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September 26, 2003

Powerful Allegan lineman, a deaf football player, relies on signs and quick eyes to succeed

From:, MI - Sept 26, 2003


ALLEGAN -- When the Allegan High School Tigers run into Tiger Stadium with a burst of energy for their prep football game tonight against Plainwell, the band will play, drummers will bang their drums and fans will shout.

But Allegan football player Dominick Fusco will not hear them.

A leading defensive and offensive lineman for Allegan, Fusco has been deaf since losing his hearing when he was 6 weeks old because of spinal meningitis.

"When he was in the hospital, he lost both his hearing and vision," said his mother, Nancy Fusco. "His vision returned, but his hearing didn't."

Go to an Allegan High football game, and you likely wouldn't know the difference -- unless you happen to notice Kathy Tafil, Fusco's interpreter, signing him plays from the sideline.

At 240 pounds, the 18-year-old turns into a hulk in the weight room; he is Allegan's strongest Tiger.

He has never been whistled for a penalty. The officials are notified ahead of time Allegan has a deaf player.

Once Fusco throws on a helmet and shoulder pads, he is just another Tiger on the gridiron, a kid who looks up to the Green Bay Packers' Gilbert Brown as a role model, whose favorite movie is "Remember the Titans" and who works on the family's dairy farm in Bloomingdale. And that teenage normalcy is all he and his family ever wanted.

"All Dominick has ever wanted to do was be treated like everyone else, and Allegan has made it happen," Nancy Fusco said.

"Last year the seniors treated him a little different," said Chad Gott, one of the team's captains. "But now he's just one of the guys on the team. He's one of us."

He's been a defensive tackle for three years at Allegan and among the team's leaders in tackles, but this year he took on the additional role of playing on the offensive line. That's pretty impressive for a kid who didn't play any sports until he was in middle school, to say nothing of Tafil, who knew little about football until Fusco started playing it.

Allegan High has other students in the hearing-impaired program, and Fusco, who also wrestles, is the only one participating in sports. There is no other deaf student in southwestern Michigan playing football.

"Dominick didn't play any sports and was kind of shy," said Tony Danzig, his middle school physical-education teacher and assistant varsity football coach. "But I was after him to play football and he came out and has been playing ever since."

When practice starts after school, Tafil -- who has worked with Fusco since he was in the sixth grade -- also takes to the field after spending a full day in the classroom.

"When I first started working with Dominick, I didn't know anything about football. I knew what a touchdown was and that there were four downs," Tafil said. "I worked with Tony (Danzig), and he was just awesome. He explained everything in really dummy terms to me."

Through all those practices, Fusco has even developed a sign language of his own with Danzig.

"He knows all the signals and doesn't need an interpreter on defense," Danzig said. "He reads my signals, looks down the line and reads the ball. It's all visual."

"Defense isn't hard at all," Fusco said through his interpreter. "But offense is real tough. I have to memorize a whole bunch of plays, and that's tough.

"I wear a wristpad sometimes and that gives me clues on what I'm supposed to do. My most frustrating time playing football was last year when I was playing center and the coach pulled me out because I did an awful job. I haven't played center since."

Shifting Fusco to offense created other problems in addition to learning the plays. He couldn't hear the cadence count for snapping the ball, and the center couldn't signal him that he was about to snap the ball.

"At first," Danzig said, "we tried to have the end on his side hold hands with him and release when the ball was snapped. But (Fusco) wasn't fast enough getting off the ball. We tried some other things, but the best way was for him to read the ball, which is the same thing he does on defense."

"I just watch the ball, and when the ball moves, then I go," Fusco said, responding to a question through Tafil. "When everybody stops, I stop."

Tafil is always near Fusco at practice. On game nights she is on the sidelines next to head coach Ron Orr. And while Orr is signaling plays to the quarterback, Tafil is flashing signs to Fusco. It looks like two third-base coaches signaling to the batter at a baseball game. Tafil also goes out on the field during games when there's a timeout.

"I go into the huddle, and when the coach talks, I sign," Tafil said. "I also sign during the (pre-game) pep talk. I go into the locker room after the players have dressed."

"He's never had a penalty for jumping offsides or for hitting somebody after the whistle blows," Orr said. "In a recent game he did hit somebody late, but the referee let it go because the ref knew he was deaf and it wasn't intentional."

Fusco has gained the respect of his teammates, and his lifting in the weight room has really turned heads.

"He's got a really good work ethic," Gott said. "He's my partner in weight-lifting (class). He's huge and he goes 120 percent."

"I can bench-press 300 and squat about the same," Fusco said. "I do have trouble with my knees. My family has a dairy farm, and I have to work a lot on the farm. I have to do a lot of lifting, like feed bags and calves that are born out in the fields. That has made me a lot stronger."

That was evident at a recent practice. During a blocking drill, Fusco repeatedly buried, or pancaked, his opponent.

Tafil gave him a thumbs-up each time.

That's a universal sign for all athletes.

Del Newell can be reached

at 388-2732 or dnewell@

© 2003 Kalamazoo.