on making up her own cheers. To demonstrate, she puts both her hands on one hip and flicks them down into the air, repeating the gesture again and again.
"You brushing the dirt off?" a reporter asks. Moesha nods yes, proving that some signs transcend language barriers.
Tiffany, another sophomore, looks up at the scoreboard—now 66 to 12—and beams with excitement for her team.
"They are so excited they are the champs," she signs.
By "champs," Tiffany means that the Vikings are winning this game over McClain Christian Academy. (Final score: 72-12.) This is the last game of the season for TSD, despite going 7 and 1—a rare winning season, according to Henderson. But as an eight-man football team that plays mostly other state deaf schools, there are no playoffs.
"They could be voted the Deaf National Champions by the sportswriters of the deaf newspapers," Henderson says, adding that such a feat is unlikely to happen.
The game ends, and the players take off their purple helmets with the Viking horns painted on the sides and sneak up on Coach Dick Henley with an orange cooler full of Gatorade. Despite the chilly temperatures, Henley gets doused. The shouts of celebrations from the team aren't solely confined to sign language, but they are still quiet. The body language, however, says it all. Players jump up and down and chest bump each other and run over to their proud parents on the sidelines.
The cheer squad has already dispersed, one or two to find their parents, but most quickly head back to the dorms. The season is over. It's dark and cold. Fall seems on the verge of turning into winter.
For now, it's a few weeks off, then the girls will start getting ready to cheer for basketball games. The new uniforms should be in by then.