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?