Angie Shafer laughs about the time that Kevi Hardin was flagged for a false start during a Rock Hill junior varsity football game earlier this season.
There is no way that Hardin could have been offside, she said; he watches the ball, only moving when it’s been snapped to the quarterback.
He does this because he is a deaf football player and can’t hear the quarterback’s cadence.
Hardin was born deaf, the only one in his family unable to hear. He traverses his school day at Rock Hill High with the help of Shafer, his sign language interpreter. That includes football practice; it’s difficult being a deaf 16-year-old trying to play football at a high level.
“It’s hard; they want me to go farther, improve,” said Hardin, signing the words to Shafer, who then translated for a reporter.
Shafer is critical to Hardin’s life, but especially his high school football career. Every time Rock Hill coach Bubba Pittman calls out a play, the Bearcat players look down at their wristbands, find the play number, then execute. But Hardin looks to Shafer, who signals from the sideline. There was a learning curve for Shafer, who now has a solid grasp of the Rock Hill playbook.
“She’s like our team mom and she jumps in there,” Pittman said. “She sits in all our position meetings with us, so she probably knows more about football right now than she ever thought she would, or wanted to know.”
Difficulties do arise. If Hardin is lined up on the far sideline, it’s difficult for him to see Shafer’s signals. Or, if Shafer signals Hardin the wrong play call, which has happened, he runs the wrong route or misses a block.
“Or,” she says, “somebody walks up to me and starts talking and I’ve got A.D.D. and I’m listening to them, and he’s going, ‘what’s the number, what’s the number?’”
Pittman, who has a special education degree, did student teaching at the South Carolina School For The Deaf and Blind when he played football at Presbyterian College in the late 1990s.
“I do know a few signs but Ms. Shafer, she’s wonderful. She helps us out a bunch with Hardin,” said Pittman. “Kevi’s a great athlete, he’s a competitor and we just try not to let the communication be a problem.”
Skinny but quick, Hardin is no charity case on the football field. He nearly scored a touchdown against Chester, but after nine yards was brought down just shy of the goal line. He plays receiver and wears No. 14, but doesn’t really interact with his teammates, outside of gestures. He plays on the scout team that prepares the varsity first-stringers for that week’s opponent during practice. Assistant coach Al Hooker shows him the play on a clipboard, and he jogs out to the sideline to run the routes that Rock Hill’s opponent will run that Friday night.
Someone to lean on
Hardin didn’t always go to local public schools. For two and a half years he attended the state’s School for the Deaf and Blind, but left because of home-sickness midway through third grade. The school’s students were picked up on Sunday nights and bussed to Spartanburg, where they stayed until Friday night before returning home for the weekend.
After leaving SCSDB, Hardin was overjoyed to spend every day with his mother, Chaquita Moise, grandmother Debra Moise, and siblings Missy and B.J. Hardin communicates with his family through finger-spelling and texting, and he’s also a capable lip-reader.
“It was very tough at first,” said Chaquita Moise. “But as time went by we accepted the fact, and we tried to do what was right and tried to move along to help get him where he needs to be.”
One of eight sign language interpreters in District Three, Shafer is key to that process. She learned sign language in classes with her mother in Ohio, and later became certified at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. After 12 years as a purchasing agent, Shafer began to interpret in schools, starting with Rock Hill’s District Three in 2000. When Hardin returned to Rock Hill schools in third grade, he was immediately paired with Shafer, and they’ve been together since.
Shafer was there when Hardin first played football at Castle Heights Middle School for coach Jason Ramey. A seventh grader, Hardin’s contributions were initially limited to special teams and playing defense, positions where hearing wasn’t as crucial.
“He played outstanding at corner for us, really hard hitter, and then at the end of that year he started to express to us that he really wanted to play wide receiver,” Ramey recalled. “That’s where I had the biggest learning experience from it, because at first I thought it was just too hard. He kind of stayed on me about it.”
Ultimately, Hardin had a profound impact on Ramey’s teaching and coaching career. The season finale against Gold Hill hammered home that season’s greatest lesson.
“By the end of that year he ended up actually catching a touchdown pass, which was one of the coolest things I’ve seen and experienced as a coach,” said Ramey. “It really showed me not to put limitations on a kid even if he has a disability.”
That was Hardin’s first step toward the total self-reliance he’ll need as an adult. When he was playing cornerback, he was literally on an island, to use the football cliche. School is much harder though, and Hardin couldn’t do it without a translator. But while he’s better able to learn thanks to Shafer, there is still so much that bypasses him.
