AAt first glance, it’s not obvious that almost all members of the Gallaudet varsity football team, the Bison, are deaf or hard of hearing. For the most part, the game plays out exactly like it would on a fall Saturday at any other small college in the US. Players will beat their chests animatedly after important games. Cheerleaders try to pump up the crowd during timeouts. A fan of the away team curses loudly over the more polite cheers of those around him.

Certain differences, however, emerge over time. Five hits of a resonant bass drum alert Gallaudet’s special teams units (many of whom are engaged in discussions with coaches) of impending punches and kicks. Instead of using a headset, offensive lineman John Scarborough uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with a coach standing far away in the packed stands. And instead of someone singing the national anthem before kick-off, the support team sings it in American while standing in the middle of the field.

Jaylen Johnson excites the team before a home game
Jaylen Johnson excites the team before a home game.

Gallaudet (pronounced GAL-eh-DET, as if the “u” is silent) is the only liberal arts university in the world dedicated to the education of deaf and hard of hearing students. Founded during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, Gallaudet is older than (American) football and, in fact, played an important role in the development of the sport. In 1894, concerned that other teams might interpret his team’s ASL calls if they were signed in the open, Gallaudet quarterback Paul Hubbard circled his teammates a few yards from the line of scrimmage to discuss strategy. Thus, the commotion was born. (There are several conflicting claims about the origin of the huddle, but Gallaudet seems to have the strongest case. Even Hall of Fame coach Robert Zupke of the University of Illinois, sometimes credited as the inventor of the huddle, admitted he got the idea from the deaf football team.)

Sporting innovation is only a small part of Gallaudet’s legacy. For more than 150 years, the university has served as a center for the American deaf community, intentionally fostering a community in which deafness is a given, not an exception. With this in mind, some terminology related to deafness is worth considering.

Left: Gallaudet University alumni reconnect during the game.  Right: Coach Stephen Healy talks to players off the field.
Left: Gallaudet University alumni reconnect during the game. Right: Coach Stephen Healy talks to players off the field.

For example, even using “deaf” (with a lowercase “d”) two sentences ago is an action that may irritate some. Whether to capitalize the “d” in “deaf” remains an unresolved debate in the deaf community. Generally speaking, many people argue that “deaf” describes all people with an audiological condition if they cannot hear, while “deaf” refers to the general culture norms shared by people with hearing loss, especially those for whom sign language is their first language. This nuanced distinction, however, is not universally observed.

The degree to which people grew up in the deaf/deaf community varies in Gallaudet. Scarborough, a lineman who signed to his coach in the press box, grew up using ASL and played high school football at the Texas School for the Deaf (he has fond memories of playing under the “Friday Night Lights” in front of the state’s famously hot football fan team schools). As an alternative, Florida-raised quarterback Laron Thomas says, “I was the only deaf person in all my regular schools my whole life…. [coming to Gallaudet] there was such a huge change. Communicating with my coaches, teammates, athletic trainers – I had access to everything in ASL. That’s really what made it so much more comfortable for me here and it’s become like a second home after all.”

There is also a complex relationship between deafness and the concept of “disability”. For one thing, deafness is legally considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Conversely, many members of the community itself reject this label, instead viewing deafness simply as a physical trait, such as height or skin color, that just happens to promote its own subculture expressed through ASL (a grammatically distinct language in its own proper , rather than just a visual interpretation of the English language).

Gallaudet is the only liberal arts university in the world that specializes in educating deaf and hard of hearing students.
Gallaudet is the only liberal arts university in the world that specializes in educating deaf and hard of hearing students.

For those who are not fluent in American, a walk through Gallaudet is really like walking through a country with a different language and culture. There is even an off-campus Starbucks where business is conducted entirely in the American vernacular. This impression is accompanied by the (gentle but sincere) embarrassment you feel when you realize that you can’t even ask a basic question in your native language. In many ways, the bottom line is that on the Gallaudet campus, hearing people must learn to adapt to the norms of the deaf community, not the other way around.

Several Gallaudet football players want to emphasize what they do no consider themselves disabled. “When I’m on the field, I feel the same way [as hearing people]”, says offensive lineman Mitch Dalinar, who considers himself hard of hearing. “I don’t have a disability. I… don’t consider myself disabled.”

“We can do everything,” says midfielder Stefan Andersen. “People say ‘deaf people can’t drive, we can’t do this, we can’t do that’ and they say, ‘No, we really can.’ Anderson knows what he’s talking about — he was named first-team all-defensive in his conference last season, beating out hearing players from several rival universities.

