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    Song of silence to grace Super Bowl

    A deaf man's persistence pays off. He will perform the national anthem in sign language at Raymond James Stadium.

    By KATHERINE GAZELLA

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 2000


    PALM HARBOR -- For seven years, Tom Cooney has tried to fulfill his dream of performing the national anthem in sign language at the Super Bowl.

    Cooney, an avid sports fan who favors the New York Jets, bombarded people with letters and e-mails and had people call on his behalf.

    "I get autographs from the same person every year," saying that his request was denied, he said in sign language while his son, Tom Cooney Jr., translated.

    But this year, his persistence paid off. Cooney, who has taught sign language to four U.S. presidents and Michael Jordan, will perform the national anthem in sign language before Super Bowl XXXV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Jan. 28.

    "Somehow, the Lord was good to me," he said.

    In previous years, Super Bowl organizers said they tried to find local people to fill various roles. That improved his odds when the game came to Tampa, but he had no guarantee of being chosen.

    Still, his previous letters made an impression on organizers.

    "Tom's been trying to perform this role for years," said Bob Best, the executive producer of the pregame and post-game shows for Super Bowl XXXV. "He certainly has done enough of these events to prove that he's very capable of doing it."

    Now that the game is in Tampa, he said, it made sense to choose Cooney.

    "I guess it's just his time," Best said.

    Cooney, 65, has been interpreting the national anthem for 38 years in stadium and arenas throughout the country. He was the first deaf person to serve on a Pinellas County jury and ran an unsuccessful race for the School Board in 1992.

    An infection caused Cooney to lose his hearing when he was 9 months old. He was 8 when he was sent to a New Jersey boarding school for the deaf. There, he learned first to speak with his hands and then with his mouth.

    He learned to speak with his hands from a boy who provided the lessons in exchange for cookies and popcorn. He learned to speak with his mouth from a menacing teacher who told him to feel the vibration on his neck as he pronounced his first word, "pencil."

    At the Super Bowl, he will interpret the anthem while the Backstreet Boys sing. He had never heard of the group until he asked his son about them.

    "But I'm sure they'll be my favorite band," he said.

    In November, Cooney visited Osceola Middle School in Seminole as part of the Great American Teach-In. His eyes filled with tears as students sang "America the Beautiful" to him in sign language. At the Super Bowl, Ray Charles will perform that song, and Cooney will interpret it in sign language.

    "A blind man and a deaf man," Cooney said. "Should be interesting."

    - Staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or gazella@sptimes.com.

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