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DK Metcalf's ASL teacher says Seahawks receiver brings his own flair to the language

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf (14) celebrates his touchdown by using American Sign Language during an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif.
Kyusung Gong
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AP
Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf (14) celebrates his touchdown by using American Sign Language during an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif.

When Darrell Utley began his first American Sign Language lesson with a new student, he didn't realize his client was a star football player.

"I had no idea what his walk of life was. I just knew he wanted to learn," Utley told NPR's Morning Edition.

DK Metcalf, a receiver with the Seattle Seahawks, was looking for an off-the-field distraction.

He told reporters that he'd taken an ASL course in college, and decided to take it a step further.

Metcalf connected with Utley purely by chance when he asked his agent to find an instructor.

"So he reached out to the Sign Language Center and really it was quite serendipitous about how we got connected because [there] was no other reason than I was the next available [teacher]," said Utley.

Metcalf has shown off his new skills on one of America's biggest platforms – the NFL end zone.

Trash talking in ASL

After beating the Los Angeles Rams' corner Ahkello Witherspoon – who wears number 44 – to the ball for a touchdown, Metcalf signed "44, my son."

He's already joked that using ASL has stopped him from being flagged by the referees for trash talk.

And after racing away from the Dallas Cowboys' defense to score, Metcalf signed "standing on business" – slang for "taking care of business."

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf (14) sprints to the end zone to score a touchdown as Dallas Cowboys cornerback DaRon Bland (26) gives chase in the first half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.
Michael Ainsworth / AP
/
AP
Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf (14) sprints to the end zone to score a touchdown as Dallas Cowboys cornerback DaRon Bland (26) gives chase in the first half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.

Utley's been impressed with his student so far.

"In general, many students who come to this point where they want to take these classes and sessions, they do have a commitment, a passion and a dedication, and DK's no different," Utley told NPR.

Utley's older brother, Barry Utley, a certified ASL interpreter with Sorenson Communications, assisted with the interview.

"He's really committed. He asks a lot of pertinent questions," Darrell Utley said of Metcalf. "He's asking to make sure he's saying things correctly, because if there's just the wrong movement or the wrong position, the wrong hand shape, things can get out of context very quickly."

That's why Utley thinks it's key that Metcalf is learning from him, someone who is Deaf.

"A lot of hearing people when they learn American Sign Language, they learn from other hearing people. And so sometimes the translations are a little bit off, not culturally appropriate," said Utley. "DK is trying to learn from a direct source within the community. Me being a deaf person, sharing my language and my culture, he's taking that any and he's cherishing what he's learning outside of just the language."

Asked about concerns that using ASL as trash talk might be considered to be appropriation, Utley wasn't concerned.

"A lot of hearing people when they want to learn sign language, they're like, hey, how do we sign the inappropriate words? How do we sign this swear word or this cuss word?" Utley noted. "But, you know, he's not even doing that, per se. He's using some different forms of the language to send a message on his own. So I don't see it as inappropriate."

Swagger and flair

In fact, Utley said Metcalf has brought his own style to ASL.

"American Sign Language, it's a visual language. And as such, you can see a lot of personality come through different signers using the language," Utley explained. "It's no different than intonation in the spoken English language where you might hear some different inflections and different intonation, as well as regional dialects. So, yes, he definitely has his own swagger and his own flair."

Utley is glad Metcalf is bringing that flair to the NFL.

"There's a lot of, as we call it within the community, Deaf gain," said Utley. "It has some advantages within our community to see that happen, to see a hearing person of his stature use American Sign Language, and his platform is amazing."

Inspiring others

Seeing an NFL star use ASL has excited Deaf football players, too.

"I think it is wonderful to see a person with a large platform signing," said Jack Scarboro, a senior defensive standout at Gallaudet University, a private university for the Deaf and signing community.

"It brings awareness of ASL to millions of people, and the best thing is that he showed everybody that ASL is fun to use, fun to watch, and a unique language that everyone should learn at some point in their lives," Scarboro added.

Back in the NFL, Metcalf's Seahawks will travel to Tennessee, where Utley is based, to take on the Titans on Christmas Eve.

Metcalf said he'll invite his teacher to the game – a sign of a budding friendship.

The audio version of this story was edited by Mohamad ElBardicy. The digital story was edited by Treye Green.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Bearne
Adam Bearne is an editor for Morning Edition who joined the team in August 2022.

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