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Original Issue

Clear Signals

For Gallaudet, a university for the deaf, the language may be different, but football is very much the same

For 15 minutes, Brooklyn College assistant coach John Whitehead has prowled the visitor's end of Hotchkiss Field during the pregame warmup, stopping every few steps to shout "Bed-Stuy!" then "Bensonhurst!" in the direction of the home team. Calling out the names of these notoriously tough and troubled Brooklyn neighborhoods is intended as a message, a point Whitehead drives home by urging his players to "let those——know" the violence that is about to be done to them. The oddest insult in this calculated bit of effrontery comes from a Brooklyn player who suddenly cries out, "They were playing music in their locker room!" This fresh outrage is taken up in a round of profanity from the Kingsmen's end of the field.

Finally, Whitehead can contain himself no longer and strides to the 50-yard line, where he sticks his chest out at the opposing players warming up at the other end. "You're going down, baby!" he shrieks. Then in a final rhetorical flourish, he adds, "Lip-read this!"

No one at the other end of the field moves toward Whitehead, or even bothers to look up at him, and soon he seems to drift away on a passing current of warm air. "They're talking trash to us," says Gallaudet defensive coordinator Greg Klees, "and we can't even hear it."

This is prologue to the final home football game of what will be a 2-8 season at Gallaudet University (pronounced Gal-a-DET), in Washington, D.C., the only liberal arts college for the deaf in the world. Though many of the Gallaudet players retain at least partial hearing—only two million of the 24 million people in the U.S. who have hearing loss can hear nothing at all—the trash at Hotchkiss Field seems to fly past them without effect. The Bison of Gallaudet are intent upon sending their seniors off to the real world with a victory over Brooklyn College. During a team meeting before the game, coach Rich Pelletier gives a flurry of instructions in sign language, and in a high-pitched voice that even he cannot hear, declares, "Our field is ours."

Then it is the seniors' turn to speak. Joe Fresolo, a 250-pound offensive lineman, works his taped fingers, signing an emotional charge, ending with "Kill Brooklyn!" Linebacker Emil Jones talks and signs simultaneously, and when he is finished he asks, "Are we going to win today?" When his teammates, many of whom couldn't hear a word he was saying, respond weakly, Jones bellows, "I can't hear you!" The roar of voices that follows seems to swirl shapelessly around the room, a great mooing sound that is without a distinct pitch of its own, the timbre of a tree that falls in the forest without making a sound.

There is passion in this room. It is a football-Saturday afternoon like a hundred others in a hundred different places, but it is special, too. The sounds are primordial, but they are the unfiltered sounds of the heart and of the soul. "It's really a close-knit relationship," Pelletier says later. "We share the same feelings, emotions, the same thoughts." One player is so overcome by the locker room speeches that after the others leave, he stays in his seat and weeps.

"Here we're like family," says running back Ron Peck, a Bison freshman from Harrison, Ohio, who has run a 4.35 40-yard dash. "When we're getting ready for the game, we're thinking, They think we're deaf and that we probably don't know anything about football. At Gallaudet we're trying to tell everybody out in the hearing world we can do everything they can do except hear." Peck will later prove this point by carrying the ball for 190 yards—including touchdown runs of 79 and 66 yards—in Gallaudet's 47-7 rout of Brooklyn College.

Before putting on his shoulder pads, linebacker Toselli Silvestri admires a tattoo that colors his right shoulder like a bruise. It is of a scorpion with TOSELLI written around the pincers. He also has a tattoo on his left calf of Mickey Mouse saying "What's up?" Silvestri, a junior and the team's leading tackier last season (though he may miss this season due to injury), has spent his playing career trying to tattoo ballcarriers with his head.

"I always hit with the helmet," he says. "It feels good. I'm happy that I'm deaf, because there's more hitting. The referee blows the whistle, and I can go on hitting and there's no penalty. On the football field I'm crazy, I'm not afraid of anything."

