SEATTLE -- There is a deaf football player about to play in the Super Bowl. He's the best listener on his team.
Seconds after the Seahawks won the NFC Championship, Derrick Coleman stood inside delirious CenturyLink Field -- noise swirling like confetti -- and felt only vibrations. But he read every lip he could. He read Pete Carroll's "Attaboy"s and Russell Wilson's "We did it"s and even Richard Sherman's "I'm the greatest." His world is quieter than everyone else's, but don't mistake that for weakness. He misses nothing. His survival skill is concentration. Give him a clear view, and he can tell you what the referee is whispering about under the replay hood. This isn't a handicap; this is progress.
The first deaf player in NFL history was defensive tackle Bonnie Sloan, a 1973 member of the St. Louis Cardinals who thought it was fortuitous that he didn't have to hear his coaches curse. The second was defensive end Kenny Walker, a Denver Broncos 1991 draft pick out of Nebraska, who was so thorough he used to bring an interpreter with him to team meetings.
But the third deaf NFL player has gone where none has ever gone before … to offense, where, in the 21st century there are audibles and "Omaha"s and outright races to the line of scrimmage to snap the football.
Coleman, a backup fullback for the Seahawks, is overwhelmed by none of it. When he is in the lineup, the first person he finds is quarterback Russell Wilson. He follows Wilson to the huddle. He asks Wilson to stare at him during the play call. If there's an audible under center, he expects Wilson to turn around and mouth it to him loud and clear. If Wilson forgets, he'll go grab the quarterback's face mask. That's his other survival skill: whatever it takes.
It's simple, actually: You don't have to hear to be able to listen.
Elementary school can be the cruelest place on earth. The truth is spoken there, for better or worse, and one of the first taunts Coleman received in grammar school was: "Hey, Four Ears."
His parents, Derrick Coleman Sr. and May Evans, had been dreading that moment ever since an Orange County, Calif., specialist told them their 3-year-old son was virtually deaf in his left ear. Doctors explained that young Derrick was a genetic anomaly. Derrick Sr. and May could hear normally, but each was missing a hearing gene -- which meant their son's hearing was in gradual decline.
First, the left ear went entirely, then the majority of the right. By elementary school, he wore two bulky hearing aids, which helped amplify sounds. The upside, at first, was that he could hear again. "You could see his eyes lighten up," May says. But the downside was that he was fair game to all the smart alecks in his first-grade class.
His response was to ignore anyone who was rude or simply turn the volume down on his hearing aids. "That's the one good thing about having 'em," Coleman says. "You guys have to actually listen when somebody's talking. I just turn 'em off."
But the more he tuned out the world, the more the world pushed back. When he was about 9, he was attacked at a playground, according to May, by five children. "[They] double-teamed him and jumped on him because he was different," she says.