Senior Jonathan Hill, interpreter Tanya Jennette-Thomas comprise team behind scenes for Eagles

sfastenau@beaufortgazette.comNovember 8, 2013 

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Beaufort High football's Jonathan Hill is shown here Wednesday afternoon with Tanya Jennette Thomas during football practice at Beaufort High. Hill, who is deaf communicates through Thomas who signs to him during practice and games.

SARAH WELLIVER — Sarah Welliver Buy Photo

The rain had subsided and Tanya Jennette-Thomas stood with her back to Beaufort High School football coach Mark Clifford, her hands a blur of sign language during the coach's postgame talk.

On one knee, Jonathan Hill watched her without adjusting his gaze. Clifford was praising the Eagles for a big win over Fort Dorchester, a Region 8-AAAA victory that helped Beaufort High inch closer to a playoff berth.

Hill heard none of the speech, except through Jennette-Thomas, an educational interpreter with the Beaufort County School District. The Eagles defensive end is deaf and has relied on Jennette-Thomas to be his ears at every workout, football practice and game -- home and away -- since seventh grade.

Their time together is coming to a close. Hill will be recognized tonight with his senior teammates before Beaufort High plays host to Colleton County to close the regular season.

The game has implications for Beaufort High's playoff chances and a victory would give them a winning record in region play for the first time in a few years.

Hill says he will miss football, a sport he experiences in a way none of his teammates do.

"Football for Jonathan is football," Jennette-Thomas said. "There is no whistle. There is no ref. There's nothing. He hears nothing. So all he sees is that ball. That's what he hears, that ball."

When a Cane Bay offensive tackle during a game last year claimed Hill had jumped offsides and forced him out of his stance, the official flagged Hill and the Eagles for encroachment. Jennette-Thomas told him it was impossible for Hill to jump offsides, that he can't hear the cadence.

The call was reversed.

"You tell those guys your whole life 'Watch the ball, don't listen for cadence, voice inflection,'" Beaufort High defensive coordinator Andy Smyth said. "They've got to block it all out. He gets his head cocked, looks at the ball, and nothing they can do is going to cause him to jump."

Flags for hits after the whistle have also been picked up. Most of the time, Hill stops when he sees his teammates stop. Sometimes he doesn't.

Jennette-Thomas has to explain.

By now, most of the referees who work Beaufort High games know Hill. They know his even temperamant.

The 18-year-old has no enemies. He helps opposing players to their feet. He calls out teammates for jumping offsides, and they can say nothing, only laugh.

"He's just a person who gets along with everybody," said Josie Martin, Hill's mother. "Everybody loves Jonathan. Everybody knows Jonathan."

He plays Call of Duty: Ghosts on Xbox Live with friends, including Jennette-Thomas's sons and his teammates. Eagles linebacker T.J. Watts is the best, Hill says.

Watts is one of several senior teammates who have played with Hill since that seventh-grade season at Beaufort Middle School. All have a part in making sure Hill is lined up correctly, that he gets the checks and adjusts accordingly.

Watts, the Eagles' leading tackler and captain, is the strongside linebacker and responsible for tapping Hill to let him know when a check has been made.

"We look at each other, I tell him to adjust," Watts said. "He assumes really well what I'm telling him to adjust to. It's real quick communication, little hand signs. I give him a number, and he responds to it."

Jennette-Thomas relays Hill messages from coaches, good and bad. Hill built a relationship with Clifford when Clifford taught Hill to drive in 10th grade, with Jennette-Thomas in the back seat.

Hill is hesitant to speak much. But Clifford, who underwent years of speech therapy to address a stutter, sits with Hill and makes him talk.

"He knows what I'm saying," Clifford said.

Smyth almost ignored Hill when he first saw him before Hill's junior season. Not because Hill is deaf, but because of his lack of size.

He asked Clifford why Hill played defensive line.

Hill's hustle and strength earned him a start against Bluffton his junior year. And he has been in the rotation ever since.

Hill, named after his father, Jonathan Hill Sr., a retired U.S. Marine, plans to attend the University of South Carolina. He wants to play football, if possible, and to choose a major that involves computers.

A split with Jennette-Thomas won't be easy. She calls him her fourth son.

She works with Hill each game at the expense of watching her own sons play for Battery Creek High School. Her oldest, Leroy, graduated from Battery Creek in 2012 after playing quarterback for the Dolphins. Teyvon was a receiver who graduated this past spring.

Jennette-Thomas cried when talking about missing Leroy and Teyvon on homecoming court. She has promised Tarey, a junior receiver, she won't miss one of his games next year.

The message Jennette-Thomas delivers to Hill most often during games starts with her right index finger extended, as if pointing. She slashes the finger quickly across her open left hand.

She then signs two letters: Q.B.

Kill the quarterback.

Hill repeats the words in his head when he lines up at end, and then fixes his eyes on the ball. He uses a strong grip to fight off blocks and get in the backfield rather than bulldoze opposing linemen.

He has six tackles for loss and two sacks this season. Each time he stands up from a big play, he looks for Jennette-Thomas on the sideline.

"You sacrifice because nothing makes me happier than to see the smile on his face after a game," she says. "When he finishes a tackle and looks at me -- 'I did good?' 'Yes, do it again. Give me one more.' "

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