Signs of Life: Zach Shackelford’s ASL minor serves as connection to family, deaf community

Daniela Perez

Marysville, Ohio, is a place senior offensive lineman Zach Shackelford can call home. It’s a place where he spent Christmas at his grandparents’ house and ran around a family-owned dairy farm as a boy.

He returned in June for a family memorial service where his mother, Shannon Shackelford, and her large family came from far and wide to pay their respects. For the family, it was a time of mourning, but also celebration. It had been years since their family, many of whom hadn’t seen Zach since he was a child, had been together. 

They met at Scottslawn Park for a remembrance dinner for Zach’s great aunt. Shannon remembers it being a beautiful evening, but what she remembers most is seeing her son sitting under a tree at a picnic table talking to her cousins Jeff and Karen Hines. 

This memorable conversation was one of the first times Zach was able to talk with his cousins — now that he learned American Sign Language at the University of Texas. 

“It was just really cool to be able to talk to them for the first time because they have limited communication vocally,” Zach said. “But, to be able to sign with them was really cool and special because nobody else in my family knows sign.”

In the greens of Scottslawn Park, their family bond strengthened as they caught up on their respective lives and Zach’s college career on and off the field. 

“I was so excited to hear Zach was learning sign language and was eager to see him and talk with him,” Karen said via email. “I am hard of hearing, and since I’ve learned signs it’s opened a whole new world to me, and I feel like I am part of the group. When there is no signs, I feel left out at times. I was impressed that he was learning signs and that he was using ASL.” 

The family parted ways and returned to their various corners of the country. Before Texas took on Louisiana State, Shannon sent Karen and Jeff a video of Zach signing “Hook’em Horns, Karen and Jeff.” 

For Shackelford, playing college football was always a goal. He spent his youth living in different parts of the world because his father was in the military. The first time he played football was in elementary school, where he was moved up to the fifth grade team as a second grader because of his large frame, which was bigger than the rest of the kids in his age group.

When he was in fifth grade, his family moved to Germany, where American football was nonexistent. He continued to participate in sports and became an avid skier while also participating in a local softball team.

“I remember one day he was so frustrated because he just played tackle football for three years and now he’s on this coed softball team,” Shannon said. “Nobody could catch, and he’d come home and say, ‘Mom, I’m never going to get to play in the NFL or college ball if I stay here.’” 

When he finally moved back to Texas in junior high, Shackelford resumed football and was recruited to play at Texas. 

A football career wasn’t the full extent of Shackelford’s goals. Another aspiration was becoming a pedagogy, an assistant student mentor, for an ASL class. He first heard about the position through former Texas tight end and ASL pedagogy Andrew Beck. 

“I’m a corporate communications major, so you have to have a language,” Shackelford said. “So, a couple of guys were telling me about ASL and that it was kind of easier to pick up on because it’s more visual. As a football player, I’m more visual. And so Andrew Beck took it, and he recommended it to me. Now, as an ASL minor, he’s a pedagogy for senior lecturer Deborah White’s ASL 601D class. 

ASL has opened doors for the offensive lineman. But, for those who know him, his work ethic in learning sign language is only a further testament to who he is as a person. To his teammates, he’s a leader, and off the field, his family and teachers feel he is one, too. 

“Zach has this amazing personality,” White said via email. “He is very warm and outgoing. He shows that he really wants to do well in ASL. He is the perfect role model for those students who want to do well. I like to have various hands-on activities during the class time. Zach is great at getting involved and making sure they are signing right.” 

Off the field, he has been nominated for numerous academic accolades, including the Senior CLASS Award, which is awarded to NCAA athletes who have accomplishments in the community, the classroom, in character and in competition. On the field, he is one of Texas’ five captains and leads the offensive line. 

The senior is now entering the halfway mark of his final season with the Longhorns. Although the fate of his team has yet to be sealed, he knows once he leaves the green of Darrell K Royal Texas-Memorial Stadium, he will continue his path in ASL. 

Shackelford hopes to work in business management and continue using sign language. He will always be part of the Longhorn football community, but learning American Sign Language will allow him to be part of the deaf community, too.