The college bar crowd is on its feet, jumping, dancing, eyes locked on the artistry of a 6'3", 230-pound defensive end whose performance will soon go viral. Brian Guendling dances. He gesticulates. He moves across the stage with a costumed, choreographed routine that brings down the house.
The house includes seven hearing-impaired patrons. The performers include nine Texas State University football players, eight dressed as police and firemen, the star in a gray jacket and open-collar white shirt delivering “Uptown Funk” in the artful swirl of American Sign Language, or ASL.
The deaf here have never seen anything like it. A concert choreographed just for them. The non-hearing impaired are wowed. A song and dance by a performer signing the lyrics. The hearing and non-hearing blend and bounce as one, which is why Guendling produced the show. He wanted to bring the two communities together.
Two and a half weeks after the June 19 performance in San Marcos, Texas, Guendling posted the video on YouTube. Within three days, it had received more than 65,000 views. On Friday morning, Brian awoke to 200 messages on his phone and Facebook page. Reporters waited outside the football complex for him. His father in Southern California, former San Diego Chargers linebacker Mike Guendling, fielded multiple media requests, including one from a reporter who tracked him down on a golf course. Hearing impaired viewers from across the U.S., Thailand, England, Australia and Sweden wrote to express their gratitude.
“You have inspired me,” one fan said. “Please give me two weeks notice and I will fly to your next performance.”
“When are you coming to my country,” inquired a second. “I cannot afford to go to the United States but I want to see you so bad.”
In Southern California, Mike’s throat tightened. His eyes grew moist. A mother in Sweden with a hearing-impaired child played the ASL video for her entire family. “They jumped up and down and the deaf child understood what was going on,” Mike said. “It was the first time that had ever happened. It just breaks you down. Brian is a special kid. He’s got all the heart in the world. It’s amazing the wildfire this has caused.”
Wildfire is a good word. Viewer response has been as hot as the video, a four minute, 30-second blast of smoking wonder. Who kills a Bruno Mars-Mark Ronson No. 1 hit with moving hands and dancing feet? Who mesmerizes a bar crowd with ASL? Brian Guendling does: A 22-year-old mass communications major who didn’t speak until he was 4, a charismatic athlete with a memory disorder who was bullied as a kid, a resilient student who spent his youth in special ed, a compassionate soul who coached a special needs baseball team his senior year at Poway (Calif.) High.
Mike Schultz, the Texas State co-offensive coordinator, discovered Brian at Palomar College in San Diego. Schultz liked Brian's explosion, that quick first step that enabled him to set the Poway High season record for sacks in 2011 with 15. “We had a lot of conversations when I recruited him,” Schultz says, “but I had no idea he had a passion for the hearing-impaired.”
That passion came unexpectedly.
As a special ed student at Poway, Brian was required to take a foreign language. He chose ASL. When he arrived at San Marcos, he noticed a young lady signing at a restaurant. Brian introduced himself to Karlie Franke, a Texas State student. They exchanged phone numbers and a friendship blossomed. One day he asked Franke and several deaf and hard-of-hearing friends to attend a concert with him. They said they’d feel awkward standing alone in a corner.
“That upset me,” Brian says.
The hearing-impaired should not feel isolated, he thought. They should not be feel uncomfortable at a music venue. Then an idea came to him. Why not produce a concert for the deaf? He pitched the idea to Franke. She helped him learn how to sign “Uptown Funk.”
The social media storm that followed caught Mike by surprise, but his son's heart didn't. Mike has two brothers who are blind and mentally challenged. Brian enjoys visiting them in Chicago. As a kid, Brian tried to throw and catch a ball with Uncle Tommy and Uncle Billy even though they couldn’t see. “We’d spend time feeding them and caring for them and trying to play with them,” Mike says. “Brian has an incredible passion for helping people.”
Brian spent three weeks planning the concert. He bought the costumes. Hung the curtains on stage. Selected the music. Organized rehearsals. When the show commenced, Brian looked like a natural, commanding the stage.
One teammate in the crowd connected with Brian more than most. Tyler Blades, a free safety from San Antonio, has an autistic brother, Ryan. Tyler’s parents, Mike and Missy, taught Ryan sign language at a young age. They progressed to picture prompts. Then Ryan learned to speak. Ryan’s first grade teacher wrote her thesis on him.
When Brian hit the stage, Tyler marveled at the signed performance, at the hearing-impaired joy around him. “I could see people from the deaf community with some of the biggest smiles,” Tyler says. “The crowd loved it.”
On stage, Brian felt the energy and fed off the electricity. “It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Franke stood nearby, reveling in a show she could feel but not hear. “It was an awesome experience because I’ve never gone to a music performance where it was signed and I could understand every word,” she says. “My deaf friends and I felt included in the crowd and had never been part of something like that before. We felt the vibrations to the music and danced along to a song that we could fully understand. It was amazing to be a part of it.”
Brian appeared in four football games last season. His video has appeared all over the world. He’s gained several hundred followers on Twitter (@BrianGuendling) and Instagram (BGUENDLING) and 20,000 subscribers on his Facebook page, “The Sign Language Man.”
The most frequent question he gets: When is your next performance?
Brian doesn’t know the date or location. But he’s received invitations from clubs and bars across the country. For his next concert, Brian hopes to perform a set of six to eight songs, possibly near San Antonio, where he often visits a community of deaf and hard-of-hearing friends.
“My goal in life is to travel the world and put on concerts for those who have never experienced them before,” he says. “This will allow the deaf and hard of hearing to meet new friends and potentially, a boyfriend and girlfriend. That’s exciting.”
The emails are piling up. The calls are pouring in. So many people want to talk, to share, to tell Brian how he inspired them and made them weep. On Friday morning, Brian made a call and booked a flight. He gave an interview and then boarded a plane for Southern California. It was time to visit the man who showed him how to care for those with special needs.
“Here’s my dad’s phone number,”
Brian was telling me, just before he left. “When you talk to him, don’t tell him I’m coming. I want it to be a surprise.”
Later in the day, Brian leaped from behind a parked van in the driveway and embraced his stunned father, kissing him on the cheek. “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh,” Mike said, stepping back in astonishment. “I am so proud of you.”
And then, wrapping his arms around Brian, the father began to cry.