Senior Spotlight: Amari Griffin, Grimsley High

May 30, 2024 - Amari Griffin loves every aspect of football.

The camaraderie. The teamwork. The discipline. The sense of purpose fueled by, as Amari likes to say, “sweat, blood and heart.” And of course, the chance to hit people and not face any consequences on a Friday night.

Amari did love that.

He played defensive end for Grimsley High Whirlies and became a member of one of the most successful football programs in North Carolina. Fans came in droves because of the Whirlies’ success, and they turned Greensboro’s Jamieson Stadium into one big roar.

The stadium’s electronic scoreboard with its sirens and thumping bass line electrified the crowd, and the PA announcer with a double-bass baritone thundered “Touchdown!” or “That’s another Whirlie … First Down!” that could be heard in every neighborhood nearby.

But Amari couldn’t hear a thing. He’s deaf.

Amari will graduate next Friday afternoon from Grimsley High. Next fall, he will study business and photography – and play football at Gallaudet University, the only higher education institution in the world designed specifically for students who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Ask him why, and his fingers dance. He forms words and phrases in American Sign Language, the main mode of silent communication used in North America. Breanna Joyner-Foreman gives voice to Amari’s every movement.

Joyner-Foreman, an educational interpreter, works with deaf students in Guilford County Schools who use sign language to communicate. For four years, she spent many practices and many Friday nights with Amari, and she has watched him become more outgoing, unafraid in navigating a world full of sound.

“He’s come out of his shell,” she says.

She pauses.

“I am not about to cry,” she continues, keeping her emotions in check. “Yes, he’s grown up, he’s matured, and to see how far he’s come, these are happy tears.”

Amari has come a long way. And it’s not just about football.

 

Amari’s Resilience, Amari’s Heart

Amari’s dad left his mom when Amari was 3 or 4. By age 10, Amari faced a hard truth. His mom couldn’t take care of him anymore, and he entered the North Carolina’s foster care system and bounced from one family to another.

“I didn’t understand what was going on,” Amari says through Joyner-Freeman of his time in the state’s foster care system. “I was 10, you know? I’d ask questions, and they would say, ‘You’ll be in a better place.”

By the time he turned 13, Amari found structure and a home. He was adopted by Frank and Alicia Griffin.

Alicia teaches at Kiser Middle School in the deaf education department, and Frank teaches UNCG students majoring in deaf education. He’s part of UNCG’s School of Education program known as IDEAS, the acronym for Interpreting, Deaf Education, and Advocacy Services.

Frank and Alicia are both deaf, they both teach students who are deaf and hard of hearing. They have two daughters younger than Amari, and in their house, Amari feels connected and fits in well. He sees the Griffins as his family.

That steadiness settled Amari’s rollercoaster life. He entered Grimsley, and with the help of the school’s system’s deaf education program, he began taking honors courses. He also wanted to jump back into a sport he first played as a sixth grader.

He joined the Grimsley football team. Joyner-Freeman remembers.

“His freshman year, he was very closed off,” she says. “He didn’t talk much and stood by the interpreters all the time.”

Amari had entered the frenetic world of high school football where whistles and yelling coaches rule. Amari stood 5-feet-9, weighed 150 pounds, and could disappear in a crowd of taller, stronger teenagers in helmets and shoulder pads.

During his freshman and sophomore year, he played on Greensboro’s junior varsity team. When he was a freshman, he broke one of the ring finger on his right hand. He was out for at least eight weeks. That injury, though, didn’t deter him. When he was a junior, he moved up to Grimsley’s storied varsity football team, and played defensive end.

He felt he had something to prove.

To everybody.

And himself.

 

The Therapeutic Side of Football

Amari is no longer the skinny, quiet freshman. He stands 6-foot-3, weighs 210 pounds. He wore No. 44, and according to the Grimsley coaches, he became a more physical, aggressive player. He got stronger and honed the nuances taught to every defensive lineman.

Key on the ball.  Rely on your periphery vision. Ignore the quarterback. Watch the center. The ball moves, go.

Amari did.

When he was playing, Amari relied on his eyes for everything. He’d get ready in his stance, look down the line and think of nothing else except, “Watch the ball.” Once it was snapped, he charged off the line of scrimmage play after play after play.