“The worst part about being deaf is language, but you’re missing out on everything around you,” said Shafer. “It’s a silent world.”
Sometimes during class, Hardin will nudge his foot up against Shafer’s. It’s a sign of affection, but also trust. By having physical contact with Shafer’s foot, Hardin knows he won’t miss anything important because she’ll nudge him if he needs to pay attention. For someone who has to be extra in-tuned all the time, a brief moment to check out can be a huge relief.
“He trusts me that much to rely on me,” said Shafer, who is very close with Hardin’s family.
“Oh my God, I don’t know what I’d do without her,” said Moise, who not only works but is also in nursing school. “I’m so serious about that; I love her so much.”
More than anything, Shafer is a friend to Hardin. She pulls out a piece of paper with Hardin’s handwriting on it, a children’s book he’s been working on for his English class. It’s written in Hardin’s pidgin English; American Sign Language is his first language and it doesn’t translate perfectly. One passage in particular spells out the isolation deaf people feel in heart-breaking fashion.
Hardin wrote, “Most people do not use sign language. I am lonely as one lion in zoo.”
Shafer is making efforts to ensure there are others at school who can communicate with Hardin.
It was a dreary Wednesday morning, but five teenagers sat at a table in the Rock Hill High School library, with Shafer at the head. The American Sign Language Club, which meets every week, practices signing with Shafer and Hardin.
One of the club’s foundational members is ninth grader Taylor Oxendine. She is a “CODA,” a child of deaf adults. Both of Oxendine’s parents are deaf and they first taught her to sign when she was 10 months old. She’s uniquely positioned to understand Hardin’s loneliness as a deaf child.
“The deaf world, even if you go to a deaf school, is very isolating,” she said.
From an early age Oxendine taught her friends basic sign language since they’re around her parents often. She’s doing that now at Rock Hill High with her friends and peers.
“To help Kevi, it’s really great because there’s no one here that really knows it besides me and my friend Jeremy,” said Oxendine. “To help (Kevi) communicate with other teenagers is great.”
During an interview, Hardin is asked, “How nice is it when kids at school try to communicate with you?” Shafer signs the question and then laughs as Kevi breaks into an eye-squinting grin.
“Just by the smile you can tell it’s wonderful,” she said.
Shafer is trying to help the sign language club’s members graduate from finger-spelling to learning specific signs for words. The meshing of the two styles can create something meaningful, though.
Hardin shows up near the end of the gathering. He gives his friends sign language names, individual signs he creates using sign language and finger-spelling combinations. It’s an honor to have a sign language name bestowed upon you and on this rainy morning, he’s got one for Rock Hill English teacher Cheryl Henderson. He signs the letter H on the top of his opposite hand, and the teacher beams.
In her relationship with Hardin, Shafer started out as a crutch, an imperative conduit to the hearing world. But as he grows older, she’s trying to prepare him for the future in which her comforting foot won’t always be there.
“We’re trying to do everything we can now to teach him responsibility, let him know what he’s gonna be up against once he gets out here in this real world,” said Moise, Hardin’s mother. “We try to do our best at that, and my hat goes off to (Angie) because she does a lot helping out with that.”
There are so many obstacles ahead of Hardin, and football is one of the first tests of his independence. Shafer can signal the play into Hardin with her hands. But then it’s up to him to make it happen on the field.
“He has to follow through, he has to learn to be patient and understand what’s going on,” said Shafer. “I can’t play the game. I can only tell him to keep his eye on the ball; I can’t catch it for him.”
Surviving on the football field in Rock Hill’s up-tempo practice mode can make the slower pace of a classroom feel easier. Hardin excels in math, where everything is visual and laid out in front of him on the paper or dry erase board.
“Last year, he told me ‘you don’t need to sign, I’m good,’ and he passed me,” said Shafer.
Hardin‘s grade in that class was a 98. He’s smart, and Shafer hopes he’ll go to college, preferably Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the country’s leading hearing-impaired college.
“It would just open up his world if he could get into Gallaudet, which it’s possible that he could. He makes great grades, is a smart kid,” said Shafer. But if he doesn’t want to go away, he could earn a two-year degree at York Technical College “and get a good job.”
Hardin loves working on cars, and he hopes to have his driver’s permit soon. For a teenager, that’s independence in its truest form.
“I tell him all the time, ‘You’re gonna get a good job, you’re gonna have a good house, a car, be able to buy things, support your wife and kids,’” said Shafer. “He believes that.”