Arthur Hart won’t let you say he’s different from any other football player.
Charlotte’s junior punter sees himself as no better, no worse, than anyone else, with no advantages or disadvantages. Most of the time.
On Sept. 1, 53,127 people filled Papa John's Cardinal Stadium for the 49ers’ season opener at Louisville, where fans released eight months of football-free anxiety, creating an unprecedented hostile environment for Charlotte. Many players could only wish to silence the crowd during the 70-14 defeat.
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That’s where Hart found an advantage.
Deaf since birth, Hart turned his hearing aids off against the Cardinals. And for the first time in his football career, he felt different from the other players.
Growing up, he would’ve felt uneasy, even restless, with such a thought weighing on his mind. But football allows him to embrace who he is — and who he can become.
Introduction to sports
As a child, Hart tried to rid himself of his hearing aids. No matter how hard he threw them, the clip on the back of his shirt always held them in place. Hiding them behind toilets didn’t work either.
But once his father introduced him to sports, the soft-spoken Hart found comfort.
“I always loved that feeling of competing, being better than other people at something,” he says.
He found that in everything he played. Football, however, separated itself from the rest.
By the time Hart arrived at Wisconsin’s Cedarburg High, he was one of two freshmen named to the varsity team.
“When I was on the football field, I was the same as or even better than a lot of the kids there,” he says. “So I was kind of looked at like, ‘Wow, Arthur, he’s a great football player,’ versus, ‘Oh, Arthur is the deaf kid in the classroom.’ ”
‘A lot of pride’
One of the only African-American children in Cedarburg and the only deaf one he knew, Hart felt a lack of a social identity in his hometown.
So, he transferred to the Wisconsin School for the Deaf ahead of his sophomore year. There, he learned sign language and acknowledged the culture he once tried to separate himself from.
“(I accepted my hearing aids were) something I needed every day, to help me get through my life, just like people need glasses,” he says.
To play football at a higher level, he opted to transfer once again. This time to the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington, D.C.
Just before his junior year, a discussion with his uncle opened Hart’s eyes to the possibility of scoring a scholarship with his right leg. He shifted his focus from every position to kicking and punting, an often-disregarded craft.
Hart’s father sent emails to 300 colleges, hoping to catch the attention of at least one. By his senior year, Division I schools such as Purdue, Stetson and Tulane had contacted Hart.
But the daily handwritten letters from the Charlotte coaching staff prompted Hart to commit to the 49ers the moment he received his scholarship offer, making him the first person in Model’s history to graduate with a full athletic scholarship.
“It was a lot of pride to feel like I’ve accomplished something really big,” he says, “That a lot of people probably didn’t think that I could do.”
Confidence in class, on field
Growing up, Hart carried around an FM listening system to help him hear in class. Self-conscious, he often stowed it away in his backpack.
Now, Hart advocates for himself, ensuring his sign-language interpreter is in his classes and that his professors and classmates understand how to approach him.
This confidence has only continued to carry onto the football field. Entering Saturday’s season finale against Texas-San Antonio, Hart’s 39.3 yards per punt average represents the highest mark of his career. Almost a third of his punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line.
The NFL remains on his radar. He said becoming the fourth deaf player in league history isn’t a top priority, though. He’ll just keep working, maybe get a tryout, and see what happens.
“After that,” he says, “I’m going to move on with my life and find something else that I love to do.”
But no matter what’s next, Hart won’t let you say he got there any differently than anyone else.