Overcoming A Disability, Tony Tatum Blazes His Own Trail Into AFL

Tatum, 2, carries the football. (Photo: Gallaudet Athletics)

A native of Arkansas, Tony Tatum was born with a mom, a dad, a brother, and a sister. He and his family moved to Alabama when he was the age of seven.

Tatum is a basketball player first, and a football player second. He didn’t first start playing football until his junior year of high school. That didn’t last long, however, as he broke his ankle. Tatum decided to stick to his first love of basketball.

“I was a defensive minded player on the basketball court. I wasn’t very good offensively in high school but I was a pretty good shutdown defender. So I focused on working real hard defensively,” said Tatum.

Up to this point in the article you may be thinking, Wow. He was a basketball player first and hasn’t played much football. But, he’s pretty good so that’s pretty cool. Well, that isn’t the only thing about Tony Tatum that separates him from other football players.

Tony Tatum, is also hearing impaired.

“My mother first noticed something when I was about three. She would say things to me and I just wouldn’t respond,” said Tatum. After a visit to the doctor, Tatum was diagnosed as hearing impaired and, as he puts it, is hard-of-hearing in both ears.

On the court, his hearing impediment didn’t slow him down that much. Since it was an athletic competition setting, people were shouting and screaming so Tatum was able to hear his coaches and teammates while playing.

Off the court, Tatum was on the wrong end of jokes, rude comments, and bad looks around school. “I wouldn’t wear my hearing aids because kids would stare and make jokes. I ended up missing important things in class because of it,” said Tatum.

When it was time for Tatum to head off to college, he heard about a school for the hearing impaired in D.C. called Gallaudet. Tatum wanted to see what it was like since it was for kids like him. The minute he stepped on campus, Tatum knew that was where he needed to be.

“I wanted to go to school with other kids like me and play sports. At Gallaudet, I could do all that,” said Tatum. That fall, Tatum stepped onto the campus of Gallaudet looking to become their next basketball star.

Right from the get-go, Tatum saw action on the court. His first two seasons there, the team maintained a great attitude, but always had a losing record. His second two seasons, the play picked up and they had winning records both seasons and the program has begun to improve thanks to efforts of Tatum and his teammates.

Tatum, however, still felt that urge to play football. So, that’s exactly what he did. His junior year, Tatum stepped onto the football field as a defensive back and started his junior, senior, and fifth year senior year.

“We worked hard every day. We came to practice ready to work and always had a great attitude towards playing. Me, personally, I tried to lead by example,” said Tatum.

Tatum shined for Gallaudet on the football field. In 2012, he was selected ECFC Defensive Player of the Year and Special Teams Player of the Year. He was also named to the First Team All ECFC Defense squad and the First Team All ECFC Special Teams as a return specialist.

On top of all those accomplishments, Tatum was also selected to a number of conference and national Player of the Week awards.

Tatum graduated from Gallaudet with a Recreation degree with a minor in Athlete Coaching and Communications. While at Gallaudet, he learned sign language and many other forms of communication.

“That was the toughest part about football. We communicated with sign language and some weren’t good at it or tried to speak out loud and not everybody understood them,” said Tatum. “On the basketball court, we had to communicate by touching and pushing each other. Sometimes we even had to turn and look at each other and make eye contact while on defense,” said Tatum.

With his degree, Tatum hopes to one day open up a rec. center where he can teach kids to play sports other than just basketball and football. He also wants to use that space to help kids that are having trouble with their lives. Tatum also wants to travel to the country as a motivational speaker.

If there is one message that Tatum has for young kids with the same background and hearing impairments as his, it’s this: “Use your resources. We’ve got a lot of young guys that feel they have to do it on their own. But, there are people who will help and you need to accept that help. Use your resources, keep your faith, stay positive, and don’t stop working hard.”

Since our interview, Tatum participated in the BSN Collegiate Showcase and has recently been signed by the Utah Blaze of the Arena Football League. 

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