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May 31, 2003

Deaf Newark woman tackles football

From: The News Journal, DE - May 31, 2003

Susan Cortese plays defensive line for the Philadelphia Liberty Belles

Special to The News Journal

Susan Cortese locked her eyes on the football as the quarterback handed it off.

The 5-foot-3, 174-pound defensive lineman rushed to the hole, crashed into her opponent and pulled her to the ground for no gain.

Cortese, a third-string player for the Philadelphia Liberty Belles women's professional football team, stood up and tapped her chest to claim her first career tackle. When she turned toward the sideline, she saw a wall of arms in the air, hands wiggling.

For the 28-year-old Newark resident, it was a silent roar of approval.

"I got a little teary-eyed," Cortese said in sign language as her sister and teammate, Melissa McVaugh, interpreted. "I didn't think, first of all, that I would make the tackle. But then to make it and to see everyone doing that was emotional."

Cortese did not hear the quarterback calling signals. She didn't hear the clashing of helmets and shoulder pads. She didn't hear the referee's whistle to end the play.

Deaf since birth, Cortese has never heard a thing.

"For Susan to do this, she's worked so hard," said Alena Malatesta, the Liberty Belles' general manager. "It's very difficult to have 30 people around you who can hear when you can't. Watching her make the tackle was probably one of the most emotional things I've seen since the first game."

Cortese, who works with computers, is no stranger to sports. She often swam as a child, and she played softball, volleyball and basketball with other deaf athletes. She also played ice hockey on a team of hearing athletes. Her sister helped bridge the communications gap.

But football is new for Cortese. She joined the Liberty Belles, one of 23 teams in the Independent Women's Football League, this season.

Nervous when she first joined the Belles, Cortese found communicating with her teammates was difficult. But McVaugh, in her second season with the Belles, helped as the intermediary and was integral to Cortese grasping the coaches' lessons.

Besides the twice-a-week practices at Garthwait Field in Conshohocken, Pa., Cortese spent additional time working on her game on the front lawn of her sister's Wilmington home.

She also had to work on ways to communicate on the field.

Her teammates established signs for specific plays, some of which correspond with sign language. When a play calls for the defense to rush the quarterback, they call for "rain," moving their hands in a downward motion with fingers extended. For a block, they cross their arms at the wrists, at chest level. For a 32 trap, they indicate the numbers with their fingers, then swiftly cover their left fists with open right palms.

At the line of scrimmage, a teammate will gently guide Cortese toward the strong side or the weak side. She then watches the ball under the center's hands. The slightest movement is her cue for action.

"The one good thing about her being deaf," McVaugh said, "is that she's never offsides."

In lieu of the screeching whistle, McVaugh learns a play has ended when a teammate taps her pads.

It's a learning process for everyone.

After Cortese made her first tackle, Belles head coach Bill Beall began to cheer before McVaugh reminded him that her sister couldn't hear his applause.

"Go like this," she said, putting her arms in the air and wiggling her hands, the sign language version of applause. The coach shifted methods, and so did the crowd behind him.

That's when Cortese turned to the sideline and was able to see the cheers.

Cortese said she truly began to bond with her teammates during a long bus ride to Mansfield, Mass., for a May 3 game against the Bay State Warriors. It was the game in which she would see her first action.

During that trip, Cortese's teammates jokingly experimented with several obscene gestures. They found that sign language isn't as foreign as it seemed.

Earlier this season, the Belles and their coaches relied heavily on McVaugh's interpretations to interact with Cortese. Now, many consult Web sites or ask McVaugh to teach them how to relay thoughts to her.

"They've bonded on every level," Malatesta said. "The girls together have gone through personal issues. They're like a family in every sense of the word."


Other players who represent Delaware on the Belles' roster:


AGE: 27


OCCUPATION: Music teacher

Tosh first heard about the Liberty Belles last season. She vowed to try out for the team, and hired a personal trainer in late July 2002 to prepare. She kept a journal of her eating habits and lost 20 pounds in six weeks. "It's absolutely the most amazing team I've ever been a part of," she said. "And I've been playing organized ball - softball and basketball - since I was 4."


AGE: 25


OCCUPATION: Middle school teacher

Shunk planned to join the Belles last season, but delayed her participation when a close friend from her ice hockey team died. Sharon Schwager, a running back for the Belles, convinced her to rejoin the team in January. Practices were Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Shunk was in the midst of her season as a goalie in the Mid-Atlantic Women's Hockey League, with games on Saturdays and Sundays. She made clear her commitment to the hockey team and was pleased to find the Belles' coaching staff flexible.


AGE: 38

RESIDENCE: Wilmington

OCCUPATION: Operating room nurse

McVaugh is the lone Delaware member of the Belles who is a returning player. She noted a stark contrast between the teams and coaching staffs fielded last season and this season. "I would rather play on this year's team and lose every game," she said, "than play on last year's team and win every game."


LEAGUE: Independent Women's Football League. The league has 24 teams in two conferences, with the Belles in the Mid-Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference.

PLAYER SALARIES: Players are only paid if their team turns a profit. Alena Malatesta, general manager of the Belles, said the chances of that happening this season are "pretty small." It costs about $80,000 to run the team for one season.

COST TO PLAYERS: The Belles ask $150 from returning players, $350 from rookies to help offset the team costs.

EQUIPMENT: IWFL players wear the same brand of equipment (Shutt) as NFL players.

BELLES' HOME FIELD: A.A. Garthwaite Field, 11th & Fayette streets, Conshohocken, Pa.


Today: Rhode Island, 7 p.m.

June 7: Albany, 7 p.m.

June 14: Bay State, 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Advance

General admission: $10

Children under 16: $5

Children under 2: Free

At the door

General admission: $15

Students (8-16): $10

Children (2-8): $8

Children under 2: Free

INFORMATION: For more information on the Belles, visit For more information on the league, visit

Copyright ©2003, The News Journal.