“It gave me confidence, and I made a lot of friends on the field and off the field,” Amari says about football. “It changed me a lot, too. Changed me physically, emotionally, socially, and mentally. It’s almost like therapy.”

How?

“They gave me words of encouragement and forced me to get better because they didn’t hold back against me during practice,” Amari says. “And we go all out. When we play, they aren’t soft on me. They’re full strength, full speed, and they don’t see me as fragile. We’re very competitive with each other, and I improved a lot, and I fit in with them.”

As competitive as Amari became, he never started. He’d played in the third and fourth quarters. He played more in practice against Grimsley’s first-team offense than he did on a Friday night against an offense of an opposing team.

But that never discouraged him. Ask him why, and his fingers dance once again.

“I wanted to keep going because I wanted to prove something to myself,” he says. “It didn’t matter that I didn’t play much. I wanted to earn the coach’s trust. I wanted to show that deaf people can play football.

“People think you have to be physically perfect to play a sport, and people thought I couldn’t because I was deaf and couldn’t hear, but I did, and I proved that anyone with a disability can play if they work for it and work hard.”

And lessons learned beyond the field?

“That if you get into a hard situation, you know you can ask for help, and you don’t have to do things all alone,” Amari says. “With football, you can’t do anything by yourself. You need people to help support you.”

 

“He Fit Right In”

In 2016, Darryl Brown came from Southern Guilford to Grimsley High to become the head coach of a struggling football program trying to find its way.

He now enters his 24th year in coaching, 19 years as a head football coach. At Grimsley, his teams won a state championship in 2021, became the runner-up the following year and have gone 62-4 since 2019.

The team’s last regular season loss? Oct. 4, 2019 against East Forsyth. The score: 21-20.

Brown has coached players who earned scholarships to play football at some of the best college programs in the country. But in his 24 years, he has never coached a player who was deaf.

That is, until Amari.

“We treated Amari like everybody else,” Brown says. “The interpreters became a part of our staff, and Amari became one of our guys. He fit right in.”

Amari’s never-say-die work ethic helped him get better. He lifted weights to get stronger, and he worked hard with his position group and became more physical both at practice and on the field.  

He did play in some games. Yet, at practice, Brown says Amari was invaluable. He stood out by being aggressive and playing full speed against Grimsley’s first-team offense.

That tenaciousness earned the respect of the coaching staff. Amari accepted his role as a reserve player and made the most of it, Brown says. In doing so, Amari made the team’s offense better. He also made himself better as a football player and a young man, Brown says.

“He has that drive, that mindset to prove somebody wrong,” Brown says. “He pushed through adversity, and he didn’t let anything get in his way. With that kind of mindset, good things will happen with Amari.”

Good things have.

 

“That’s Golden. That’s Payback”

Next fall, Amari will play for the Gallaudet University Bison, a team where every player is deaf or hard of hearing and every game begins with the cheerleaders using American Sign Language for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” America’s national anthem.

When the game begins, coaches communicate with its players through American Sign Language or they pound a big drum on the sidelines. Last fall, coaches began communicating to its quarterback through a tiny screen attached to a helmet linked to a 5G mobile network.

It’s the first-ever 5G-connected football helmet. And Gallaudet, located in Washington, D.C., has it.

Amari is looking forward to being surrounded by athletes who are deaf or hard of hearing, and he won’t have to even think about fans jeering at a player on the field because of their disability.

That happened one Friday night last October when Grimsley played a rival school at the rival's stadium.

Amari remembers. So does Breanna Joyner-Foreman.

The home team's fans learned Amari’s name and began shouting from their spot on the field behind one of the end zones over and over.

“Amari! Amari!”

Amari, who has a hearing aid in his left ear, heard a little bit. But he ignored them. When he did, the fans took on a new chant.

 “He can’t hear us anyway!”

“He can’t hear us anyway!”

Joyner-Foreman heard it all. It bothered her. Still does. But not Amari.

“They’re not playing football,” Amari says today through Joyner-Foreman. “And they can’t be talking because they’re not on the field.”

Grimsley won 49-6, and like with every game, Amari played in the third and fourth quarters. He pressured the quarterback and frustrated the offensive line by hitting hard, moving his feet, filling the gaps and giving the running back no place to run except into the arms of the Grimsley defense.

He played well.

“That’s golden,” Joyner-Foreman says. “That’s payback.”