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May 18, 2004

Listen up: Fisher not burdened by hearing impairment

From: Nashville City Paper, TN - May 18, 2004

By Dominic Bonvissuto,
May 18, 2004

What do Jeff Fisher and Beethoven have in common?

Both like to score, yes, but even more interesting is that both are (or were, in the late composer's case) hearing impaired.

Beethoven's infamous disability is thoroughly detailed in history books, but the Tennessee Titans head coach's ailment is lesser known. That's by design, explains Fisher, who says he was born without an ear canal in his right ear.

"I don't make a big deal about it because it's not a big deal to me," said Fisher, adding that doctors have told him he has a 90 percent hearing loss in the afflicted ear. "It's been with me since I was young, and I've learned to compensate."

Fisher, who can hear perfectly out of his left ear, has taken up for the hearing disabled community in Nashville, becoming the honorary fund raising chairman for the League for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing. Among his duties is hosting tonight's second annual Kick-Off for Kids event at Baptist Sports Park and Friday's celebrity softball game at Greer Stadium, both which benefit the League.

League President and CEO Les Hutchison said Fisher's association with his organization is invaluable for the deaf community in Nashville.

"He normalizes it," Hutchison said. "It shows our deaf folks that just because they communicate differently, it doesn't have to be a handicap."

Given Fisher's stature in the other league in his life, it's obvious he hasn't let his hearing impairment stop him from success in the NFL. It did, however, cause a bit of a problem back in his playing days with the Chicago Bears.

"It was my rookie year," Fisher recounted after a recent Titans practice, "and I was walking in the locker room when one of the veterans said something to me and I didn't hear it. I just kept on walking. Those players, thinking I didn't respond because I was just some cocky kid, picked on me until I figured out what had happened. I had to suffer their wrath for a couple of weeks because of it."

Aside from that one incident, Fisher claims his hearing loss has not once been a problem during his time in the NFL. Even on the sideline in the chaotic, noisy atmosphere of an NFL game, Fisher has learned how to cope. Like most coaches in the NFL, Fisher roams the Titans sidelines wearing a headset with one earpiece to communicate with the coaches above the field. The headset covers his good ear, forcing Fisher to remove it when he needs to hear what's happening on the field.

"If you watch closely, you'll see that I adjust my headset during a game a lot more than any other coaches around the league," Fisher said. "But I don't consider it a disadvantage because I've never known anything different."

Fisher is quick to downplay his hearing deficiency, partially because he knows there are others who've succeeded in the NFL with worse hearing problems than his. Nashville native Bonnie Sloan (see accompanying story) was the first of three deaf players to make it into the NFL. The last player to do so was defensive lineman Kenny Walker, who starred at Nebraska and went on to play for the Denver Broncos in the early 1990s.

Titans defensive tackle Kevin Carter was introduced to Walker when he visited Nebraska for a recruiting visit while he was still in high school.

"I was impressed by the player he was and then I found out he was deaf and I thought, 'Not being able to hear? Holy mackerel!'" Carter said. "The game is hard enough as it is and to overcome being deaf is a credit to him."

Likewise, Fisher is impressed with the children he encounters through his involvement in the League. Prior to the Titans season-opening game against Oakland last year, Fisher invited a group of hearing impaired kids to speak to the team in the locker room prior to the game. Fisher's purpose was to show his players the importance of the skill he preaches about the most — listening.

"I wanted the players to see firsthand someone whose life depended on their ability to focus and listen," Fisher said. "Those kids don't have the option of half-listening and then responding, 'I gotcha coach.' That's what I wanted to get across to these guys — that you have to listen to be successful."

The way the team responded — a 25-20 win over the defending AFC champs — was music to Fisher's ears.

Copyright 2000-2004 The City Paper, LLC