Brian Guendling grew up with the unlikely labels of football star and special education student and seamlessly walked the line between two very different worlds.
The Texas State linebacker was so adept at playing both roles that it wasn’t until earlier this week — after Guendling released a viral video of him performing a song in sign language for the benefit of the deaf and hard of hearing — that his Texas state teammates and coaches knew his story.
The junior, who is from Poway, Calif., right outside of San Diego, was born with a mental handicap. Guendling didn’t speak until he was four and at the urging of doctors his parents held him back in school and enrolled him in special education. Guendling had trouble with his grammar and his short-term memory. He recalls performing multiple exercises that would require him to study a picture for several minutes and then look at an almost identical picture and tell teachers and counselors what was missing.
It was, at times, a frustrating upbringing for both Guendling and his parents Mike and Yvonne, but it caused Guendling to have a profound appreciation for the handicapped and a desire to enrich their experiences.
On June 19, Guendling took the stage at Nephews bar in San Marcos, Texas and performed an entire song in sign language.
With the help of several teammates, Guendling signed and danced his way through Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” much to the delight of the crowd, which included both the hearing and hearing impaired."
“Special needs are very important and they’re no different than we are,” Guendling told Yahoo Sports. “They should be able to enjoy everything that the hearing can, which is why I’m here in this world to bring music and concerts to the deaf and hard of hearing to enjoy just like everybody else.”
Since the concert hit YouTube on July 6, Guendling said the outpouring of support has been overwhelming. He’s received support from as far away as Great Britain and several people have asked for a heads up about his next concert so they can drive in to attend.
Texas State coach Dennis Franchione was equally impressed when he saw the video during a coaches’ retreat on Tuesday. He said one of the coaches mentioned the video in passing and they put it up on the projector for all to see.
Until reading the lengthy blurb under the video that detailed Guendling’s upbringing, he had no idea of his handicap or his ability to use sign language.
“We met the family and everything, but I don’t remember them going into any detail or talking about any of those things,” Franchione told Yahoo Sports regarding the handicap. “So, it was kind of threw us a little bit.
“But we were all really proud of him and thought it was a great thing. We were pretty impressed with the whole choreography of the thing, our players all involved in it.”
Mike Guendling said he and his wife Yvonne couldn’t believe the support and attention their son had gotten for his video, but weren’t surprised at his drive to do it. From the day Guendling was born, he’s been defying odds and over coming obstacles.
Mike and Yvonne Guendling knew there was a high probability if they had a son he would have a handicap. Mike Guendling, a former second-round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers, was born in between two severely handicapped brothers. Both are wheelchair-bound, blind and unable to function on their own. Mike Guendling said it was a one-in-a-million chance for him to be born healthy while his brothers weren’t, but also knew he carried the genetic trait that would be passed in the event the couple had a son.
The Guendling’s first had two daughters born healthy. Then 23 years ago, they became pregnant with Brian.
“We were told that genetically, if we have a son, there might be some issues,” Mike Guendling told Yahoo Sports. “When we decided to have another child and Brian ended up being Brian, a boy, I remember my wife and I would have some heart-to-heart talks in bed, I mean, we’re just sitting there talking about it, and I basically said, you know what? Number one, we wanted to move forward with it no matter what. We wanted another child. We actually cried together in saying that if this boy was going to come out and was mentally challenged or blind or whatever, it would make our home a much more loving home.”
Guendling had all the genetic markers to be born severely handicapped, but came into this world perfectly healthy. Even though he didn’t speak until he was 4 years old, he was able to communicate by pointing and sounds that his sisters often interpreted. He showed an early interest for sports, often shooting hoops and playing hockey. He played with Legos and cars and teased his sisters. He was, in a word, a miracle.
But he did struggle. Grammar issues and short-term memory loss kept him in special ed where he could learn at a slower pace and have more one-on-one time with teachers. While he did participate in some mainstream classes, he took all of his tests in the special ed room, so he could go at his own pace.
As a junior in high school, Guendling decided to take American Sign Language as a foreign language elective at a local San Diego college and it changed his perspective.
Special ed, and the students in it, became a family to him. He saw no difference between the kids he shared a classroom with and the jocks he shared a locker room with. In his mind, they were all his friends, all his community.
So when he got to Texas State, by way of a year at Nevada and a year at Palomar College, he knew no one and felt like it was as good a time as ever to rekindle his relationships with the handicap community. He started coaching a handicap softball team and on occasion he’d introduce his Texas State teammates to a little sign language.
But it wasn’t until the concert — a dream that was conceived more nine months ago — that Guendling’s worlds collided and he felt a sense of comfort and accomplishment.
And Guendling has no plans at stopping at one concert. He already has plans for another, this time featuring up to eight songs, and would ultimately like to showcase his talent around the world.
“I want to do the first concert the deaf and hearing can enjoy together,” Guendling said. “It’s gonna be awesome.”
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