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His silent victory will speak volumes

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000


When I pulled off Route 60 and into the restaurant parking lot, Tom Cooney was by the front door, practicing America the Beautiful. If people entering or leaving the restaurant thought him strange, he didn't so much as glance their way.

I watched from my car. His hands moved like swans' necks. The muscles of his face grew tight, went slack and grew tight again. His lips stretched into the shape of an o, of a canoe, of someone about to blow a kiss. With an expressiveness a hearing person rarely has when he speaks, Tom was mouthing the words that Ray Charles will sing at the Super Bowl.

This will be the first Super Bowl in which two patriotic songs will be sung before kickoff. Tom Cooney, from Palm Harbor, will sign both of them. The other song will naturally be the Star-Spangled Banner, sung by the Backstreet Boys.

There will be no TelePrompTer for Tom to follow, nothing but the music's vibrations to tell him what rhythm to strike.

He will be reading the performers' lips.

He will hold his dream in his hands.

Last month I wrote about Tom Cooney's nearly decade-long campaign to sign the national anthem at a Super Bowl and show the world what one deaf man could do.

What I didn't explain was how the dream was born.

It was 1991, the middle of the Gulf War. The Silver Anniversary Super Bowl was in Tampa, and there wasn't a dry eye in the stands when Whitney Houston was done belting out the national anthem.

Tom was on hand to cover the game for a paper called the Silent News. He saw Whitney Houston perform, and somebody else nearby signing the song.

Cooney was struck by the thought that hits all people with a great idea that is also the longest of long shots. Hey, I can do that.

He had signed for the Bucs when they were owned by Hugh Culverhouse. He had taught sign language in schools. He went on to sign the anthem at the Devil Rays' opening.

But he was rejected by the NFL eight years straight -- until last week, when he met the man producing the game's entertainment and convinced him that Tom Cooney was the one.

We entered the restaurant, picked a table, ordered lunch. Tom looked out the window, turned back to me and said in his distorted but comprehensible voice that he still couldn't believe it. His eyes filled up.

This may strike you as sentimental.

Sentimentality is for people who haven't had to fight.

Tom Cooney was dumped at a hospital at birth and adopted by a 60-year-old woman who worked there. She named him for the fifth of her other children, who died of pneumonia in her arms when he was 7 months old. At 9 months, her second Tom suffered such a severe ear infection that he needed surgery. It left him deaf. It wrecked his sense of balance. He couldn't hear, couldn't walk.

He used a wheelchair until he was 7. He didn't learn sign language until he was 8, and probably didn't begin to read and speak until he was 9. All the years since -- he is 65 -- he has tried to beat back that past. It has been his obsession.

The only word Tom Cooney had trouble saying in our conversation over lunch Monday, while he was still heady with the good news, was perseverance.

Yet the ability to persevere is one trait the man has to wonderful excess.

Tom Cooney's story isn't just about him. He's the athlete who practices night and day, day and night, to make the Olympics. He's the writer who was told he had no talent yet writes and rewrites until he turns out a novel that is a hit in New York. He's the teacher who refuses to give up on the worst kid in the class. Tom Cooney stands for every man or woman whose character is forged out of sorrow and struggle, and who, one way or another, tastes victory at the end.

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