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October 29, 2002

Brownsville football player gets sideline interpretation

From: Harlingen Valley Morning Star, TX
Oct. 29, 2002

Valley Morning Star
BROWNSVILLE — By 7:15 a.m. on a recent weekday morning, Hanna High School’s morning football practice was under way, complete with the sounds of whistles, hands clapping, cleats pounding, athletes gasping and coaches yelling.

"Good effort. Those last two — that’s the way it needs to be run," shouted head coach Tony Villarreal.

"Now, you do two or you do four. It’s up to you. The last two gotta be perfect."

The junior varsity players lined up in the end zone, ready to run another "gasser." Among them stood Anne Kurta, a tall woman wearing shorts, sneakers, a short-sleeved shirt — and no padding.

As Villarreal spoke, Kurta signed his words to the team’s one deaf player on the field — 15-year-old Robert Loya. "Ready," Villarreal yelled.

Kurta pointed at Robert and jerked her hand back.

Robert got into position.

"Go, go, go, go, go!" Villarreal shouted.

Kurta kicked her right foot back; Robert took off with the rest of the team.

Robert is one of five deaf players in the high school’s 125-player football program. Three are on the freshman team. Two play for the junior varsity team.

Robert is in his fourth year of playing football.

The 5-foot, 7-inch, 125-pounder plays multiple

positions — tailback, wide receiver, cornerback and strong safety. Ray Garnett, varsity linemen coach, said Robert’s "good hands and decent speed" will make him a quality receiver at the varsity level.

During games, Kurta has to stay on the sidelines, leaving Robert to fend for himself. He gets by on reading lips and studying players’ hand signs and gestures. When he needs help, he knows he can turn to his interpreter.

"If I miss the number (of the play), then I look," he said in sign language.

Villarreal said that in his five years of coaching at Hanna, one of his best varsity players was deaf.

"He could read lips and know what opponents were saying," Villarreal said.

For that reason and others, deaf players are an asset, he said.

"We really enjoy having them. They’re jokesters. It’s incredible what they bring to the team," he said.

"They’re treated just like everybody else."

Junior varsity quarterback Juan Borjon said that before games, he and the other hearing players pump up the deaf players with the same aggressive pep talks they give each other.

"We’ll tell Robert, ‘Get mad.’ And he gets mad. We tell him, ‘You’re weak. The other team’s really strong.’ He understands we’re getting him psyched up. We’re not putting him down. By the time he gets on the field, he’s ready to hit people," Borjon said.

In the classroom

This semester, Robert’s four 90-minute courses are football, integrated physics and chemistry, English and world history.

The first two classes are "mainstream classes" — regular classes where Robert has an interpreter. The last two are "deaf classes" — which are taught in sign language.

Robert said his favorite class is football because he gets to hit people. He said his second favorite class is physics. That’s partially because of his teacher — Noe Frausto, the varsity football team’s outside linebackers’ coach.

Robert also likes physics because of the labs. During its most recent lab, the class’s 20 students (including three deaf students) experimented with static electricity. Their task was to rub balloons on their hair then hold them over confetti and next to running faucets.

Robert had other balloon activities in mind. He walked over to a wavy-haired girl and scraped the inflated balloon centimeters from her ear, causing her to scream. The girl covered her ears as Robert returned to his seat and started squeezing the balloon to the brink of popping it.

"No, Bobby. Stop it," she begged. "I’m not doing anything," he retorted in his vowel-heavy speech.

Robert then moved to a table of four boys, who laughed as he stuck his hand inside the balloon and signed the alphabet through the green plastic.

In English class, Robert’s first deaf class of the day, he took his normal seat at the back table, next to a filing cabinet topped with a picture of himself in his No. 20 jersey.

Kurta, his football interpreter, teaches the class. She read and signed them that day’s lesson.

Robert’s mind was only half on the lesson that afternoon.

He was clearly preoccupied with that night’s game against one of Hanna’s biggest cross-town rivals, Pace High School.

In block letters, Robert spelled out "Pace Suck" on a piece of paper, ripped it out, stapled it to the front of his faded blue baseball cap and smiled.

A few minutes later, an announcement came over the loud speaker.

"Please excuse this interruption as we test the fire alarm," the voice said. A five-second, high-pitch squeal followed, causing Robert and another boy to sit up. When Robert spotted the other boy looking around, he let out a screech in the same pitch as the alarm, in hopes of confusing the boy.

"I love making fun of the deaf," he said.

But Robert’s also the first to come to the defense of his classmates. "I don’t like it when people tease deaf kids," he said.

His face darkened as he recalled one time in sixth grade when a group of youngsters made a deaf classmate cry. When Robert found out, he called over his best friend, a fellow football player and together they stood up to the bullies.

"They ran away," he said.

"We got the power."

At home

Robert lives with his grandparents, Mary and Juan Cruz, in rural Los Fresnos. His mother, Norma Lee Loya, lives in Olmito. She sees him often and takes him to and from football practice and church. Robert calls his Grandma "Mama" and his mother "Mom." Robert’s father died when he was 2 years old.

Robert’s family keeps him busy and "out of trouble" in the evenings and on weekends. He mows the property’s acre of grass and cares for the family’s goats and pigs. His uncles and family friends take him fishing and hunting for deer, doves and wild pigs.

Robert also raises and shows animals in the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show in Mercedes. The family’s living room wall is adorned with photographs and newspaper clippings of Robert with his winning animals. A glass corner hutch is filled with his trophies and ribbons.

"The thing about Bobby is that his hearing impairment has never stopped him from being in the band, from being in plays, sports, joining 4H, competing (in) this animal show. He’s done everything he’s wanted to," Loya said.

Because Robert has some hearing, his relatives communicate with him by speaking loudly, slowly and clearly. That explains why Robert can have hearing friends and girlfriends, they said. But sometimes the lack of sign language at home bothers him, Loya said.

"He still does (get very frustrated). He’s like, ‘Nobody understands me,’" she said.

"He tries to say something about what he’s feeling, (but) he can’t. He certainly can’t do sign language to us because we wouldn’t understand it."

Mary Cruz said that despite the communication gap, Robert still makes them laugh.

"We enjoy Bobby. We have a good time with him. He makes jokes. A lot of times, he brings out a lot of things we don’t see," she said.

She laughed when she recalled a joke her grandson cracked on a recent trip to Austin. While taking a walk with his family, Robert turned to Cruz and said, "You know what Grandma? We just need a donkey because we look like Mexicans. I hope the Border Patrol (doesn’t) come and get us."

Despite Robert’s sense of humor, As and Bs in school and active lifestyle, Loya worries about his future.

"He’s going to be limited, we know that much. I’ve already inquired about him going into the Army or the Air Force. They said he wouldn’t even be allowed to go in because of his impairment," she said.

Robert said he doesn’t see any disadvantages to being deaf. He does see one advantage. "I get to go to college for free," he said. Her concerns aside, Loya is certain her son will succeed.

"He’s such a leader. Nothing’s going to keep him down. I don’t know what he’s going to be, but he’s going to be somebody important — an advocate for the deaf, a politician," she said.

Robert sees his future a little differently. He wants to play in the National Football League. That failing, he said he may own his own auto body shop, teach the deaf, and, not to anyone’s surprise, coach football.."

©2000, Valley Morning Star, a Freedom Communications, Inc. Company. All rights reserved.