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October 14, 2004

Sound of silence

From: Indianapolis Star, IN - Oct 14, 2004

Indiana Deaf team overcomes challenges

By Pat McKee
October 14, 2004

Imagine watching a televised football game with the announcers muted so only the crack of the pads and sound of footsteps could be heard.

Throw in a variety of gestures and hand movements -- somewhat like Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning at the line of scrimmage -- coming from virtually everyone on the field.

Add a supportive crowd, but one that does not scream or holler at the players, coaches or officials.

That's the scene each week when Indiana School for the Deaf plays a football game.

"Hearing teams will have coaches along the sidelines yelling 'pass,' 'run,' 'right,' 'left' and other commands," Deaf Hoosiers athletic director Brian Bippus said via sign language through school principal Bob Kovatch after a game last month against Model Deaf of Washington, D.C.

"We don't have that. We also can't use the telecommunications system for a coach up in the stands or press box. We do have someone go up, but we have to have someone turn to see the signals."

Another challenge is the snap. For years, deaf teams used a large bass drum along one sideline, and players moved in unison at a specified drumbeat -- the players moving when they felt the vibration of the sound waves. But Indiana Deaf and other deaf schools quit using that system for cadence because players farther from the drum were significantly slower to react, and players closer to the drum were subject to moving before the snap.

"Over the years, we found that the side opposite the drum was at a disadvantage because the vibration reached players on the near side first," Kovatch said, noting the drum is still used for pregame calisthenics. "Now the players just turn a bit and key off the ball."

Despite some disadvantages, senior quarterback Jon Mowl said the Deaf Hoosiers have at least one edge when they play hearing teams. With sign language, they can communicate in the open and opponents are unaware. Against other deaf schools, the team rarely changes a play at the line of scrimmage with sign language.

"When we play another deaf school, you want to sign something, but they know it, too," Mowl said.

Still, games against other deaf schools are ones that everyone enjoys most.

"There is a natural rivalry between deaf schools all over," said Bippus, a former standout at the school.

"This is because many of the coaches know each other and maybe even played together at Gallaudet University (a school in Washington, D.C., that is a leader in programs for people with hearing impairments)."

A year ago, Indiana Deaf suspended its football program after one game because it had too few players to field a team. With 28 players on their roster, the Deaf Hoosiers are 3-5 entering Saturday's game at Covert (Mich.). Indiana Deaf, which plays a regular-season schedule featuring five hearing schools and three deaf schools, will host South Decatur in the first round of the Class A state playoffs Oct. 21. It is clear that everyone is thrilled that the program was reinstated.

"We have excitement every weekend," senior wide receiver-defensive back Bradley Pollard said. "The team is like a brotherhood."

One reason is players may live on campus. As the only institution for the deaf in Indiana, the school draws students from across the state. At least 10 football players, for instance, reside outside the Indianapolis-metro area, with some coming from as far north as Hammond and as far south as Aurora.

"The big thing is this really contributes to the morale of the school and the whole deaf community," first-year coach Jonas Fenicle said via sign language. "The community is excited because of these kids."

One of those fans is Ken Murray, 62, who played at the school from 1957-60 and has kept statistics at the team's games for 20 years. His son, Rocky, 35, was a Deaf Hoosiers' standout in the 1980s and later coached the team for one year.

"I feel all the players are my kids," Ken Murray said. "I've always been loyal to ISD."

Rocky Murray, whose mother, grandmother and great-grandmother attended Indiana Deaf, said football is at the center of the deaf community's social scene. He said his experience at the school prepared him for college and his career.

"I am one of just one or two families to have four generations at this school," said Rocky Murray, now a math teacher at the school. "Every generation succeeds at something, and it's important to carry that on. As a freshman, I was a member of our (deaf) national championship team (in 1983). I played some and looked up to our older players. As I became an upperclassman, I became a leader and learned through the ups and downs.

"Even though I'm not coaching now, I still have football in my heart."

Don't think that the players aren't aware the support they receive from the crowd. They can sense it, even if they can't hear it. The festivities begin during pregame ceremonies, when cheerleaders from both teams sign the words to fans as a recording of the national anthem is played. During the game, the cheerleaders are active throughout and the crowd is revved even more at opportune moments when it clapped in unison to the beat of a drum.

"The fans give us energy," senior lineman Marcus Terry said. "They get us pumped up to play hard. It's inspiring."

Indiana School for the Deaf
• Address: 1200 E. 42nd St.
• History: Indiana School for the Deaf was founded in 1843 as the Willard School. Three years later, it became the sixth state school for the deaf in the nation. In 1911, the school moved to its present location.
• Mission: Indiana School for the Deaf is the state educational resource center for deaf and hard-of-hearing children through age 21. Its goal is to identify needs and find resources for them and their families.
• High school enrollment: 91 in four grades.
• High school sports: Football, volleyball, cross country, basketball, wrestling, cheerleading, swimming and track & field.

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