Deaf America’s Team: the rise of the Gallaudet University Bison | college football

HASt first glance, it’s not obvious that nearly everyone on Gallaudet University’s football team, the Bison, is deaf or hard of hearing. In most ways, the game proceeds exactly as it would on a fall Saturday at any other small university in the US. Players bump chests animatedly after important plays. Cheerleaders try to pump up the crowd during timeouts. A fan of the away team loudly swears over the more polite cheers of those around him.

Certain differences, however, eventually emerge. Five strikes of a resonant bass drum alert Gallaudet’s special teams units (many of whom are busy having sideline discussions with coaches) to upcoming punts and kicks. In lieu of using a headset, offensive lineman John Scarboro communicates with a coach standing far away atop the crowded stands via American Sign Language (ASL). And, instead of having someone sing the national anthem before kick-off, the cheerleading team performs it in ASL while standing at midfield.

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Jaylen Johnson gets the team hyped up before a home game
Jaylen Johnson gets the team hyped up before a home game.

Gallaudet (pronounced GAL-eh-DET, as if the ‘u’ were silent) is the world’s only liberal arts university explicitly devoted to educating deaf and hard of hearing students. Established during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, Gallaudet is older than (American) football itself and, in fact, played an important role in the sport’s development. In 1894, concerned that other teams might interpret his team’s ASL play 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 was born the huddle. (There are a few competing claims to the huddle’s origin, but Gallaudet seems to have the strongest case. Even hall-of-fame University of Illinois coach Robert Zuppke, who is himself sometimes credited as the inventor of the huddle, admitted that he got the idea from a deaf football team.)

Sporting innovation is just one small part of Gallaudet’s legacy. The university has served as a hub for America’s deaf community for more than 150 years, intentionally fostering a community in which deafness is a given, rather than an exception. With that in mind, it’s worthwhile to go over some of the terminology surrounding deafness.

Left: Gallaudet University alumni reconnect during the game.  Right: Coach Stephon Healey talks to players while off the field.
Left: Gallaudet University alumni reconnect during the game. Right: Coach Stephon Healey talks to players while off the field.

For example, even using ‘deaf’ (with a lower-case ‘d’) two sentences ago is an act that may irritate some. Whether to capitalize the ‘d’ in ‘deaf’ remains an unresolved debate within the deaf/Deaf community. Broadly speaking, many people claim that ‘deaf’ describes all those with the audiological condition of being unable to hear, whereas ‘Deaf’ designates the shared cultural norms shared by those with hearing loss, especially those for whom a signed language is their first language. This nuanced distinction, however, is not universally observed.

The extent to which individuals grew up around the deaf/Deaf community is varied at Gallaudet. Scarboro, the lineman who was signing to his coach in the press box, grew up using ASL and played high school football for Texas School for the Deaf (he has fond memories of playing under “Friday night lights” in front of the state’s famously passionate high school football fan base). Alternatively, Florida-raised defensive back Laron Thomas says, “I was the only deaf person in all my mainstream schools my whole life … [coming to Gallaudet] was such a huge change. Communicating with my coaches, my teammates, athletic trainers – I had access to everything in ASL. That’s really what made everything so much more comfortable for me here and, ultimately, it became a second home.”

There also exists a complex relationship between deafness and the concept of “disability.” On the one hand, deafness is legally considered to be a disability under the American with Disabilities Act. Conversely, many members of the community itself reject that label, instead viewing deafness simply as a physical trait, like height or skin color, that just happens to foster its own subculture as expressed through the medium of ASL (a grammatically distinct language in its own right, not simply a visual interpretation of English).

Gallaudet is the world's only liberal arts university explicitly devoted to educating deaf and hard of hearing students.
Gallaudet is the world’s only liberal arts university explicitly devoted to educating deaf and hard of hearing students.

For those not fluent in ASL, walking around Gallaudet does indeed feel quite like walking around in a country with a different language and culture. There’s even an off-campus Starbucks where business is conducted entirely in ASL. This impression comes complete with the (good-natured but sincere) embarrassment you feel upon realizing you can’t even ask the most basic of questions in the native language. Which, in many ways, is the point – on Gallaudet’s campus, it is hearing individuals who should learn to adapt to the norms of the deaf community, rather than the other way round.

Multiple Gallaudet football players are keen to emphasize that they do not consider themselves to be disabled. “When I’m on the field, I feel the same [as hearing people],” says offensive lineman Mitch Dolinar, who considers himself hard of hearing. “I don’t have a disability. I don’t… count me as a disabled person.”

“We can do anything,” says linebacker Stefan Anderson. “People say ‘deaf people can’t drive, we can’t do this, we can’t do that’ and it’s like, ‘No, we really can.’” Anderson knows what he’s talking about – he was named first team all-defense in his conference last season, beating out hearing players from multiple rival universities.

