Falcons quarterback Kurt Benkert looks to pass under pressure from Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Malveaux during the first quarter in an NFL exhibition game on Thursday, August 30, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Falcons quarterback learns sign language for charitable cause

If he’s not studying football or spending time with his wife and four dogs, the backup Falcons quarterback said he’s usually playing Fortnite, the popular open-world shooter game. 

An Instagram story on his profile shows he has a gaming lair in his house, complete with two monitors, LED lights, speakers and a professional-quality microphone. His red, white, and black No. 6 Falcons jerseys hang on the wall above them. 

The second-year quarterback from Virginia logged onto Twitch, an eGaming streaming platform, and watched the stream of popular gaming personality Timothy John Betar, known as “TimTheTatman.” He saw a player from Indiana, nicknamed “EWOK”, destroying the competition. He joined the channel, congratulated the player and started playing. He soon learned that EWOK, the imposing force killing all of its enemies, was a 13-year-old girl named Soleil Wheeler. 

He also learned that she’s deaf. 

Benkert said Wheeler’s dad reached out to him, asking if he’d want to learn American Sign Language to communicate with her. He agreed, and the duo were off to Los Angeles to compete in the Fortnite Celebrity Pro-Am last weekend. They did not finish in the top 10, the extent of the results provided. 

The tournament consists of 50 teams of two, each with a professional gamer and a celebrity. Other NFL players participating include Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and former Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch. Each team is guaranteed at least $20,000 for charity, and the winning team will earn $1 million. 

“They always say when you get into the league, you’ll find your calling and what motivates you off the field and sparks your interest,” Benkert said. “I think this is one of the things that's really sparked my interest. It's been really cool.”

Wheeler, who was born deaf, has played Fortnite for just over a year, and has accumulated more than 100,000 followers on Twitch. Her father teaches ASL at a local high school, and he’s been helping Benkert and his wife, Samantha, learn the signs. During the games, Benkert and Wheeler will Facetime each other, and if he doesn't understand the gestures, they’ll type in a private chat window. 

Like football, Benkert said it takes a lot of repetition to perfect the language. He said Wheeler has been patient with him, and she said she appreciates the lengths he’s gone to make her feel comfortable. Wheeler said it took a week for them to understand each other well, and she says he progresses every time they practice. 

“It means a lot that he is making the effort to use my language,” Wheeler said in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That effort he makes and the sweet personality that he has makes our friendship special, something that I hope to last beyond the Pro-Am.”

Wheeler said she doesn’t feel like she’s at a disadvantage by being deaf, but she hopes gaming companies will improve features, such as adding consistent sound visualizer features, so deaf players can consistently feel a true sense of depth and situational awareness when they play. 

Still, she said she enjoys finding new ways to level the playing field herself. 

“We are pretty much like everyone else except that we solve problems in different ways — the deaf way,” Wheeler said. “It’s not hard. It’s our way of life.

“I hope to see more deaf players become successful in Fortnite and to show the world that deaf people are very capable. The deaf community is close knit, and I would like to open doors for more deaf players.”

Benkert said this journey pushed him out of his comfort zone in a number of ways. He’s enjoyed it, and he says he wants to delve into it more when he has breaks from football. 

“I think it's been a good eye-opening experience for me to see the different challenges this community faces,” Benkert said. “It’s also a good opportunity to bring awareness.

“I'll try to stay connected to the deaf community and then also stay streaming on Twitch. Obviously football's first, but it's a good offseason project and kind a way to kill some free time and helps build a little community.”

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