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November 12, 2002

'Football is the joy of his life'

From: St. Petersburg Times, FL
Nov. 12, 2002

Munir Muwwakkil can't hear the words, but he can appreciate them.

By JOHN SCHWARB, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times

PINELLAS PARK -- Fifteen minutes before kickoff, the locker room fell silent.

This Friday night was the penultimate of the regular season and the most important of Pinellas Park's year. Clearwater was visiting with a district title at stake.

With judgment 15 minutes away, little more could be said. The Patriots used the time to quietly think.

Some bowed their heads and fidgeted. Two straddled a bench, looking at one another without saying a word. The biggest man in the room, No. 99, laid on another bench with his hands tucked into his mammoth shoulder pads.

But almost as quickly as the silence settled, it was gone. One player talked, another followed. An assistant coach barked out last-minute motivators.

"Put it all together! Play the game of your lives!"

Then, after a quick group prayer, the room emptied.

Game time. The silence was over. For everyone but No. 99.

Munir Muwwakkil did not hear the prayer, the coach or the clacking of cleats on concrete as the team filed out of the locker room. Those distinct sounds of Friday nights -- the cheerleaders, bands, fans -- Muwwakkil cannot hear any of them.

He is deaf.
'Move Munir over!'

The commands come at rapid-fire pace from the sidelines during those brief seconds of relative calm on a football field.

"Trips left! Trips left! Watch the pass! Move Munir over! Who's got 33?"

Defensive tackle Steve Robison picks out the phrase from the barrage and thumps his teammate on the right hip pad. Muwwakkil bounces one step to his left, further out on the left side of the line. That's all it takes.

"I just do it, and he moves," Robison said. "He really doesn't need that much help."

On the field, those kind of adjustments are the only tipoff that No. 99 is different. Opponents do not look across the line and see a deaf kid; they see a 6-foot-3, 262-pound wrecking ball.

Muwwakkil (pronounced Moo-WAH-keel) displays all the qualities of a good defensive player: He's quick off the line, a sure tackler and has a bit of a mean streak. Even better, he has never and will never be drawn offside by a hard snap count.

"Defense is really easy, I just watch where the ball is," Muwwakkil said through interpreter Pam Mayle. "I pay attention, I watch for signs."

That is not to say he is perfect (the second play of the game against Clearwater he jumped early and was flagged), or that he doesn't have his share of trouble with referees.

Against Dunedin, Muwwakkil clocked a quarterback well after the whistle. The fact that he can't hear the whistle doesn't given him any special dispensation. Teammate Greg Anderson tried to explain to officials, drawing another personal foul.

"We tell our players, 'Don't worry about Munir,' " Pinellas Park coach Luke Kademoff said. "He's capable of handling himself."

The support system around Muwwakkil helps him do just that. At all times, from practices to games, an interpreter is present, which comes in handy when coaches address groups of players or when Muwwakkil is hurt and needs to communicate with trainers (he does not read lips). But most of the time, the team fills in the gaps.

Kademoff took a year of sign language at South Florida and was able to communicate on a basic level with Muwwakkil from Day 1. Assistant coach Dan McIntosh knows it even better. And with Pinellas Park the primary county high school for the deaf and hearing impaired, Kademoff estimates at least a fourth of the team is taking or has taken sign language classes.

"It's a nice arrangement," interpreter Hal Arndt said. "If I was a teenager, I wouldn't want someone (hovering) over me. This also encourages the players to learn a little."
An athletic sense

Once, there was only a 50 percent chance Munir would live, much less chase down running backs trying to turn the corner.

At 8 months, he contracted a deadly form of pneumonia after day care workers mistakenly fed him another child's bottle, said his father, Jihad. He became seriously ill and paralyzed on the right side of his body. Doctors gave him little chance of surviving, unless family members were willing to take a 50/50 shot on an experimental drug.

If it worked, the drug would save Munir and eventually cure the paralysis but likely leave him deaf.

It worked.

As predicted, Munir lost his hearing, though there was no time to dwell on it. Like any toddler, he could not sit still. At 2, he would pedal a bicycle with his left side. By 5, he regained full use of his body, and soon after his father would take him on the road during summer business trips, dropping him off for a few hours at YMCAs.

Munir fit in fine on a basketball court. Hoops was his first love, and soon after he moved to Florida from North Carolina, he tried to play on the Pinellas Park junior varsity team as a freshman.

"It just seemed like the coach the year we came in was a little afraid or something, afraid to give him a try," said Munir's mother, Renata. "But football, with everything being accommodating with even the coaches knowing some signs, he was just able to excel. He fit right in.

"Football is the joy of his life."
Bigger steps

To applaud a deaf person, hold your hands in the air and twist them back and forth. That's the reaction Muwwakkil has been getting from college coaches.

During a combine last spring at Seminole, a coach from Memphis asked Kademoff about the big defender, having no idea he was a sophomore. Muwwakkil also has been contacted by Alabama and Florida International.

Pinellas Park's season is over, which means more time in the weight room, where Muwwakkil is one of the two strongest players on the team with squats of more than 500 pounds and a bench press approaching 350. In the spring, he'll continue with the Patriots' track team. He owns the school record in the discus.

"It's going to be interesting to see what he does next year, he's going to be so strong," Kademoff said. "He's going to be a lethal weapon."

Muwwakkil said he is not thinking too much about college. He's enjoying prep football too much, especially this season when he progressed as a defensive star and saw part-time work on offense as a tight end.

"I have a good time," Muwwakkil said. "My teammates, they sign with me. They say, 'Go this way.' I started succeeding, and it became easier."

It has been a long time since he was Munir Muwwakkil, deaf athlete. Now, he is simply No. 99.

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