STANFORD, Calif. — Shannon Coffee wanted to learn sign language in high school back home in Ohio, yet the timing never worked out and she focused first on getting through her Spanish studies as her mom suggested.
Coffee found a class right away the moment she arrived at Stanford to play basketball four years ago.
“I was drawn to it,” she said.
On Monday night, the senior will sign the national anthem before her final home game at Maples Pavilion. Coffee approached coach Tara VanDerveer midseason inquiring whether she might sign The Star-Spangled Banner for games, and the Hall of Fame coach told her of course.
“It was just kind of something that I’ve been interested in. I’m not really sure what kind of drew me to it, but then when I got here to Stanford I heard that it was an option to take and I was like, ‘Oh, I have to do it,’” Coffee recalled. “Luckily I got in my freshman year to the class and I really enjoyed it. It’s just different than other languages. I feel it’s more beneficial in the lives of some people.”
Second-seeded Stanford (29-4) will host seventh-seeded BYU (26-6) for a trip to the Chicago Regional semifinals. School officials cleared the idea with the NCAA before formally giving Coffee the go to sign, which she couldn’t do for the 79-54 first-round win against UC Davis on Saturday because Stanford’s band didn’t perform the anthem.
“She’s taken sign language at Stanford and she asked me if she could do that and I said, yes. At first I thought she wanted to sing it and I said no. But signing is OK,” VanDerveer said. “Shannon has had a fabulous senior year and we’re not in the position that we’re in without her great contributions. ...Shannon brings a lot to our team, she’s a captain, a leader, it’s really exciting to see her have such a great senior year and have some special talent, too.”
Coffee’s contributions to Stanford may go under the radar — she has two career starts, both last season, and averaged 1.5 points and 1.5 rebounds as a senior — compared to the stars who play far more minutes and pile up impressive statistics. Though at 6-5 and wearing a black mask in games to protect her nose after injuring it during a December practice, you can’t miss Coffee when VanDerveer calls on her for key minutes off the bench. Coffee also is one of those high-achieving Stanford students who makes your jaw drop: A human biology major, she spent last summer interning with the Stanford Center for Clinical Research. There, she worked on a concussion study with research and data collection, a project involving mouth guards developed by Stanford engineers.
Signing is a side passion. Coffee doesn’t have any deaf family members or friends, but hopes she can provide something beneficial for the hearing-impaired when they attend Stanford games. She has been working one-on-one with her professor to become more proficient.
“I’ve been working with her and just kind of getting to know her and the deaf culture and it’s really important,” Coffee said. “Sign language is really important to them and any little signs that you can do go a long way with the deaf community and I think that there’s a lot of accommodations at arenas and different things like that for different people. Having the signed anthem can really just make people feel welcome, deaf people feel welcome and just kind of create just a community with them involved as well.”
Sometimes in practice, teammate Anna Wilson — in her first year of sign language — will sign to Coffee and they don’t even have to speak.
Coffee just completed her fifth quarter of sign language courses.
“Shannon helps me all the time studying for exams and whenever I have questions. Sometimes we’re in practice and sometimes I’ll sign to her instead of talking to her, just to practice. But I’m not sure if really anyone else notices that. What’s amazing about what Shannon does is that there’s this whole group of people who in most cases aren’t being included in or can’t participate in the anthem and what’s really awesome about what she’s doing is she’s opening a door for other people to be able to participate in something that is a huge part of sports and it’s the opening part, it’s the intro. I think it’s really, really important and I think it’s amazing that you do that.”