IM this article to a friend!

October 26, 2002

Deaf Student Answers Athletic Calling

From: Tampa Tribune, FL
Oct. 26, 2002


TAMPA - Wally Gonzalez has the eyes of a Tiger. They allow him to have 20/20 hearing.

The 15-year-old freshman at Middleton High School is deaf. He's also a starting defensive lineman on the Tigers first- year football team, thanks to a teacher who saw in him an aspiring athlete on the first day of school.

``I've always wanted to play football,'' he said through his interpreter. ``I never thought I would until my teacher helped me.''

Michelle Henry is a first-year teacher and daughter of two teachers of the hearing impaired. She admits her passion for helping her students requires an emotional investment she's willing to make.

``The first day I asked my kids if any of them played sports,'' she said. ``No one raised their hand. I couldn't have that. I'm a real advocate for my kids being involved in school.''

Gonzalez watches intently as Henry speaks and signs simultaneously, and he nods in agreement.

``Deaf kids are often viewed as not able, but they can do anything a hearing person can do,'' she said.

More than 100 hearing impaired high school students receive services across Hillsborough County where special programs are offered at Middleton, Hillsborough, Alonso and Brandon high schools, said district spokesman Mark Hart.

Yet Hillsborough County's director of athletics, Vernon Korhn, who has been involved in sports as a player, coach and administrator since the 1960s, said he doesn't recall another deaf student having played football in the county.

Excellent Signs

Gonzalez must see what his teammates hear in a game that requires explicit communication. A series of hand signals and a sideline interpreter help him excel.

At the end of each play, Gonzalez looks to the sideline for the next signal. Sometimes it comes from a coach - three fingers means line up at tackle instead of at end. But his favorite sign is when his coach crosses his wrists over his chest to indicate, ``very good job.''

Sometimes unexpected things happen on the field. That's when Gonzalez's teammates watch his back. With the whirl of two raised fingers, they signal to him when a whistle has blown or when his attention needs to turn to the sideline.

Initially, Gonzalez's teammates weren't sure he could play with them. But in one of the first games of the season, he asserted his presence.

``On one complicated play his teammates were skeptical that he could carry it out,'' said Middleton's defensive coordinator, Charles McDonald. ``Wally came through and made a man's hit. He went back in the huddle and said, `I did it.' They accepted him from that point.''

Childhood Accident

Gonzalez, the youngest of five children, was not born deaf. A swimming accident when he was 3 damaged his auditory nerves, said his mother, Sandra Gonzalez. But he had learned language by then and understands and speaks both English and Spanish. A hearing aid in his left ear rescues him from total silence, but words are indistinguishable by him.

Sandra Gonzalez recognized her son's love of sports and attempted to involve him in sports in middle school, but was rebuffed by a coach she said would not accept him.

``It made me feel real bad,'' she said. ``Since playing football, he has impressed everyone in our home.''

The negative middle-school experience made Wally Gonzalez certain he couldn't play high school sports, either. Henry changed that.

She collected the necessary paperwork, arranged for a sports physical and got Gonzalez's parents' permission, then marched him out to the football field, three weeks after practice had begun for the other players.

Henry said she prayed the coaches would not view Gonzalez as a burden, but be excited about his desire to play.

``I was very enthused, but in the back of my mind I wondered how we would communicate,'' said defensive coach Charles McDonald.

Now, Henry said, coaches are asking her to teach them some basic sign language.

As a prerequisite to suiting up, Gonzalez had to have an interpreter at every practice day and on Friday game nights.

Henry found Craig Kinsel, an interpreter in Hillsborough High School's hearing impaired program. He knew Gonzalez in middle school and was eager to help him play football.

Kinsel admitted he had to learn football and signing football terms. He knows after each play what the defense will do next and he signals that to Gonzalez.

``He has keen eyes,'' Kinsel said. ``He's very attentive. Sometimes he's so focused on the game, he forgets to look to the sideline. That's when one of his teammates has to get his attention.''

Gonzalez's eyes light up and his smile is pure mischief when he talks of tackling running backs and sacking quarterbacks. ``I like the smash-mouth [hitting] best,'' he said.

In his classroom of seven hearing-impaired students, three of whom now play sports, he's a role model, his teacher said. ``They put him up here,'' Henry said with her hand raised high. ``They want to be him.''

Rozel A. Lee can be reached at (813) 259-8425.

© 2002, Media General Inc.