Donnell Finnaman, number 73 in the green jersey and gold helmet,
is the pulling guard on a bootleg. Finnaman pancakes the
linebacker to spring the quarterback for a touchdown, and it
looks like just another play in yet another high school football
game. But jogging off the field, Finnaman doesn't acknowledge
the cheers of the crowd. The 17-year-old senior is one of the
best high school athletes you have never heard of and one of the
best high school athletes who has never heard. Finnaman plays at
the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf, in Wilson, but
that is not what makes this story worth telling.
Only after the game, when the 5'6", 240-pound Finnaman sheds the
gridiron gear, scrubs off the grime of a night in the trenches
and exits the locker room in civilian clothes, does it become
apparent to everybody that Donnell Finnaman is a girl. She is
one of the few females to have played four years on a boys' high
school varsity team and perhaps the only one to do so on both
the offensive and defensive lines, personally ushering the term
linewoman into the lexicon of sign language before it emerged in
the spoken world.
Born premature, at a weight of two pounds, Finnaman has always
been deaf and communicates through signing. She grew up a
tomboy, learning to tackle her twin brother, Donavon, and
playing intramural flag football at ENCSD, where she has studied
since the third grade. She attended high school football games,
convinced that she could one day play at that level. Living in
her silent world, Finnaman has been somewhat shielded from
stereotype, so in the summer of '96 she asked to join the ENCSD
team without consulting her mother, Marchelle Harris. "When she
finally told me, I asked, 'Are you sure?'" Harris says. "I was
scared, but my daughter has never heard the word can't."
At Finnaman's first practice as a freshman she was anchoring a
tackling dummy when a mammoth senior knocked her flat. She
scrambled to her feet and pointed to her wrist, sign language
for one more time. The boy ran at her again, and she stood him
up straight. "At first we were worried that she'd break every
bone in her body," signs teammate Brandon Howard, Finnaman's
date at the junior prom. "But she's as tough as any man on this
team. The only time she cries is after we lose."
Finnaman's favorite aspect of football is the contact, although
she admits to closing her eyes before an especially violent hit.
"I love to pound people," she signs. "Off the field I like boys,
but on the field I really hate them. I pity them."
She roomed with the Fighting Hornets cheerleaders on overnight
road trips, dressed for games in women's restrooms and once even
in a closet. Her gender occasionally left her victim to
trash-signing from opponents, whom she usually tenderized until
the abusive hands were quieted. "Before the ENCSD game this year
some of our new guys were laughing about playing a girl,"
Alabama School for the Deaf linebacker Jason Morgan signs. "I
told them they had better respect her or they'd be looking out
their ear holes." Since she has short-cropped hair and an
androgynous name, several stunned rivals have approached her at
the picnics that follow games against other deaf schools and
signed incredulously, "You're number 73?"
Despite asthma and chronically sore knees, Finnaman didn't miss
a practice in four years. During the '99 season, which the
Hornets closed out at 4-4 four weeks ago, Finnaman graded out as
the team's second-best defensive lineman, having made 24 tackles
and recovered three fumbles. "Think about the barriers she has
broken," ENCSD athletic director Gary Farmer says. "Many times
coming from a poor family or being black or being deaf or being
a woman can kill a dream. She destroyed every [preconceived
notion] until everybody accepted her as a football player."
Now that football season has ended, Finnaman has shifted her
focus to the girls' basketball team, on which she has played
center the past three years. In the spring she will be a
favorite to win the state Class 1-A shot put title. Her best
throw is 36'5".
After some basketball games, girls from opposing teams have
surprised Finnaman by requesting her autograph. "I don't see
myself as special," Finnaman signs. "Other people think a girl
spending four years battling in the trenches is weird, but to me
it's seemed totally normal. Aren't there other girls doing it?"
When informed that most other girls aren't doing it, Finnaman
looks puzzled, pulls the middle three fingers of her right hand
from her forehead and tucks them into her palm and pops her
thumb out from beneath her chin. What she has just communicated
defines her: Why not?
COLOR PHOTO: COREY LOWENSTEIN/THE NEWS & OBSERVER
"Off the field I like boys, but on the field I hate them,"
Finnaman signs. "I pity them."