Friday, August 28, 2009

Michigan School for the Deaf team tackling challenge

Source Link - Michigan School for the Deaf team tackling challenge

While the defense waited, the offense huddled, planning the upcoming play.

From outside the players' huddle, they looked like any other team at high school football practice. The young players stood, sweat soaking their T-shirts, arms slung over each other's shoulders, as their coach reviewed the next play.

From the inside, however, they resembled the original football huddle -- invented by deaf players more than 100 years ago -- silently watching their coach's moving hands.

Then, the teammates placed their hands in the center of the huddle, cheered and stepped to the line.

The Michigan School for the Deaf football team is back.

The members have got a long way to go before the season starts in about two weeks. They are a team of players who have never competed and who have minimal equipment.

But, the players say they are ready.

They've been ready for a while.

"We did go up to the administration last year, and the athletic directors, and we asked them if they could set up a football team," said senior and team co-captain Ameen Algohaim through an interpreter. "They finally set it up. We're excited about it. This is great."

The Michigan School for the Deaf hasn't had a football team since 1986.

With limited students and limited funds, maintaining an 11-player football team was next to impossible. Then Athletic Director Nikki Coleman heard that the Michigan High School Association was setting up an eight-player football league.

That was all it took.

Christian Gariata (right), of Detroit, looks on as teammates work on drills with Michigan School for the Deaf Varsity Football Assistant Coach Jeff Courtney during a practice at the Flint School.

"All right. So let's try it," she said.

The students are happy with the decision.

"This in my last year here at this school, and I love sports, so I figured why not play football. This is their first year having it here in quite a while, so I'm happy that I'm here," said senior Joel Wickman, the team's other co-captain.
Head coach Pete Eckman said the eight-player style, which uses a narrower field -- 40 yards wide instead of the traditional 53 -- is faster-paced.
"It's very quick. It's a lot like arena football," he said.

Eckman is also faced with the challenge of getting a full team ready for a game the members have never competitively played until now.

"It's full contact. This isn't two-hand touch. This isn't flag football. This is," Eckman said, banging his fist into palm, "this is varsity football in the state of Michigan."

Eckman said he's been evaluating the players while teaching them the game, seeing who can pass, who can catch and who can block.

But he faces another challenge: Eckman can hear, and none of his players can.
Eckman said he applied for the job -- leaving an assistant coaching position in Fowlerville, where he and his daughter live -- for three reasons.

"I wanted to do it here, one, because it's the first time in 20 years since they've had it; two, because I love to coach football, I live to do it," he said.

The third, he said, was because his 12-year-old daughter, Kassie Ross, who was born hearing impaired and recently lost her hearing almost entirely, enrolled at Michigan School for the Deaf and told him how badly the students wanted the program.

At home, Kassie can read her father's lips. On the football field, Eckman doesn't have that advantage.

The Flint JournalMichigan School for the Deaf Varsity Football Head Coach, Peter Eckman, is hugged by Mohammad Algohaim (right) and Matthew Whitfield (left), both of Detroit, as they walk off the soccer field of Michigan School for the Deaf in Flint on Thursday excited after a morning football practice.

For him, it's a whole new way of coaching.

"It's like a trust thing," he said. "I don't automatically demand their respect. I'm earning their respect as their coach. That's not normal for football. Football is usually, the coach demands your respect right off the bat. Hands down, that's it. I'm the coach; you're the player. That's it. This is more like a family."

And it ends up, Eckman's learning a thing or two on the field, too. While the players learn football from him, he's learning to sign from them.

It's not just language barriers and inexperience that stands in the team's way. They still need goal posts, a scoreboard, bleachers and other football equipment, such as tackling sleds and dummies.

The team already has helmets and shoulder pads, and Eckman has a "gentlemen's agreement" with the other teams' coaches to not use goal posts this season -- all the teams they play will run only two-point conversions.

And, in the meantime, the school is continuing to raise money to support the new team. The goal is to raise about $200,000 to buy all the equipment.

The team will compete with six Michigan teams and two out-of-state teams from Ohio ad Wisconsin. Only the Ohio and Wisconsin schools are deaf.

Eckman said he hopes that there will be at least 20 schools in the state next year playing eight-player football.

Despite the challenges, on the football field the team is sweating, laughing and cheering each other on.

"Everything's going good ... just learning all the drills about football, blocking, working on passing and catching," said freshman Christian Garita, who just transferred to the school. "I'm very excited to play football."

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