How sign language helped Texas football star Andrew Beck connect with a sick child

Before playing in Saturdayís East-West Shrine Game, the Plant High alumnus reflects on his hospital visit that went viral.
University of Texas TE Andrew Beck, a Plant High alum who is in the East-West Shrine Game on this week, signs with students at the Texas School for the Deaf. (Courtesy of Texas School for the Deaf)
University of Texas TE Andrew Beck, a Plant High alum who is in the East-West Shrine Game on this week, signs with students at the Texas School for the Deaf. (Courtesy of Texas School for the Deaf)
Published January 18
Updated January 18

ST. PETERSBURG — As Andrew Beck studied sign language at the University of Texas, he began to see the easy-to-miss inconveniences the deaf community faces.

Rudeness at restaurants. Inaccessible drive-thrus. Unaccommodating movie theaters.

So when the former Longhorns tight end and Plant High alumnus learned the family he was about to meet at a New Orleans hospital last month was deaf, he had a chance to do something small to help.

The 6-foot-3, 255-pound football star entered the room and saw a little boy with cars on his shirt and stars on his pants playing on his screen in bed. Beck started signing.

The sign-language conversation wasn’t deep. How are you? What’s your name? Nice to meet you. But for 57 seconds, a family with a sick child connected with a complete stranger in their own language.

“That’s what made it so special to me,” Beck said.

And to the almost 2.5 million people who have watched it.

Houston Texans superstar J.J. Watt retweeted the clip from the Sugar Bowl outing and called it “awesome.” Strangers started recognizing Beck at the airport. Even fans of Longhorns archrivals Oklahoma and Texas A&M praised him.

Back in Austin, his American Sign Language professor is still beaming.

“When I looked at the family’s faces brightening up when they saw Andrew start signing, that just melted my heart,” said Debbie White, a senior lecturer at Texas. “I don’t think anyone realized how hard it is to be in the hospital not being able to communicate 100 percent freely.”

Beck didn’t either, until he started taking White’s class to fulfill his corporate communication major’s language requirement in the spring of 2017. Beck was a quick learner and liked the subject so much that he made it his minor.

After three semesters of classes and extra trips to White’s office, he began to see how small things he took for granted can be challenges for deaf people. A meal with White would start normally … until the waiter noticed the professor was hard of hearing. Then the server would only talk to Beck.

“Little things over a period of time stack up, and they start to really bother you,” Beck said.

Some of those little things aren’t anyone’s fault, Beck said. They stem from an innocent lack of awareness, which he wants to fix.

Being an all-Big 12 tight end and two-time Longhorns captain gives him the platform to educate the hearing community. A strong showing in front of pro scouts in Saturday’s East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field could give him an even bigger stage: the NFL.

“The guys that inspire me and the guys that I aspire to be are people that use their platform for a positive thing,” Beck said.

Beck has been doing that since before the Sugar Bowl visit.

He met with the foundation of Nyle DiMarco, the deaf activist and former Dancing with the Stars winner. Beck sent a congratulatory video to the Texas School for the Deaf’s football team after their playoff win, then stopped by the school to wish them luck in the next round.

“The boys were in awe,” said John Moore, the school’s football coach.

So was the family he met at in the Louisiana hospital.

Beck didn’t know they were deaf until just before he entered their room. The hospital guide didn’t know that Beck understood sign language, let alone that he was good enough to help White teach one of her courses.

“It wasn’t staged,” Beck said. “It wasn’t so that it could look good for the cameras.”

The interaction was authentic. The surprise was genuine. The moment was real.

And that’s what made the video so powerful.

It only took a few gestures for the boy’s father to see that Beck understood the nuances of American Sign Language, down to the way he raised his eyebrows to signify a yes/no question. The dad gave an impressed nod and slapped Beck’s hand.

“He looked at ease and relaxed,” White said. “No communication barriers there!”

Just a 57-second connection between total strangers and one unmistakable, universal feeling.