RENTON, Wash. — When Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf began taking American Sign Language lessons earlier this year, his intent was simple — he wanted to learn something new, and find a way to exercise his mind away from the football field.
But lately, Metcalf has started to realized that his ASL exploits have taken on a bigger meaning.
After catching the first of his three touchdown passes in Seattle’s 41-35 loss in Dallas last Thursday night, Metcalf signed the phrase “standing on business” to the crowd. He learned the sign from teammate Boye Mafe, who has his own experience with using ASL during games.
The phrase means something akin to “doing your job,” or “taking care of business,” and Metcalf saw Mafe do the sign after a team meeting last week. He asked Mafe to do the sign again and immediately told the second-year linebacker he was stealing it to use in the game.
“I said, ‘OK, I’m using that tomorrow when I score,’ ” Metcalf said.
Metcalf’s introduction to ASL came in college, when he took a summer course at Ole Miss. He took up lessons again earlier this season, after being introduced to Knoxville, Tenn.-based ASL instructor Darrell Utley through Metcalf’s agency, CAA Football.
Metcalf has plenty of interests outside of his day job. He has taken acting lessons, is currently learning to play guitar and figured that learning a new language was a way to take it to a whole new level.
Utley and Metcalf meet for class over Zoom every Tuesday and have done seven lessons so far, according to Metcalf. As his skills have improved, Metcalf has been able to watch his progress grow through his interactions with Utley.
“It’s just been very fun just to see, you know, him smiling every time we interact or anytime I know something that he says to me,” Metcalf said. “I can see just his smile light up, so I think it’s just great that, you know, I get to learn something new.”
While he did take that one class in college, Metcalf basically had to start from square one. He remembered a few signs, but almost all of his progress in learning the language has come since starting his lessons back up in Week One.
At this point, Utley and Mafe are the only two people whom Metcalf has conversed with in ASL. But even as a relative beginner, he manages to have some fun with Mafe, who is happy to have somebody else to sign with in the locker room.
“Now that DK is taking it, I’ll be using it with him every now and then,” Mafe said. “We’ll be funny. We’ll be talking across and talking smack.”
Metcalf has only been learning ASL for the past few months, but he has already begun to receive messages thanking him for learning the language, and for doing it on national TV. Along with his ultimate goal of becoming fluent, Metcalf hopes to use his platform to help spread awareness and acceptance of the ASL and deaf community.
“I get to challenge myself to learn something new, and also just to bring light to a community who I didn’t know felt unseen or felt like they were being forgot about,” Metcalf said. “Just shedding light on the ASL community, the deaf community — to where more people are starting to learn ASL and starting to take heed, to ‘All right, what is he going to sign next or what is he signing?’ The curiosity factor comes in to where it’s bringing attention to the language of ASL, which many people did not know about.”
Another positive that comes from ASL lessons is that Metcalf can trash talk his opponents in a more quiet fashion, while hopefully avoiding the taunting calls and subsequent fines that plagued him early in the season.
Metcalf’s on-field use of sign language started when he signed the phrase “44, my son” after scoring a touchdown against Los Angeles cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (who wears No. 44) in Seattle’s Week 11 loss to the Rams. While verbal smack talk might draw a flag, the referees haven’t cracked down on Metcalf’s sign-language taunts yet.
Head coach Pete Carroll is impressed with Metcalf’s ASL progress, as it represents a creative way for Metcalf to express himself on the field. Anything that keeps the refs from throwing flags is fine by Carroll, as the Seahawks lead the league with 91 penalties on the season.
“I think it demonstrates a diverse way of communicating and looking at the world, and knowing how everybody is so prone to be captured in what you express,” Carroll said. “It’s a new way. I think it’s very innovative, until people start studying up and wondering what the heck he’s saying. He’s going to be OK. He’s got some grace period.”
While awareness of Metcalf’s ASL knowledge grew because of his propensity for trash talk, teammate Bobby Wagner has seen Metcalf use the attention as a way to do some good in the world.
“I’m pretty sure it’s a lot of people that do sign language that find what he’s doing very cool, and they feel like he’s embracing them. A guy like that seeing somebody that knows sign language I think is an extreme positive,” Wagner said. “Whatever comes from it, whether it’s trash talk or not, to me it’s positive.”
While Metcalf didn’t initially start ASL lessons to avoid drawing penalty flags, it has been a nice side effect from the work he has put in with Utley, whom Metcalf hopes to meet in person for the first time when the Seahawks travel to Nashville for their Dec. 24 game against the Tennessee Titans.
“I think it started out as me trying to learn something new, and then the reffing thing kind of got thrown into the mix to where it kind of turned into trash talk,” Metcalf said. “But no, I’m trying to learn a new language, simply put.”