IM this article to a friend!

September 19, 2004

Troy Mezera: Deaf school team plays through obstacles

From: Muncie Star Press, IN - Sep 19, 2004

If you weren't at the Wes-Del-Indiana School for the Deaf football game Friday night, you missed a chance to see some unique individuals.

I arrived early hoping to interview players and coaches from the small Indianapolis school and noticed things were different from other nights. I parked my car and noticed the man in the truck next to me using sign language to communicate with a young girl, dressed in her cheerleading uniform.

While I don't understand sign language, I could easily see that the two people completely understood each other. To say the least, this "foreign language" intrigued me.

When the players from the deaf school arrived, the usually boisterous yelling that accompanies a bus full of football players was absent. As I stood outside the locker room, I watched as a group of four coaches and trainers frantically, but methodically, used their hands to carry on a conversation.

The men smiled and laughed and seemed to agree on a plan to take to their team. The usual sounds of a hyper coach or a group of enthusiastic players were missing.

After the pre-game "speech" ended, the Deaf Hoosiers took the field and went through their warm-up routine. During warm-ups, the differences between this team and others was obvious.

The players didn't look different from each other, but the Wes-Del half of the field was louder, as they whooped and hollered their way through their drills. The deaf players, for the most part, can make audible noise, but can't communicate through words. Their half of the field was nearly silent with occasional grunts and animated screams scattered about.

Deaf coach Jonas Fenicle watched his team run out and noticed that I was attempting to communicate with him and his deaf staff. The teams' staff members, like their players, are deaf, other than their team trainer.

I knew he would be my best option for an interpreter, but he was busy, so I talked with Fenicle using pen and paper.

He told me, as you can imagine, that his team calls all plays by "signing" them in using American Sign Language. He said you have to watch out for teams trying to steal plays.

"Sometimes, we play other deaf schools, and they know sign language, too," said Fenicle, who has led his team to two wins this season, including a 45-14 victory over Wes-Del Friday night.

"We have to change our signs or even hide them," he said.

I wanted to know how his players know when a play is over. Without being able to hear the whistle blow, I wondered if late hit penalties were a problem.

He told me that his players have a great sense of motion. He said that his players can see when the action suddenly stops. He said his team doesn't struggle with more penalties than other teams.

He and his coaches explain to the officials that they would like each official to wave their arms in the air to indicate the end of a play. He said that most officials are glad to oblige.

As game time neared, we wrapped up our conversation and I wrote "THANKS" to show my appreciation for his time and input. Fenicle took it a step further, teaching me sign language for "Thank you."

As the game started, the players from the Indiana School for the Deaf quickly showed they belonged. I didn't know what to expect, but I thought the team would be weaker than Wes-Del.

It might be the stigma attached to the word deaf or just my ignorance, but I soon realized that they were athletes, just like athletes from other high schools. They just can't hear.

The Deaf Hoosiers' huddles are tighter than other teams and I assume that is to mask their signal calling and to make sure all players have a chance to see the play being sent in.

Players used their eyesight to make up for their lack of hearing, with most players being very capable of watching the ball to start the play. This is a trait many coaches would like to teach their kids.

When the Deaf Hoosiers were on defense, I felt that being deaf was sort of an advantage. Only once did the team encroach upon the offense, and I attribute this to not being able to hear the snap count. Their players watch the ball and move on the balls' first move.

They continually caused Warrior quarterback Shea Johnson to hurry throws by applying strong pressure.

The players didn't lack athletic skills, showing great running ability and completing long passes for touchdowns. A couple of their players were faster than anyone on Wes-Del's team.

In speaking with Indiana School for the Deaf principal Bob Kovatch, he said that the school didn't have a football program last year due to a lack of participation. The school is made up entirely of deaf or extremely hard-of-hearing students from across Indiana and has 115 students, 60 boys.

"The boys were really excited about being able to have a team this season," said Kovatch, who told me this while signing to his deaf athletic director, Brian Bippus. "We had about 12 freshmen that wanted to play, and we also have a decent size senior class, so the numbers worked out."

The school also offers other athletic programs, including girls' and boys' basketball, track and wrestling. Kovatch said that the middle school students have an interest in baseball and that he hopes the school will be able to have a program in the next few years.

After the game, Kovatch told me he was proud of his school's effort and especially happy for the seniors as they picked up their first win over a "hearing" school in three years.

One of those seniors, Lucas VanDalen, was kind enough to talk to me after the game.

"Every win, no matter who we play, is a big win for us," said VanDalen, through Kovatchs's interpretation.

"We know that we are a good team and knew it would be a good game. It turned out to be a great game," said VanDalen, who scored the first touchdown of the game on a 51-yard reception from Jon Mowl.

He told me that they don't worry about the hearing aspect, because they don't have a choice. He mentioned that they were becoming more confident following their second straight win.

When we finished speaking, VanDalen let out a sincere laugh after I showed him the sign for "Thank you."

The players from the Indiana School for the Deaf prove stereotypes wrong every time they step onto the field, and Bippus said it best when he simply stated through Kovatch:

"There is no difference between us and them, hearing and deaf players. They can play and so can we."

He was right - those kids can play.

Copyright 2004 The Star Press.