Thursday, August 20, 2009

Deaf students tackle gridiron dreams

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Brandon Locke sprinted down field along a line of orange cones, cut sharply to his left, looked over his shoulder and squinted into the August sun.

The football arrived, but not with the intended accuracy. Locke stretched out his arms and leaned. He narrowly avoided stumbling and, hair flying, deftly hauled in the ball. Locke smiled broadly and trotted back to his coaches.

Later, during a break in the first practice at the Michigan School for the Deaf since 1985, Locke sat on the soccer field, next to Interstate 69, his perspiration glistening.

"I've been looking forward to playing football here at the school," the 15-year-old said, in American Sign Language (ASL). "I've been coming to the school ever since I was a little kid. And I've always gotten a hold of everyone and tried to get them to set up a football team.

"I'm inspired. I'm elated!"

If all goes well, amid an exceedingly tight schedule, they will play eight-man football this year. But, first, they need financial support to buy their equipment, including helmets and pads and even goalposts to help convert their old soccer field to a gridiron -- all within the next few weeks.
Sport boosts self-esteem

But the Tartars are not much concerned about what they consider technicalities. They are practicing the American sport of autumn, and they say they do not intend to quit.

"This is the first time I ever played football," said Ameen Algohaim, 17, also using ASL, like all the players and their coaches. "It makes me feel good that this school has established football for us."

The coaches and parents say football may provide a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem for which teenagers often yearn. And, they might win some games, along the way.

"I have some parents who want their kids to start practicing," said Pete Eckman, the Tartars coach. "They are looking at it as a big confidence booster for them -- to not only play the game, but the first team in a while to start out like this at the Michigan School for the Deaf."

Some students were interested in the game, and adults at the school realized that football might boost enrollment and provide an emotional lift.

Planning began last year with a survey of the students.

"Ninety-five percent of the students said they were interested in football," said athletic director Nikki Coleman.

The response continues to be overwhelming.

"Once Nikki interviewed me, and I got chosen for the coaching position, I got a hold of some of the kids through AOL text messenger," Eckman said. "And ever since I started that communication, if I have it on, they are constantly communicating. They won't stop. 'What do I need? What offense are we going to run? What defense are we going to run? What schools are we going to play?'

"They want to get out on the field so badly."
Disability not a hindrance

The deaf have long played football. Indeed, in one way, their legacy is permanently part of the game.

In 1892, according to a variety of sources, Paul Hubbard, the quarterback of Gallaudet University -- the first school intended for the higher education of the deaf -- grew concerned opposing defenses were reading the sign language he used to call plays. Hubbard began gathering his fellow players in a circle around him, blocking vision from the field and the sidelines.

The huddle was invented.

Two deaf men played in the NFL: Kenny Walker of the Denver Broncos, in 31 games, from 1991-93; and Bonnie Sloan, of the then-St. Louis Cardinals, for four games in 1973.

"I played football since I was eight and right through high school," said assistant Jeff Courtney, a West Virginia native who also is deaf and learned to communicate in sign language with the help of Arleen Rodriguez, the mother of University of Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez.

"It's common sense. All I ever said to the ref was you don't really need a whistle. When all of the other players stop moving, I stop moving. It's the referee's responsibility to be over the player who has the ball before I hit them. ... And on offense, it's the quarterback's responsibility to make sure he communicates with me, using sign.

"So, really, deaf athletes can play any sport. They can communicate. So, there really isn't any excuse."
Game gives opportunity

The Michigan High School Athletic Association does not think so, either.

"This is one thing we thought would happen, whether it is the Michigan School for the Deaf or some other schools with small programs that will now start to play football as a result of the eight-player game," said John Johnson, communications director for the MHSAA.

Nate Hampton, assistant director of the MHSAA, said several schools around the state have inquired about playing eight-man football. The first game is scheduled between two hearing schools, Carsonville-Port Sanilac High, in the Thumb, and Engadine High, in the Upper Peninsula, at 7 p.m. Aug. 29 in Engadine.

"We're looking to see what kind of interest there may be for the eight-player format," Hampton said. "From meetings and representative council action, should we get 20 schools playing, they decided we would sponsor a tournament in 2010."

In the eight-player game there are no tackles on the line and one less back in the backfield. Because of the narrowness of the line, teams often eschew kicking. The field is narrower (40 yards instead of 53 1/2 ).

But the players wear pads, and there is full contact.

Eckman and Courtney are hoping to field a team composed of about 15 to 20 players, from an enrollment of about 50 to 60 at the high school.

"I already know of one student transferring here because they want to play," Eckman said.

After the first practice this week, the coaches said they were pleased with the outcome.

"They were pretty good," Eckman said.

"Just based on their ability to run and follow instruction. It was pretty good."

But with no booster program in place, with the school decades removed from the last time it needed to finance the expensive sport and with the first of six games scheduled for Sept. 17, things are in a bit of a rush at the small school in chronically hard-pressed Flint.

"We need all of the bare essentials," Eckman said. "The goal posts, equipment, pads. I started sending out sponsorship letters the day I got the word that I was the head coach for the team about two weeks ago.

"We're actively raising money and asking for sponsorships for the program."

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