Idaho senior goes viral using sign language for national anthem. ‘It’s a pretty big need.’

Most high school seniors worry about getting a passing grade on their senior projects.

Jonathan Edwards’ made him a viral star.

The Kuna running back climbed atop a podium in full pads and translated the national anthem into American Sign Language moments before a Sept. 20 home game. A family friend uploaded a video of the performance to Facebook, where it caught fire.

More than 3 million people have watched Edwards sign the national anthem, and Edwards said he’s received messages of support from around the country and as far away as Germany and Iran.

“It was a shocker that I was able to reach that many people on a global level,” Edwards said.

Edwards didn’t grow up with any deaf family members. In fact, he’d never seen anyone use sign language until a co-worker at Kuna’s Slyce Pizza posted a video to Facebook two years ago.

It intrigued him and he picked up a few basics from his co-worker while carving up pizzas. He always struggled in Spanish class. As someone who spoke with his hands, sign language made sense to him.

But after a couple months, his co-worker left, school and sports took over Edwards’ life and sign language all but left his mind.

That is until Edwards needed a senior project. Kuna asks its students to focus their projects on a possible future career. Edwards never considered anything but interpreting sign language.

“It’s a pretty big need,” Edwards said. “There are not a lot of people out there, so it was one of those (careers) where another person would help a lot. It’s one of the professions where one person can make a difference.”

Edwards spent the summer relearning the basics with Tara Adams, who runs an American Sign Language learning center in Meridian. Mastering the national anthem took a full month, and Edwards asked Kuna football coach Sherm Blaser if he could fulfill his project’s demonstration requirement before the Kavemen’s home game against Columbia.

Blaser didn’t blink. But Edwards quickly hit a roadblock.

He planned to translate a choir’s performance into American Sign Language. But Kuna’s band was the only group available for the national anthem that night, forcing Edwards also to learn all the words to the national anthem himself.

Growing up around sports, he’s heard the song countless times. But he’d never memorized the lyrics, certainly not well enough to stand up and perform it in front of thousands of watching eyes.

He insisted on translating the words though, not just memorizing the hand signs. So he learned the song and quietly sang it to himself, translating as he went.

Blaser admits he spent most of the anthem transfixed on Edwards, amazed at how quickly he’d picked up a second language.

“Normally it’s, ‘I’m going to stand here and put my hand on my heart and pay my respect that way,’ ” Blaser said. “But here’s a young man who found a need in our community and said, ‘Hey, I want to help.’

“I commend him on that, for taking time on his own to find a problem and find a solution to that problem.”

Edwards never had performed on a stage or delivered a speech before, so he admits the moment was nerve-racking. But it didn’t show on the field.

He stepped down from the podium and turned four carries into 61 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 52-8 rout. After six weeks, he ranks 10th in the 4A classification with 526 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns for the No. 1-ranked Kavemen.

Edwards stopped short of committing to pursuing a college degree in sign language, but said he’s interested and is thinking about translating another national anthem for the Kavemen this season.

He knows he has a long way to go before he becomes fluent. But he’s still working toward adding to his skills.

“I wouldn’t even say a quarter of the way,” Edwards said. “It’s a long process. There’s a lot of things you have to learn. I’m just on the brink of it.”

Michael Lycklama has covered Idaho high school sports since 2007. He’s won national awards for his work uncovering the stories of the Treasure Valley’s best athletes and investigating behind-the-scenes trends.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.
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