When James Burns signals in a play from the sidelines, it's a necessity.

It's imperative that Burns, an interpreter for the deaf, gets the right signal in to South Walton running back Zach Reese, who has been deaf since birth.

Reese, a senior for the Seahawks, plays the game with no fear, going at every play head strong.

"Sometimes I make mistakes, but it makes me want to play harder to make up for those mistakes," Reese signed to Burns who in turn told The Sun.

Reese, who lives in Rosemary Beach with his dad Edward and step-mom Erin, had to stop and count on his fingers when asked how many years he's been playing football.

"About eight years" was the verdict.

"My dad played football and got me watching it on TV," Reese said. "I got interested and started wanting to play."

And the position he wanted to play is the slot he now plays for the Seahawks — running back.

"He does what he is coached to do," said South Walton Coach Phil Tisa. "He's a good athlete. He's got good speed, a lot of agility, able to change direction, something we haven't had a lot of. He's a different player for us.

"He has a lot of natural ability," Tisa added. "He looks for open grass."

Sign language is Burns’ "first language," having grown up with deaf parents, but that hasn’t held him back on the football field.

In four games, Reese who stands about 5-foot-9 and weighs 150 pounds has rushed 32 times for a total of 243 yards and two touchdowns. On defense he has nine tackles and pulled down two interceptions.

Reese got his first taste of football as a 6th grader. Prior to coming to South Walton a couple of years ago, he was playing running back for the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine.

"It was a lot easier, because there are a lot more plays to learn here," Reese said.

Last year, he played as a wide receiver for the Seahawks, but this year he's in the backfield.

When asked if he had any struggles on the gridiron, he responded "there really isn't one."

"When I first started playing it was kind of tough learning everything, but once I got into it and got used to it, it was easy to learn," Reese said. "The signals definitely helped out."

Still, sometimes they get their signals crossed up.

"If we add a new play to the system, sometimes we will have a miscommunication," Burns said.

And when he's on defense and on the other side of the field, "I'm jumping up and down … it's hard to see him."

Nevertheless, Burns is allowed to walk up and down the sideline and signal in plays to Reese, while coaches have to stay between the 25's.

"That's why I like running back. It's easier. I'm set right there and I know to look right there," Reese said.

And no matter the size of the other team, Reese is "never" scared of being hit.

"I love tackling, hitting, running … I like it all," Reese said.

When asked about his plans for the future, he says he's not sure yet. "I just want to go to school."

As for playing college football one day? "Maybe," was his reply.


James Burns, who lives in Freeport, originally started out at Freeport Middle School working with deaf children.

A couple of years ago he was asked if he wanted to assist deaf player Zach Reese in football.

"I love sports, so I took them up on the offer," Burns said.

The first two years he worked at the middle school and drove down for football practice and games.

This year Burns got transferred to work with Reese full time.

"I'm here early in the morning to late in the evening," he said. "I'm here with him all day, through all the classes. I interpret everything … all the good, the bad and the ugly."

"Like the movie," Reese signed with a smile on his face.