Deafness, like any other trait, has inherent athletic advantages and costs. The lack of music during pre-game warm-ups seems to throw visiting teams out of rhythm. “I think that’s Gallaudet’s strength,” head coach Chuck Goldstein says. “It’s as quiet as can be and the teams are showing up evenly. But for us, it’s just another day in practice…I love it.” Although they can’t bring this silent insurance to warm-ups before a road game, as America’s only deaf football team, Gallaudet occasionally draws such large crowds of deaf and hard-of-hearing people to road games that Bison fans becomes more. stands than home fans. In many ways, Gallaudet is a deaf American football team.

Game day at Gallaudet attracts athletes and fans alike.
Game day at Gallaudet attracts athletes and fans alike. Photo: Sarah Gulishian/The Guardian

Some players believe that the benefit of deafness is not only environmental, but also in game moments. “I think i with an advantage in the game,” says linebacker Rodney Burford Jr.i can talk trash and you hear me. If you talk rubbish, I can’t hear you… [that means] I’m already in your head.”

The most obvious handicap for deaf players during a soccer game is the referee’s whistle. Gallaudet coaches meet with officials beforehand to reiterate the need for visual or tactile cues to accompany whistles, but referees occasionally forget to do so. This can lead to fines.

Coach Goldstein remembers a game three years ago in which the referee failed to tell a rushing Gallaudet quarterback that the play was not running. Caught trying to outplay the other team’s offensive line, Gallaudet’s quarterback eventually broke free and tackled the other team’s quarterback after the play ended, leading to a personal foul penalty. “It was like … fourth-and-goal on the goal line,” Goldstein says. “Just before half past one [the referees] ended up giving a penalty and [the other team] ended up scoring on the next play … and then we lost that game on a last-second field goal.”

Gallaudet practice
Above: Conditioning sprints during pre-season training.  Below: The players prepare to break the group practice for practice.
Above: Conditioning sprints during pre-season training. Bottom left: Players prepare to break out of group practice for practice. Bottom Right: Practice is an important part of the week.

Despite this confusion, the “bison” is on the rise. Last season got off to a promising start with five straight wins before ending with three defeats. Players and coaches agree that the goal this year is to win the conference. To that end, the Bison flew out of the gate with a season-opening loss to Waynesburg University.

They quickly returned to winning form in their second game, however, beating Greensboro College 31-14 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score suggested. “We went out on a swing. That’s our identity, we have to hit you first before you hit us,” Burford said. “They started beating us in the fourth quarter…[but] we are already up. We let our understudy play.”

In addition to a much-needed win for the Bisons, the game against Greensboro featured some spectacular plays. Thomas intercepted a pass in the red zone to end a potential Greensboro comeback. Burford took a big rollback and immediately got a large plastic necklace with a bottle of Pearl Milling Company syrup dangling like a medallion (a visual pun on the opposing player who just got pancakes). In the game’s greatest play, linebacker Dalinar threw a perfect touchdown pass on a trick play after passing as a field goal holder.

Coach Healy
Above: Coach Healy bonds closely with his players.  Bottom: Brandon Washington catches a long pass before scoring Gallaudet's touchdown against Greensboro.
Above: Coach Healy bonds closely with his players. Bottom: Brandon Washington catches a long pass before scoring Gallaudet’s touchdown against Greensboro.

“It feels like so much has changed in one game,” added Anderson, himself sacked in time before halftime. With neither Waynesburg nor Greensboro playing in the same conference as Gallaudet, the team’s goal of winning the conference is still very much within reach.

The inherently short nature of a college sports career gives every team a little last dance quality each season, and this year was no exception. This is especially true for midfielders Anderson and Burford, who, in addition to working closely together on the field, have played together since school.

“What can I tell you about Rodney?” Anderson asks. “He is like a brother to me, he is my own … it will be difficult if we go our separate ways. We have been through a lot together.” Anderson is visibly moved. “It can be emotionally draining for me.”

Graduating from Gallaudet comes with the added hurdle of having to transition from a community where deafness is the norm back into mainstream society, where many people are unfamiliar with or even unaware of Deaf/Deaf culture and ASL. However, there are actions that hearing people can take to ease such transitions for members of the deaf community (in addition to coming out to support the Bison when they play near you, of course).

Rodney Burford Jr. and Stephon Anderson talk to each other as Jacob Hartman tries to get the latter's attention to get a look at Coach Healy.
Rodney Burford Jr. and Stephon Anderson talk to each other as Jacob Hartman tries to get the latter’s attention to get a look at Coach Healy.

“Learn sign language, it won’t hurt you,” says Anderson. “A couple of basic signs, just a hello or something … You will meet deaf people in your life, so be prepared — it’s worth it.”

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