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Much more than just talk

Bucs left guard Kerry Jenkins takes some time to offer inspiration and insight to deaf students.

By ROGER MILLS,  St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer
Published May 21, 2004


LARGO – Born to deaf parents in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Bucs left guard Kerry Jenkins has a unique perspective on life.

He doesn’t say much. He means what he says. He takes little for granted.

After seven seasons in the NFL, Jenkins can’t predict where his future will be. He can’t guess what impact he will have on the team, if any.

But for one morning in early May, in a classroom of 10 children at the Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf, Jenkins focused on a different type of impact.

Rekindling a language that is a hybrid of the official American Sign Language and his parents’ homemade version, Jenkins spent time communicating with deaf children and children of deaf adults.

He read stories, among others, The Little Engine That Could. He shared his experiences, talked about playing in the NFL, having a Super Bowl ring and the relationship with his teammates and coaches.

He answered a range of questions, occasionally needing an interpreter, and to their delight, admitted that fullback Mike Alstott was his favorite player.

“It’s rusty, very rusty,” Jenkins said of his sign language.

The visit began with a signed version of the national anthem and by the time it was over, the 6-foot-5, 305-pounder had reached into the imagination of the class and left them, teachers said, with a lasting impression that being hearing impaired, or living with someone hearing impaired is no big deal.

Living a typical life and having typical dreams are very realistic, Jenkins said.

“Life can be normal, as long as you take the time to learn to communicate,” Jenkins said. “That’s the biggest problem, learning to communicate. A lot of families who have deaf members never take the time to learn to communicate with them. That wasn’t my case. I don’t know about the average person, but I started signing before I was speaking.”

Jenkins’ wife Kate, a music major, said her husband’s simplicity is a product of his upbringing.

“The thing about communicating with the deaf language is that when they speak, there is not a lot of flowery words, not a lot of prepositions and things like that,” she said. “It’s a very to-the-point language and that’s how he is.”

Opened Aug. 4, 2003, one of the school’s primary goals is to combine the principles of Montessori education with those geared toward catering to the specific needs of the hearing impaired.

According to statistics provided by the school, deaf children are graduating from high school at an average of a fourth-grade reading level, 90 percent of deaf children are born of hearing parents and 70 percent of hearing parents fail to establish a form of communication with their deaf children.

Julie Rutenberg, the school’s director and a career educator of deaf children, said the presence of someone like Jenkins should serve as a form of inspiration.

“We hope that they see and realize that there are other adults who have had similar experiences like they have,” Rutenberg said. “He is a success story and we hope that they believe that they can be as successful. It’s wonderful for them to be able to identify with someone like him, someone with his status as a football player. Trust me, you saw how their faces lit up when a football player came in and was able to communicate with them. They are going to be talking about communicating with him a very long time.”

Not surprisingly, some of the students shared common experiences with Jenkins. Growing up in a trailer, Jenkins has said that his parents were tuned to the vibrations of the house and knew who was coming and going. Paul Story, an 11-year-old student of deaf parents, said being aware of those vibrations can come in handy.

“If you’re in trouble and you scream, they can’t hear you,” Story said. “So, I would have to stomp my feet and cause vibrations and they will be able to react. Or, I will scream loud enough for my dogs to bark and they will see the dogs acting up.”

Story, who is not deaf, said Jenkins’ accomplishments should not be taken lightly.

“I think of him as a good role model for kids who have parents who can’t hear or kids who can’t hear themselves,” Story said. “He’s proof that you can accomplish stuff.”

Added Jenkins: “As far as I was concerned, growing up, there was nothing different. I knew that my parents were deaf but it wasn’t a big deal. The people we were around all the time, they knew too and we felt like we were normal like everyone else.”

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