When the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals drafted Tennessean Bonnie Sloan in 1973, he could not speak words to express his joy.
However, the Austin Peay State University and 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 athletic prowess do his talking.
“I was so surprised and shocked,” said Sloan, who was born deaf at Lebanon’s McFarland Hospital and lived his first four years in the Smith County community of Pleasant Shade, reflecting upon his selection in the 10th round of the draft.
Going from college to knock helmets with the finest football players in the world was intimidating, even for the 6-foot-5-inch, 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,” said Sloan, 72, via his daughter, Amy, doing the sign language interpreting.
The quiet man made history Sept. 16, 1973, when he ran on the field in Philadelphia as the first deaf athlete to play on an NFL gridiron. It proved exhilarating for the 25-year-old rookie tackle to be a starter for the Cardinals against the Eagles.
Lamentably, four 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 missed the next seven games, and the Cardinals dropped him from the team during his second season with four games under his helmet.
Remembering that historic day somberly but without bitterness, he said, “Wow, it was amazing. I am deaf, but the crowd was so loud I could feel the vibrations of them.”
As for the clipping incident, Sloan looks back at the play, saying, “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. That was the beginning of the end of my football career.”
During his short stint 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 legendary Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas.
Starting in Lebanon
That Sloan even played football seems a minor miracle.
Weighing in at 7 pounds, 8 ounces, he was born Bonnie Ryan Sloan on June 1, 1948, in Lebanon to parents, Willie and Rosie Sloan. His mother and father grew up in the Smith County community where his dad was a farmer, and Sloan still has cousins who live there.
When he was 4, his family, including his younger brother, Jason, 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,” said Sloan.
“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 star for the Vanderbilt Commodores.
It was at 12 while watching Wade on television that Sloan began dreaming of playing college and professional football. It was also at about the time that the youth, 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 for the Isaac Litton Lions. As for communicating with his coaches and teammates, he says, “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].
At Isaac Litton High School, 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.
Stardom at Austin Peay
Recruited by a number of colleges, including Tennessee and Alabama, he chose Austin Peay State University because several of his childhood and high school friends were going to the school. Plus, Austin Peay 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 of his late coach.
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. He was also the first player at Austin Peay 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 for his junior and senior years when he made all conference. In 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 best 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, as a youth, dreamed of playing in the National Football League.
Pro football dreams
As for turning pro, Sloan recalled it was “my junior year when I found out that NFL scouts were coming to the games to watch me. I was so surprised.”
Drafted the 242nd overall pick in 1973, he was thrilled to put on a Cardinals jersey with the No. 79 that summer, a sure sign he had overcome a variety of challenges that came from playing such a brutal sport without the ability to hear.
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. 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, Cardinals defensive coach Sid Hall said of his rookie tackle, “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.”
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 Austin Peay coaches.
While Sloan’s greatest goal was to play pro football, a knee injury from a blindside block in his fourth game proved to be 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 got into only a single game as a Saints’ player before he reinjured 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 it was time to hang up his cleats, not an easy decision to accept.
“It was very hard. I loved playing football,” said Sloan, who in recent years has had surgery to replace both knees and a hip.
Moving back to Tennessee
Abandoning football, he returned home to Nashville and found a job. For 29 years, he worked as a shipping and receiving clerk at Odom’s Tennessee Pride Sausage until the Madison plant closed.
It was also back in Nashville where Sloan met his wife, Joan, who is also deaf. They will celebrate their 44th 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,” said Sloan.
Joan and Bonnie were schoolmates at Julia Andrews Elementary School 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,” said Joan Sloan.
The couple has two daughters, Amy and Jamie, and a 9-year-old granddaughter, Emma, who plays basketball. The family all knows 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."
As for those who inspired him most in life, he named his father and mother, along with Ray, his long-ago physical education teacher and coach.
Sloan’s story continues to inspire others. In 2008, the Middle Tennessee Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame named him the inaugural winner of the Bonnie Sloan Courage Award. Each March, the organization honors 56 high school and seven college scholar athletes, as the Bonnie Sloan Award goes to “a professional athlete, coach or staff member who overcomes obstacles and fought back to succeed.”
The retired Sloan gave up fishing and hunting several years ago, but once upon a time, was quite a bass fisherman and deer hunter with an 8-pound bass and a 10-point, 225-pound buck to his credit. His main pastime for years is keeping up with his favorite sport.
“I love to watch football on TV, both college and the NFL,” said Sloan, a fan of the Titans. “Of course, I always root for the Cardinals and Saints, too.”
As for the big game coming up Feb. 7, he said, “I think Kansas City will win.”
Sloan describes his lifestyle as “quiet,” as he and his wife are homebodies but he would like to do a bit of traveling to places like Hawaii and Wyoming. What’s No. 1 on his bucket list?
“I would love to go to Canton, Ohio to the [Pro Football] Hall of Fame,” said the former football star who still thinks what might have been had it not been for a bum knee.
“I wish I was able to play a full career in the NFL,” said the deaf man, who one sunny Sunday in fall 1973 could hear the vibrations of the crowd, a moment he continues to cherish.
This is an updated version of a story that appeared in The Wilson Post in 2012.