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Adair County: Player overcoming hearing impairment

COLUMBIA — Alec Beard was barely six months old when his mom noticed something about her baby that troubled her.

"He wouldn't respond when I said his name," April Beard said.

The little boy was 18 months old when the doctors gave his family a reason for that.

Alec wasn't hearing anything.

By the time Alec was 2, April and Chris Beard moved their family from Adair County to Danville so their son could be educated at the Kentucky School for the Deaf.

At that time, the odds would have seemed one gazillion-to-one against Alec Beard growing up to be a member of the football team at a regular public high school.

The beauty of a football season is that it yields an array of unseen, individual triumphs.

Alec Beard is one.

By the time he became a teenager, Alec had developed two great interests.

A member of a churchgoing family, Alec aspires to become a Christian missionary in Africa.

His other passion is football.

Eventually becoming the second-oldest in a family of four boys, Alec loved nothing better than to take to the yard with his three brothers for a good roughhousing game of tackle football.

By the time Alec reached high school age, his family had moved back to Adair County but continued to send him to KSD.

Thinking of their son's desire to go on a foreign mission trip, April says, the family became convinced he needed to learn how to function in the "regular world."

They began to discuss "mainstreaming" him at Adair County High.

The football program at Kentucky School for the Deaf had gone defunct. So going to Adair County had a big enticement for Alec.

The chance to play on a high school football team.

Before his sophomore year, April informed Adair County school officials that Alec would be enrolling at the county high school.

Among other requirements, it meant, by law, the school system would have to hire a sign-language interpreter to spend the entire school day with Alec.

"It was a little different for us," says Adair County Principal Troy Young. "The teachers had to make some adjustments in how they run their classes for the interpreter. But we've made those adjustments."

Before his first day in a regular public school, Alec says (through his sign-language interpreter, Wanda Watson), he was not scared.

"Nope, I've never been scared," he says.

But Alec says Adair County, with an enrollment of some 800, "felt big and different" after coming from KSD and its high school enrollment of 59.

As the only student with a significant hearing impairment in the school, it would have been easy for Alec to become isolated.

The opposite happened.

By this school year, Alec figures, "10-15" Adair County students have learned some degree of sign language so they can communicate with him.

The bane of parental existence — the cell phone text plan — has been a boon to Alec.

"I love texting," he says.

Alec will often text while standing right next to the person with whom he is communicating.

Believe it or not, at times, texting even helps Alec communicate in football.

Imagine having to know when to take off on a football play without being able to hear the snap count.

Think of having to decide when to stop on a football play without being able to hear the referee's whistle.

Consider trying to get better each day in a football practice when you cannot hear the instructions being spoken by the coaches.

Those are the conditions under which Alec plays.

He relishes most every moment of it.

"I love the contact," he says of football.

To minimize the impact of Alec's not being able to hear the quarterback call signals, Adair County Coach Eric Graves made the junior a wide receiver.

That is a bit of a trade-off for Alec. He does not possess the fluid foot speed one associates with the position. But at wideout, it is not as important to get off the ball instantaneously at the snap as it is for the players on the line of scrimmage.

Alec looks in and, when he sees the ball hiked, he starts.

In games, Alec wears a wristband where his assignments on various plays carry assigned numbers.

Before each play, an Adair County coach will use hand signals to let Alec know whether it will be a pass or run. Then the coach will signal a number that lets Alec check on the wristband to see what specific play has been called.

Not being able to hear the referee's whistle is not an insurmountable obstacle because Alec tries to watch the other players.

"When they stop, I stop," he says.

Before games in which Alec is likely to participate, Graves informs the referees and the opposing coach that Adair County has a player with impaired hearing who might play past the whistle.

"If we get a penalty for that, then we get a penalty," says Graves, a former long-time assistant to Ron Finley at the school now known as Campbellsville University.

So far, Alec has drawn no late-hit calls, Graves says.

When it comes to practice communication for Alec, his interpreter, Watson, is doing her best.

After going to school all day with Alec, the 57-year-old grandmother trudges out to football practice. For Watson, it is a tough assignment.

"My husband has been trying to teach me for years, but I just don't understand football," she says.

The specialized slang of the sport — something as basic as "snap" — can be baffling if you don't follow football.

If a coach needs to communicate with Alec directly, he will call Watson out on the field to sign. During Adair games, she sits right in front of the 50-yard line so the coaches know where to find her if they need her to communicate with Alec during the game.

However, she obviously can't be on the field during practice. So Alec does not always benefit from general instruction or if a coach is correcting another player.

Earlier this year, Graves informed the Adair football players that they were expected to wear shirts and ties to school on game days.

When the first Friday came, Alec showed up with an open collar because Watson had not been around at the time of the shirt-and-tie announcement to share it with him.

Sometimes, to communicate with the head coach, Alec types in a text message on his cell phone, then hands the phone to Graves to peck out a response.

If this were a novel, we would report that the teen who left the Kentucky School for the Deaf, in part, for a chance to play high school football has become a star.

In the real world, Alec is primarily a junior varsity player. Through Adair County's first four varsity games, he had played in one.

Which is not to say he hasn't made an impact.

"I like having him on our team," says Dustin Graves, the coach's son, who was Adair's starting quarterback before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.

"Sometimes, you are always around people who are just like you. Having Alec with you on the field, it teaches you not to take for granted the things he doesn't have."

Jordan Shelton, a junior wide receiver, says he is not sure he could do what Alec has done.

"Probably not, I'm too impatient," Shelton says. "You look at him, it tells you never to give up and always to have faith you can do something."

With a laugh, Eric Graves says he and Alec had a heart-to-heart not long ago and the player indicated to his head coach he thought he ought to be playing more.

"He's just like any other high school football player," Graves says.

For Alec Beard, being seen that way in any context is a victory.

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