PROFILE: The Kai Christenberry story
Published 4:19 pm Tuesday, March 15, 2016
By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor
It’s the best kind of Friday night at Oak Mountain High School. One with a home football game. Cars clog up the two-lane Cahaba Valley Road on the way to Heardmont Park Sportsplex well before the 7 p.m. kickoff, and people begin to pour into the stadium in anticipation of the upcoming game while the sun still has room to fall in the sky. This is a big one, as the Eagles are taking on Hewitt-Trussville in a crucial region game. It’s been a rough start for Oak Mountain in 2015, and the Eagles have stumbled out of the gate to a 2-3 start and a 1-2 record in region play. This is the biggest game of the season to date for Oak Mountain, as it tries to keep hope alive for a playoff berth.
The Eagles, a sea of white and red, warm up prior to kickoff. Position players run through footwork drills, linebackers fine-tune their hitting, linemen explode out of three-techniques. The weather is crisp, music is booming through the sound system and the air is full of the type of energy only found on high school football fields in the fall. It’s a good night to be alive.
Among the horde of Eagles warming up is No. 32. He’s quick, has an explosive first step and glides like an athlete who’s been playing the sport for years. He’s locked in, focused on the task at hand, just like everyone around him. No one would have any reason to suspect anything is different about this kid compared to everyone else.
As the clock ticks down, and players matriculate over to their respective sidelines before kickoff, No. 32 looks over to an assistant coach who is moving his hands furiously. No. 32 responds in kind. At first, it won’t click with a casual observer simply because there’s no frame of reference for what’s going on. Soon though, it becomes obvious. They’re communicating, signing. No. 32 is deaf.
This is Kai Christenberry, senior defensive back and special teams gunner who was born, some 7,000 miles away from Heardmont Park, without the ability to hear.
This is his story.
Creating a family
Kim and Bill Christenberry have eight children. They have three biological sons, two adopted sons and three adopted daughters. Their house has been full of noise and chaos, organized and otherwise, for some time now. However, there was a time when they weren’t sure children were in store at all.
“Originally, when we were trying to adopt, we did in vitro (fertilization) and were told we would never have kids,” Kim said. “But then we had the boys.”
Wilson came first, followed by Boyd just a year later and Steele two years after that. While their three sons came and were a blessing for the young family, the two still felt compelled, called, to adopt. When Bill came back from a mission trip to the Ukraine in 2004, having “fallen in love” with a boy that was unadoptable for a variety of bureaucratic reasons, that was the final sign in a multiple-year journey of prayer and meditation that adoption was their calling. So they returned to the Ukraine, three sons in tow, for their first adoption experience.
“Ukraine, you go there, hoping you’ll be there for a month or two, hoping you’ll be matched with a child,” Kim Christenberry said. “We went over there, and our paperwork said a four or five year old little girl. And it’s just, it’s like the Wild West over there, adopting.”
As was common with the Christenberry’s in their adoptions preceding Kai’s, as soon as they saw the two girls they ended up adopting, they knew they had found their daughters. In Elise and Selah’s case, sisters just 18 months apart, 10 and eight at the time, Kim and Bill were particularly reassured because of the fortuitous timing.
“In Ukraine, certain paperwork has to be filled out for a child to be adoptable,” Kim explained. “And if their director doesn’t fill that out, they could be in an orphanage their whole life and never be adoptable. Their (Elise and Selah’s) paperwork was filled out the day that we got there, and that was the first day they were adoptable.”
The girls had been in the orphanage for five years before the day their paperwork was filled out, the same day Kim and Bill entered their lives.
A year later, the Christenberry’s adopted Johnny, the youngest of their eight children, now 14, from central China. Johnny is deaf, as all three of the Christenberry’s adopted children from China are, and although Kim is a licensed sign language interpreter and everyone in the Christenberry household can sign to varying degrees, the adjustment was difficult for their youngest.
“It’s hard being the only deaf kid in the family,” Kim explained.
The desire to help Johnny assimilate led to the quest to adopt yet again. And the family turned back to China to adopt their third daughter, Poppi. In that process, Kim and Bill were turned in the direction of a teenage boy who was in danger of aging out, a fate that usually ends on the streets. At first, they were skeptical.
“(Adopting) teenage kids from China? You hear horror stories about that,” Kim said.
