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August 31, 2003

He won't hear of failure

From: Toledo Blade, OH - Aug 31, 2003

UT player tackles deafness head on


The quarterback shouts out the snap count. Shoulder pads and helmets crackle in collision. A whistle screeches. The crowd's rumble rises and falls, and the marching band throws a brass-laden melody into the mix.

The organized mayhem that we know as football creates an endless cacophony.

But Antoine Dinka plays the game with the sound turned off. The University of Toledo freshman linebacker is deaf, but the noise is the only part of the game Mr. Dinka misses out on. He will tell you, in a blur of sign language with a wide smile as its exclamation point, that he is a football player, and that's it.

Mr. Dinka, 19, was a healthy, nine-pound boy when he was born in Dallas to Maurice and Drusilla Dinka, then recent immigrants from Cameroon in West Africa. He walked at 8 months, then ran soon after that.

He was precocious and rambunctious, so when at age 18 months Antoine came home from the day care center lethargic and feverish, his parents frantically rushed him to the emergency room. By the time his bacterial meningitis was properly diagnosed, Antoine had lost his hearing, and came very close to losing his life.

"This took a very bad toll on us," Drusilla Dinka said from her suburban Dallas home. "My only solution was to pack our things and go back to Africa - how could this happen in the United States of America? I almost gave up on life when my son, my first-born child, became deaf like that, so suddenly. It did not make sense. We almost lost him - no mother should have to endure that."

His father, an engineer, and his mother, a business consultant, ultimately decided to stay in Texas, and Antoine received special education in elementary school. When he was in sixth grade his teachers told his parents that they should consider putting him with the general student population.

"He had a choice," Mrs. Dinka said. "He could take things easy and stay in the contained classes, or be mainstreamed. We always taught Antoine that his deafness should be treated like a boo-boo on your foot, just something you have to accept and deal with, so it made sense to put him where he would benefit the most. Antoine has always been a fighter, so he fought his way through it."

More concerns soon followed when the question of Antoine's involvement in organized sports came up. With their African roots, the Dinkas were most familiar with soccer, but Antoine gravitated toward the most popular sports in America, football and basketball.

'Just too wild' "At first I said absolutely no. I thought American football was just too wild and violent," Mrs. Dinka said. "We were scared to death over what might happen to Antoine."

When he was in seventh grade, a friend convinced Antoine's parents to let him try to play on the school football team. The friend told them that from the limited exposure to football Antoine had received in the neighborhood sandlot games, his friends had seen enough - this kid could play.

"At first I told the coach, 'If I see my son hit, I'm taking him out,'" Mrs. Dinka said. "But at the first game I soon learned that Antoine was the one doing most of the hitting."

Antoine had a standout high school career in the Dallas suburb of Plano, one of the hottest hotbeds of prep football in the country. He was on the varsity as a 10th grader, and earned all-district honors for two years. The college recruiters scrambled to learn a bit of sign language, and his parents sorted through the offers in search of just the right place for their son's special needs.

"We made up our minds to like football," Mrs. Dinka said. "We just had no idea it would lead to what it has for Antoine."

Gerald Brence, who was young Dinka's coach at Plano, said the team dynamic changed little when the athlete became a part of things.

"He was the first deaf kid we ever had in the program, but after you're around Antoine for a day or so you realize that the communication gap is not an issue," Coach Brence said. "He always had an interpreter, but you also kind of develop your own language with him. He made the best of a tough situation, and never once used it as an excuse."

Antoine played defensive end for Plano, and his speed and quickness more than compensated for his lost hearing. He watched the center's hand twitch just before delivering the ball, learned that an opponent's eyes often tip off his intentions, and picked up on myriad other subtle nuances of the game.

Coach Brence summed up his special player: "His teammates loved him, the kid was a media magnet, and when it came time to play, he was one aggressive and tough sucker."

The recruiting letters started when young Dinka was a sophomore in high school, according to his mother. The biggies in the Southwest - Texas, Texas A&M, Arkansas - were all in the hunt at some point, but many of the schools that were courting Antoine were not even considered by the Dinkas because they lacked the programs necessary for deaf students.

"A lot of schools were interested, and coaches will promise you anything to get your son to commit to their school," Mrs. Dinka said. "They told me, 'Don't worry, Mrs. Dinka, we'll get interpreters for your son,' but I didn't feel comfortable with that. At Toledo, the things Antoine needs were already in place, and Coach Winston made us feel at ease about the situation. We had to be comfortable with the place before we would consider it for Antoine."

UT defensive line coach Dennis Winston, who played at Arkansas and also had an 11-year career in the NFL, said he never hesitated for a minute when it came to recruiting a player who was deaf.

"The important thing to remember is that with Antoine, the only issue is that he can't hear - everything else about him is all football," Coach Winston said. "Two or three years from now, I think we are going to be talking about a great college football player.

"He is a very intelligent kid, a very quick learner, and Antoine has a real strong competitive edge. He pushes all the time.

"I had absolutely no problem selling him to Coach [Tom] Amstutz and the rest of the staff," Coach Winston said. "They watched the tapes of Antoine playing, and they said, 'He can't hear and he plays like that; we want him in our program.'"

Coach Amstutz said he was at first intrigued at the prospect of having a deaf player on the team, and wondered about the intrusion the interpreters might make, but quickly decided that the young man came with many more positives than negatives.

