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April 21, 2005

Silent love, support for Stefan LeFors

From: USA Today - Apr 21, 2005

By Tom Pedulla, USA TODAY

LOUISVILLE — The parents of NFL quarterback prospect Stefan LeFors have never heard the band play or the cheerleaders cheer. But they could not be more passionate about football.

Susan and Larry LeFors never listened to the roar of the home crowd while Stefan (pronounced Ste-fawn) paced the nation in completion percentage (73.5) and passer efficiency rating (181.7) last season as a Louisville senior. Yet they felt the stadium rattle and shake with excitement.

LeFors' parents will not immediately know when his name is called at the NFL draft Saturday and Sunday in New York.

They will wait to see the closed captioning on television in their Louisiana home to learn of their son's fate, probably as a middle- to late-round selection, and hope he can follow the lead of last season's 10 NFL starting quarterbacks drafted in the fourth round or lower, or not at all.

Whenever their son's name is called, the parents will truly appreciate the uncommon road LeFors has taken as the only hearing member of their family.

Although many are unsure of the 6-footer's ability to succeed against towering defensive lines, his life already represents extraordinary triumph even though he minimizes the adversity.

"To me, it wasn't difficult. It was all I knew growing up," he says of the relative silence at home. "Sign language was my first language. It was just the environment I grew up in."

His father was born deaf. His mother lost her hearing after she became ill with mumps as an infant. LeFors' brother, Eric, three years older at 26, had the same fate as his mother. LeFors' paternal grandparents and three uncles cannot hear.

During a videoconference with LeFors' parents that the player conducted using a desktop computer in Louisville hooked up with a TV at their home, his parents were asked if they agonized about their circumstances. They shook their heads no before LeFors used sign language to relay his mother's feelings.

"We got a hearing child and a deaf child. We just went with it," she said. "That was God's plan, and we never questioned it. I never said, 'Why this? Why that?' I would have driven myself crazy asking those questions."

Says her husband of the silence that surrounds his world, "I don't know any different. I grew up deaf. Maybe you look at it as missing a lot, but it doesn't matter to me at all."

As LeFors relayed questions to his parents, it gradually became clear why he describes his family background as a blessing. Their love and respect for each other fairly jumped off the computer screen.

"It's just a regular family," LeFors says. "We love to do everything together. We're close."

That includes Joy, his high school sweetheart. They have been married almost two years after dating for 6 1/2 years.

Maturity in all aspects

LeFors depended on television and early schooling for much of his vocabulary; his language skills came more slowly than for others. He began taking speech classes as early as kindergarten.

By middle school, emotional issues arose stemming from his parents' deafness. Insensitive classmates would ridicule their rapid movements and exaggerated facial expressions as the family communicated.

School events were often troubling instead of a source of pleasure. "Sometimes I would talk to him," his mother recalls, "and he wouldn't answer in sign. We'd leave it alone until we got home."

But the verbal barbs did their damage.

"It was tough at times. I'm not going to lie," LeFors says. "But the older I got, the more mature I got and the more mature (his classmates) got, also. So they understood."

LeFors was instrumental in helping his parents conduct the business of daily life, responsibilities that formed his character.

"If any phone calls came through, they went through me," he says.

His maturity, leadership and poise were displayed in abundance as he completed 189 of 257 passes for 2,596 yards as a Louisville senior. He threw for 20 touchdowns with only three interceptions. His completion percentage of 73.5% was second only to the all-time single-season mark of 73.6% set in 1998 by Central Florida's Daunte Culpepper, now with the Minnesota Vikings.

Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino urges prospective NFL employers to focus on LeFors' makeup rather than his height. The Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning, the league's premier passer, stands 6-5 and weighs 230. LeFors measured 6-1/8 and weighed 208 at the scouting combine in Indianapolis in February.

"He's always known what he wanted to do," Petrino says, "and how to go about it."

Louisville was the only school to offer LeFors a scholarship. He spent three years as a backup to Dave Ragone, including a redshirt season, before he was honored as the top quarterback in Conference USA as a junior.

Yet, in keeping with overcoming whatever obstacle is ahead of him, LeFors found himself in the unusual position of being an accomplished senior battling a freshman for playing time.

The freshman was Brian Brohm, a local product who was USA TODAY's Offensive Player of the Year as a high school senior. In landing Brohm, Petrino acknowledges he promised him the same number of repetitions in practice as LeFors.

In addition, Brohm's brother, Greg, accompanied him to school as Louisville's director of football operations. Another brother, Jeff, just completed his second season as quarterbacks coach.

According to Petrino, he made a concerted effort to give Brohm playing time at LeFors' expense because he needed to develop a reliable backup last season. He also wanted to make sure Brohm was battle-tested as the Cardinals enter the Big East.

Not all his players saw it that way.

LeFors "was the man and he earned the position, and he shouldn't have had to deal with it," wide receiver J.R. Russell says. "But he dealt with it great."

LeFors never allowed Brohm's presence to rattle him or disrupt the team.

"It's all about winning," he says.

LeFors' 20-5 record as a starter is identical to what Tom Brady, New England's sixth-round draft choice in 2000, did at the University of Michigan. Brady, of course, has led the Patriots to three Super Bowl victories in the last four years. Part of Brady's success is his ability to rally teammates around him. LeFors does that, as well.

Russell noted that LeFors played for a time against the University of Miami even after he had a concussion. He described LeFors as "wide-eyed" in the huddle and says, "He was there, but he wasn't there."

Russell nonetheless recalls that, on third-and-15, the shaken LeFors scrambled and dived head-first to gain the necessary yardage.

"If that ain't tough," he says, "I don't know what is."

No rushing the process

LeFors' accuracy — Middle Tennessee's Clint Marks was a distant second at 70.4% — is attributable largely to an ability to see in an instant what is happening downfield. LeFors has an exceptional awareness of his surroundings, and his running ability makes it unnecessary to give up and throw incompletions when men are covered.

He placed second among quarterbacks at the scouting combine with a 40-yard dash time of 4.62 seconds. Former Arkansas passer Matt Jones was clocked in 4.41 seconds but worked as a receiver during Senior Bowl week and most teams envision him there.

LeFors set a Louisville record with 756 career rushing yards as a quarterback and delighted in that aspect of his game.

Offensive tackle Travis Leffew recalls how his teammate jumped up after a 70-yard gain against Cincinnati and signed a message.

He gestured to his brother, Eric, "That run was for you."

LeFors often used sign language during national telecasts to speak to relatives or members of the deaf community.

When Louisville pounded Tulane 55-7 in Louisiana in December, his fans filled three sections of the Superdome.

Teammates were educated in the process.

"A lot of people think they can't be all enthused," Leffew says. "Actually, they're doing the same things we are, just in a different way."

LeFors' parents hope their son will succeed in the NFL. At the same time, they recognize how difficult it is to carve out a pro career.

During a discussion of LeFors' future, they expressed how proud they are of his degree in sports administration. They noted, as well, that Eric and his wife, June Ann, have four girls, all with perfect hearing.

LeFors' mom made several quick hand motions. "Hopefully," she says. "we'll get some boys."

© Copyright 2005 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.