Mac Engel

Born with a cleft palate and legally deaf, she is one of the best basketball players in Texas

She was born with a cleft palate, had to be fed via syringe for the first six months of her life, is legally deaf and requires hearing aids in both ears.

So ... how is your morning?

She is Rhyle McKinney of Argyle, and she was born with considerable “circumstances” that make her special. But that’s not what makes her stand out in a crowd.

That would be her remarkable ability to play basketball.

You have to look to see what she deals with on a daily basis to see what makes her special. And then you might have to look even further, because she hides it so well. Because she’s not hiding.

“I have 5 percent hearing in my right ear and a little bit less in my left,” she said. “I can’t hear a lot. Sometimes during game, the hearing aids go out, I have to throw them to a teammate and then I can’t hear anything.”

If you watch McKinney play basketball, you would only see a player who can play. She’s good. All-State caliber good. If you talk to McKinney, you would only see a bright, affable 17-year-old who sounds like she has a bit of a cold.

Other than that, you would never know what both she and her parents had to go through just for her to be considered a good basketball player, and a normal kid. Because that’s what she is.

McKinney and Argyle will play Burkburnett in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs on Thursday at Jacksboro High School as Argyle tries to win a fifth straight state title.


Seconds after Rhyle was born, doctors told her parents that their daughter was born with a cleft palate.

A cleft palate is a birth defect when the tissue of the mouth does not join together properly during a pregnancy. Typically, cleft palates create problems with feeding, speaking properly and eventually hearing.

Rhyle was not born with a cleft lip, which is when the tissue forming along the upper lips do not form properly and create an opening into the nostrils.

“We had no idea what was going on; doctors and nurses were constantly coming in,” said Rhyle’s mother, Traci. “I was terrified. We had no clue what this meant. Michael (her husband) got a medical book so we could learn what was wrong with our child. Then you have a speech pathologist who comes in the next day and they say she may never talk right for the rest of her life.”

She was four when her parents and her doctors recognized her hearing was poor. And her palate problems were not, and are not, completely over.

She was fitted for hearing aids, and they have become a part of her daily routine no different than eye glasses or any other correction-based medical necessity millions of people use.


Michael McKinney accepted that this is the way God made his daughter, and that by God if she wanted to play sports, she was going to play sports.

“My doctors said for the longest time I was not going to be able to do certain things because I had hearing problems or speech problems,” Rhyle said. “I had so many surgeries that I had to sit out for everything. I had to get over the fact that I had problems.”

Swimming was never going to be her thing. She must wear ear plugs, and is vulnerable to ear infections.

Long distance running can be a problem, so she dropped cross country last year.

The issue is not desire but rather just breathing.

Her parents would have to check on her in the middle of the night until she was 10. She needs two pillows to position her head that will allow her to sleep through the night.

Persistence compensates for any trouble she experiences when playing. She played soccer as a kid, and eventually took to basketball.

“She is one of our best players and she plays 30 to 32 minutes a night,” Argyle coach Chance Westmoreland said. “If I take her out, she’s out for 45 seconds and is ready to come back in.”

A two guard who is 5-foot-10, she averaged 25 points per game this season, and 27 points in district play. Last season, she hit a buzzer-beater in double overtime to defeat Dallas Lincoln in the playoffs en route to the state title.

She wears hearing aids virtually at all times. Occasionally her hearing aids will fall out during a game. If the hearing aids are “flooded” with sweat, they don’t work. At that point, she lip reads.

She played in a tournament in Dec. where one of the Argyle coaches was yelling at her to get her attention, unaware that her hearing aids were out.

She will, when necessary, lip read. She learned how to read lips from a young age.

She can do it on the floor, or in class; if the hearing aids are out, she sits at the front off the room and the teachers are aware that she needs to be in clean view of their face.


As much as her parents wish their daughter is done with these problems, this is Rhyle’s life.

More surgeries are needed; her mother said they are putting off the additional surgeries that are recommended until her playing career is over.

“I am hoping the next surgery will be the last one as far as the palate issues,” her mother said. “Doctors told us she could lose some sense of smell and taste because of what is going on right now, and if that is the case we will have to do it immediately.

“We want to wait because a surgery will be a major setback to her career; it will require months and months of healing and recovery.”

If all goes according to plan, that surgery is six years away.

Rhyle’s senior year remains. She is being scouted as a potential Division I college player; it just depends on which level. She could be a Power 5 conference player.

By definition, Rhyle McKinney has a disability. By definition, Rhyle McKinney is deaf.

The only way you’d know she had, or has, any obstacles is if you look. Even then, you may not see it.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram

Mac Engel is an award-winning columnist who has extensive experience covering Fort Worth-Dallas area sports for 20 years. He has covered high schools, colleges, all four major sports teams as well as Olympic games and the world of entertainment, too. He combines dry wit with first-person reporting to complement a head of hair that is almost unfair.
Support my work with a digital subscription