Bonnie Sloan: First Deaf Player in NFL

“This kid is an athlete. He’s got a real good chance to make our football team,” claimed Cardinals Personnel Director George Boone after drafting Bonnie Sloan in the 10th round of the 1973 NFL Draft.

Not only did the 6’5″, 260 pound defensive lineman make the team, he was the starting defensive tackle in the season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The odds are long for any late round draft pick to make it in the NFL. The Cardinals already had three established defensive tackles in Bob Rowe, John Richardson, and Fred Heron, and they drafted Dave Butz with their top pick. But, Sloan had to overcome a larger obstacle. He was deaf.

Sloan was born in Lebanon, TN. His parents discovered that he was deaf when he was almost two years old. He learned to read lips and say words before the age of three and later learned to play football. Sloan earned all-state honors as a tight end and defensive tackle at Litton High School.

“We just thought football would be good therapy for him,” his mother told the New York Times. “We never thought he’d develop as he did.”

Sloan played college ball at Austin Peay where he was named team MVP and earned All-Ohio Valley Conference honors. In four seasons at Austin Peay, Sloan never jumped offside. His college line coach, Ray Thomas, felt that he should have been a fourth round draft choice at the very least.

“His deafness was definitely a factor in his not being taken until the tenth round,” Thomas told the Philadelphia Daily News.

Bonnie Sloan was All-Ohio Valley Conference lineman at Austin Peay (Photo APSU Athletics)

The Cardinals were happy Sloan was still available late in the draft and it didn’t take long for him to impress Big Red coaches during training camp.

“Bonnie has what you might call compensatory abilities,” defensive line coach Marv Marinovich told the Philadelphia Daily News. “For example, he has great balance. If a lineman overplays him one way, he has the ability to recover without slowing up. His takeoff is good and his lateral ability is most impressive. His development is ahead of what we might expected at this point, and he’d be even farther ahead if he hadn’t sprained his wrist in pre-season.”

Unfortunately, Sloan’s career was short-lived. He injured his knee in the season opener and played just four games before being placed on injured reserve.

“It was a kick off and I was hit in the knee from behind by an Eagles player,” Sloan told the Leaf Chronicle in 2016. “I couldn’t hear him behind me. I was sad. I loved football and wished I was able to play much longer.”

The Cardinals released Sloan the following training camp in 1974. They felt opponents were taking advantage of his deafness and that his knees wouldn’t stand the abuse.

“He had the ability,” an unnamed teammate told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “But there are things you just have to hear out there. Bonnie couldn’t hear the footsteps of a blocker, or his breathing. He couldn’t get out of the way fast enough.”

“We all feel especially bad about Bonnie because he played under handicap and was an inspiration to so many,” Larry Wilson, Cardinals Director of Pro Scouting told the Post Dispatch. “But in the final analysis we were afraid he could be hurt further. In college, he was big enough, but in pro ball, where other men were as big or even larger, he ran silently into situations where he was vulnerable to injury.”

Although Sloan’s NFL career was brief, he has great memories, such as starting the Big Red season opener at Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia.

“People everywhere. More than Austin Peay,” Sloan told the Tennessean.

There were other great memories such as tackling the great Johnny Unitas for losses in the first preseason game in San Diego and just missing doing the same to Joe Namath a couple of weeks later.

Marinovich summed up Bonnie Sloan’s NFL career after he played his best pro game with an injured wrist against the Kansas City Chiefs.

“Bonnie had 9 tackles, 5 assists, and three quarterback pressures. I’d have to say if anyone is handicapped, it’s the guard playing opposite Bonnie Sloan.”

Bonnie Sloan in action against the New York Giants at the Yale Bowl in 1973.

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