"I always want a team from as many different backgrounds as possible," Coach Amstutz said. "And once I learned more about Antoine, it was clear he would be a very good addition for us. I also had a real strong appreciation of a young man like that - a kid who wanted to play football so bad that he figured out how to do it despite not being able to hear. That tells me a lot about him right there."

On the practice field, you would not be able to pick Antoine Dinka out of the crush of helmeted bodies pounding away were it not for the two women who are always nearby. Their charge is to stay close enough to sign the coaches' dialogue to Mr. Dinka, but keep out of the way of hurtling, 300-pound masses of muscle.

"This is our first football assignment, so we were pretty excited about it," said Debbie Braddock, one of three sign language interpreters from the Office of Accessibility at UT who rotate in helping Mr. Dinka. "We have to be right up where the action is, but at the same time we have to keep from being stepped on or run over. We never thought too much about UT football before this, but since Antoine arrived, now football is everything."

The sign language interpreters work in tandems at Rocket practices. "The pace is so fast, and this is so different than anything we've ever done, we don't want Antoine to miss anything," Ms. Braddock said. "We tell him exactly what the coach is saying - everything -because he has the right to know. We don't edit out anything, no matter how spicy it is."

The interpreters stand so Mr. Dinka can look at them and still see the coach who is talking, allowing the football player to pick up on the gestures, demeanor, and tone of the delivery.

"If I have an interpreter, I won't miss what is going on," Mr. Dinka said through sign language. "If my group is getting yelled at, I will get the same thing. I will know it."

Mr. Dinka, who is being groomed as a linebacker at UT after playing defensive end in high school, wears thin, dark gloves when he plays, with the finger joints wrapped in white athletic tape. As he signs there is a flurry of black and white flying across to his interpreters.

Coach Amstutz found the presence of the interpreters, who attend every practice, every meeting, and every pregame and post-game confab, a little unnerving at first.

"I wasn't used to having someone standing next to me when I addressed the team," Coach Amstutz said. "Usually everybody clears away from me so they don't get hurt when I start motioning and waving my arms, but we got used to them being there real quick."

Ms. Braddock said Mr. Dinka is one of about five deaf students on the UT campus. His interpreters accompany him to his classes as well as to all football functions.

One of the interpreters will accompany the team on all road games when Mr. Dinka is part of the travel squad, and be on the sidelines to interpret for him.

"We have to stop at the locker room door and get the 'all clear' before we go in, but we have to be where Antoine is, and everybody knows that and accepts that," Ms. Braddock said. "And as far as what is said in those meetings - they know they can trust us with that."

Mr. Dinka's arrival in training camp left some of his teammates wondering just how he might fit in. While voice commands among the defensive players are not as vital as they are on the offensive side, they are used, and adjustments and movements are shouted on almost every play until the ball is snapped.

"At first I wondered how he was going to get the [defensive] calls," senior captain Frank Ofili said, "but I didn't realize he was going to have an interpreter with him 24/7. And he's doing a good job picking things up. The only difference for him in a game is the linebackers will have to tap his hip to move him on the line, instead of calling out 'left' or 'right.'"

The sign language interpreters said a number of UT players have expressed an interest in learning some signing so that they can improve their communication with Mr. Dinka, and Coach Winston said everyone is learning sign language to some degree.

"[Mr. Dinka] teaches us things all the time - sign language and other things. One thing we found out right away is that kids communicate with each other no matter what the circumstances. They just figure it out. In his case, Antoine probably handles his deafness better than any of the rest of us. Sometimes he sees it as just a small factor in his life, and other times he sees it as no factor at all."

On the squad Mr. Dinka has impressed the Rocket coaches so that he was one of just 10 true freshmen to make the 65-man travel squad for Friday night's opener at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, which UT lost 28-18. He made a tackle.

"One thing that struck me is that he is such a likeable kid. It seems like the other players accepted him and enjoyed his presence on the team almost immediately," Coach Winston said. "He's been great for chemistry, unity, that kind of stuff."

"I had been told by other deaf students that Toledo was a good school, and when I made my visit here I saw that they had the interpreters and the right programs," Mr. Dinka said. "I've been able to communicate on the football field ever since seventh grade, so that wasn't really a concern. It was a little awkward here at first, but the coaches learned a little sign language and now we're fine."

Coach Winston said he understood Mr. Dinka's inner strength and his drive to play the game once he had the opportunity to meet the young man's family, which includes a younger brother and two younger sisters.

"A lot of what Antoine is about comes from his great family structure and his background," Coach Winston said. "His parents never let the fact that he can't hear hold him back. They wanted a place for him to be safe - what any parent would want for their child, but they have always insisted that everyone treat him like a normal kid, and that is what Antoine wants. He does not like it if you treat him different."

Mr. Dinka said through his translators that he just wants to go to college and play football, and not have any fuss made over his situation.

"When I first started at football, I thought I was awful. But after a couple of days of learning the rules and finding out what to do, it felt comfortable, natural, and now I love it. I'm playing the same game as the hearing players - I just can't hear, that's all."

His high school coach recommends against letting sympathy for Mr. Dinka and his deafness enter the picture on the football field.

"This kid's a football player, and it just so happens that he can't hear," Coach Brence said. "But let that distract you for a second and he'll lay a hit on you - and he'll make sure everybody else can hear it."

© 2003 The Blade.