Deafness, like any other attribute, comes with innate sporting benefits and costs. A lack of music during pre-game warm-ups seems to throw visiting teams out of rhythm. “I think it’s the Gallaudet advantage,” says head coach Chuck Goldstein. “It’s quiet as can be and teams show up flat. But, for us, it’s just another day at practice… I love it.” Although they can’t bring this silent intimidation to pre-game warm-ups on the road, as America’s only deaf college football team, Gallaudet occasionally draws such large deaf and hard of hearing crowds to away games that there are more Bison fans in the stands than supporters for the home team. In many ways, Gallaudet is deaf America’s football team.

Game day at Gallaudet draws in athletes and fans alike.
Game day at Gallaudet draws in athletes and fans alike. Photograph: Sarah Goolishian/The Guardian

Some players think the benefits of deafness are more than environmental, extending to in-game moments. “I think I’m at an advantage in a game,” says linebacker Rodney Burford, Jr. “I can talk trash and you can hear me. When you talk trash, I can’t hear you… [that means] I’m already in your head.”

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

Coach Goldstein remembers a game three years ago in which a referee failed to notify a rushing Gallaudet defender that the play was dead. Caught up in trying to outmaneuver the other team’s offensive line, the Gallaudet defender eventually broke free and tackled the other team’s quarterback well after the play was over, resulting in a personal foul penalty. “It was like… fourth and goal on the goalline,” says Goldstein. “Right before the half and [the referees] ended up giving the penalty and [the other team] ended up scoring the next play … and then we lost that game by a last-second field goal.”

Gallaudet driving range
Top: Conditioning sprints during preseason practice.  Bottom: Players prepare to break from their group workout for practice.
Top: Conditioning sprints during preseason practice. Bottom left: Players prepare to break from their group workout for practice. Bottom right: practice is a crucial part of the week.

Despite such mix-ups, the Bison are on the rise. Last season started promisingly with five straight wins before ending with a trio of losses. The players and coaches agree that the goal this year is to win the conference. To that end, the Bison stumbled out of the gate, losing in a blowout to Waynesburg University in the season opener.

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 implies. “We came out swinging. That’s our identity, we’ve got to hit you first before you hit us” Burford said. “They started hitting us in the fourth quarter …[but] we were already up. We let our back-ups play.”

In addition to being a much-needed win for the Bison, the game against Greensboro included multiple spectacular plays. Thomas intercepted a pass in the red zone to quash a potential Greensboro comeback. Burford made a huge tackle and was promptly awarded a large, plastic necklace with a bottle of Pearl Milling Company syrup dangling as a medallion (a visual pun on the opposing player having just been pancaked). In the game’s most remarkable play, lineman Dolinar threw a perfect touchdown pass on a trick play after masquerading as the holder for a field goal.

Coach Healey
Top: Coach Healey shares a tight connection with his players.  Bottom: Brandon Washington catches a long pass before scoring a Gallaudet touchdown against Greensboro.
Top: Coach Healey shares a tight connection with his players. Bottom: Brandon Washington catches a long pass before scoring a Gallaudet touchdown against Greensboro.

“It feels like so much has changed in one game,” added Anderson, who himself had a timely sack just before halftime. Because neither Waynesburg nor Greensboro play in the same conference as Gallaudet, the team’s goal of winning the conference is still very much achievable.

The intrinsically short nature of college sporting careers gives every team a slight Last Dance quality each season, and this year is no exception. This seems particularly true for linebackers Anderson and Burford, who, in addition to cooperating closely on the field, have played together ever since high school.

“What can I tell you about Rodney?” ask Anderson. “He’s like a brother to me, he’s family … it’ll be tough when we’re going our separate ways. We’ve been through a lot together.” Anderson is visibly moved. “It can be emotionally intense for me.”

Graduating from Gallaudet comes with the extra hurdle of having to transition from a community in which deafness is the norm back to a mainstream society where many people are unfamiliar, or even unaware, of deaf/Deaf culture and ASL. Nevertheless, there are actions that hearing people can take to help make such transitions easier for members of the deaf community (in addition to going out to support the Bison if they’re playing near you, of course).

Rodney Burford Jr and Stefan Anderson talking to each other as Jacob Hartman tries to catch the latter's attention to look at Coach Healey.
Rodney Burford Jr and Stefan Anderson talking to each other as Jacob Hartman tries to catch the latter’s attention to look at Coach Healey.

“Learn some sign language, it’s not going to hurt you,” Anderson says. “A couple of basic signs, just a greeting or something … You’re going to meet deaf people in your life, so be ready — it’s worth it.”

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