Any trepidation the Christenberry’s had about adopting yet another son, this one much older than Johnny was when he was adopted, melted away when they got the opportunity to see him over Skype. What they saw was not a surly, openly aggressive teenager, but rather a boy exuding calmness, kindness and a remarkable sense of peace.
“He is a remarkable kid, which has nothing to do with us, because he was 13 when he got here,” Kim said. “But just Skyping with him and every person that we could have information from and have contact with said the same thing, ‘He’s just amazing.’”
A declaration from Steele, the youngest biological Christenberry, that Kai simply had to come home, sealed the deal. Kai was coming to America.
Three weeks in China to get Poppi from the Southeast and Kai from the Northeast portion of the country, and the Christenberry’s returned with the last two members of their family.
Learning the Ropes
Kai didn’t have much opportunity to play sports in China. It wasn’t much of an option at his orphanage. When he arrived here, the decision to start playing football was not something he pondered over for a while. It was, like most decisions made by 14-year-old boys, just kind of an impulse.
“I wanted to join my freshman year, I just thought maybe I’d try it,” Kai said, with his mother interpreting. “Really, I watched it on TV, and that was the year Auburn won the National Championship, so I thought I’d try it.”
That is not a dramatic or profound introductory story to the game, but it is indicative of the way Kai has been raised and how he views himself. At 14, everyone makes those kinds of decisions on impulse, so that’s what Kai did too. He had no reason to give it any more thought than that.
While football was the first American sport he got involved with, his first love has always been track and field.
“My absolute favorite is hurdles in track,” Kai expressed, through his mother. “Before the decathlon I practiced the pole vault and did pretty well in that during the decathlon so I really like that now, too.”
The decathlon, a 10-part event, is one of the most athletically difficult competitions in the world, necessitating a unique competitor who is proficient at all facets of track and field, not just an expert at one element. The decathlon, and more specifically the pole vaulting Kai referred to, was a moment in time that his interpreter and coach, Chris McGaha, the same man Christenberry communicated with during football games, points to as verification and validation of Christenberry’s athletic ability.
“He only got like four days to practice it, “McGaha said. “He hit a hurdle in the 110-meter hurdles in the decathlon. That was his strong event; we were worried about his score at that point. Then, he goes and pole vaults and gets a better height than the pole vaulter on the track team.”
McGaha played football in college at Presbyterian College in South Carolina and got introduced to sign language after graduation as a grad assistant. He came to Oak Mountain when Kai decided to play football and has worked with him all through his high school career.
During that time, McGaha has gotten to know Kai on an intimate level. Kai relies solely on McGaha for his instruction on the field, but more than that the two have developed a personal relationship during his high school tenure. No one is more qualified to speak about the challenges and tribulations Kai endures to play football, or any sport, than McGaha. It is ironic then, that the handicap that has allowed the two of them to interact is not a nominal disadvantage on the football field, according to McGaha.
“Personally, I don’t know (how challenging it is),” McGaha said. “He’s overcome a lot. The only thing he can’t do is hear. A lot of the game is dependent on hearing, he knows that. But there’s so much noise in 7A football (hearing doesn’t always matter). I think the biggest challenge for Kai has been acclimating to American football, which has nothing to do with him being deaf.”
‘Make my family proud’
Kai’s eyes are an ocean of emotion. The slight boy from the other side of the planet who can’t hear a thing relays more through a glance than Hollywood actors. There is an eagerness in his eyes, a concentration and a focus present in his gaze, that is both instantly recognizable and also undeniably likeable. Talking to him, it’s easy to see what the Christenberry’s saw in that 14-year-old boy on a grainy computer screen from across the world.
He’s a normal kid in so many ways, this Kai Christenberry. He was worried about his pre-cal class before the school year, he drives, he doesn’t have a girlfriend (even though he says jokes and says he’s dating his math book), he really enjoys going to his deaf church service that meets at Green Valley Baptist on Sundays and he’s nervous about graduation but excited about attending Gallaudet University in the fall, a prestigious college for the deaf, where he will also play football and run track.
The most telling response, the most insightful look into the heart and mind of Kai Christenberry, comes when responding to a question about his goals for his senior year.
Kai thinks, pauses, his eyes expressing so well the concentration that his ears won’t allow his mouth to. He takes a minute, unsure how to answer.
“I want to make history as a deaf guy playing football playing state,” Kai said, finally. “I really want to go to state (in track). I just want to do a good job and make my family proud.”