When Falcons’ players broke from minicamp today some were headed for vacation, others headed home, but third-string quarterback Kurt Benkert was going to play in a pro-amateur Fortnite Tournament. While he’s an experienced gamer, he’s adding a new skill for this event, as he will play the tournament while using American Sign Language (ASL).
The 23-year-old professional football player is teaming up with 13-year-old professional Fortnite player Soleil Wheeler, who is deaf. The two have been playing the world-renowned battle royale game together for a few months, which has led to Benkert learning sign language.
“It’s not as easy as I thought it’d be, but it’s kind of like learning an offense,” Benkert said. “A whole lot of terminology, obviously, and a lot of expressions that I didn’t know went into it.”
Wheeler, also known online as Ewok, has three siblings who are all deaf, along with her parents. Her dad teaches ASL, which is where Benkert got the idea to learn a second language, but he picked up more than just a new skill along the way.
“Hello, my name is Kurt. I Play football for the @AtlantaFalcons , my # is 6. I practice ASL (American Sign Language). Nice to meet everyone. ILY.” It has been truly inspiring to watch @EwokIts break through and pave a way for the deaf community in Esports. Grateful to know her🤘🏼 pic.twitter.com/iXtrweZZ5Z— Kurt Benkert (@KurtBenkert) June 2, 2019
“It’s kind of just been a weekly progression of being able to communicate,” Benkert said. “Just being friends with her family, her siblings and her parents. It’s been cool.”
Benkert and Wheeler communicate by FaceTiming and using sign language while playing. Benkert admits he is still learning signs, so they can also communicate via text chat on their desktop computers. Fortnite’s sound visualization system helps Wheeler see the things that other players hear.
The two met each other through mutual friends who also stream before Wheeler’s dad asked if Benkert would be interested in playing duos with her. While Benkert may be able to give pointers on the football field, he said he lets Wheeler lead when they drop into a new game on Fortnite.
“When I play with Kurt, I feel inspired that he is an NFL player and he is a good teammate,” Wheeler expressed using ASL via video. “We communicate with each other and I teach him how to sign so we can play and communicate. I enjoy playing with him and it is fun. And I’m excited to be playing with him at the pro-am.”
The ten-year age gap and the challenge of learning a new language hasn’t slowed the duo down. They earned the right to compete in the Celebrity Pro-Am this weekend, which puts 50 of the top Fortnite players in the world, and their celebrity partners, in a tournament for $3,000,000.
Even if they do not come in the first place, Benkert and Wheeler will still take home at least $10,000. The money will be donated to a charity of the Wheeler family’s choice, and though the exact charity is unknown right now, Benkert said it will be a charity benefitting the deaf community.