A sign posted on the Gallaudet locker-room wall says: WE ARE ALL ALIKE; WE HAVE EYES, EARS, ARMS, LEGS, AND A HEAD. THE DIFFERENCE IS IN THE HEART. The hearts of Gallaudet's players beat in time to the music of a boom box that is playing with the volume turned up as loud as it will go. Because of the different levels of hearing loss in any group of deaf people, some of the players can hear this ear-splitting din through hearing aids, while others can only feel the vibrations. Gallaudet's students are regulars in the dance clubs of Washington's Georgetown neighborhood, many of them feeling the music in a way hearing people never will. Forty minutes before the kickoff of the Brooklyn College game the lights flash in the home team's locker room, telling the Bison it is time to take the field.

"The only way to describe what it's like to play football totally deaf is to think of what it sounds like when you're underwater," says Peck, who wears hearing aids in both ears. "You hear, but you don't hear. When somebody hits you, you hear that."

The Gallaudet quarterback can use sign language to "audible" a change in the play at the line of scrimmage, but he must first wave his arms to get the attention of the receivers and the backs. The center gives a similar signal to the line.

Pelletier signs instructions to the players, but during games a hearing assistant stands on the roof of a nearby field house to relay suggested plays by headset to another hearing coach on the sideline, who then translates in sign to Pelletier.

On the field, the quarterback signs the play for his teammates as they stand with their backs to the line of scrimmage, shielding the signals from their opponents' eyes. In fact, the huddle was invented at Gallaudet in the 1890s to prevent opposing defenses from stealing the signs from the quarterback as he called plays.

Assistant coach Klees, who is not deaf, became fluent in signed English after he started coaching at Gallaudet in 1986. "If you don't learn it, they have no respect for you," he says. "They'll tell you to get the hell out." Klees had a great deal to learn but found there were also advantages to working with a deaf team. "I don't know if I could get used to wearing a whistle again," he says. "It's so peaceful. I come here after a full day of work [as a forensic analyst for the federal government], and I don't ever say a word."

Gallaudet's games don't look very different from those of hearing teams, except in the stands, where Bison fans tend to watch each other as much as the game in order to make the eye contact needed to communicate. When the home team scores, instead of applauding, Gallaudet fans hold their hands over their heads and wiggle their fingers.

Another difference is that a Gallaudet team manager is stationed on the sideline next to an enormous bass drum. Since the players cannot hear the quarterback call a cadence at the start of each offensive play, the manager, who has been told the snap count, strikes the drum, the vibration carries down the line of scrimmage, and the ball is snapped. The drum is the team's giant heartbeat. "Sometimes in practice when the drum is broken," Pelletier says, "we try to go ahead without it, and everything just falls apart."

The play usually begins with the first beat of the drum, but not always. When Gallaudet badly needs five yards for a first down, the players are often told in the huddle to hold for an extra beat or two. "At the start of the game it's very unnerving [for the opposition]," says Klees, who coached against Gallaudet for nine years while he was an assistant at nearby Catholic University. "It's like trying to put your foot in the wrong pants leg."

Gallaudet, which was founded in 1864, was chartered by Congress to teach and grant college degrees to the deaf. The school, which now also includes a day school for elementary students and a residential program for junior and senior high school classes, was named for Rev. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, the first renowned American educator of the deaf.

The campus was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the landscape architects who designed New York City's Central Park, though it is hard to imagine that they had anything to do with Hotchkiss Field, the balding pasture where the Bison thunder silently on autumn afternoons. The field rests upon the forgotten composts and harvests of ancient farmland, a geology so redolent of its own history to the deaf players' heightened sense of smell that the pitch was for a time named Garlic Field.

In the towers that form the medieval frontispiece to Gallaudet's campus, classes are conducted with students seated in a semicircle, with Keats and Pythagoras rippling out to them in concentric half-circles, then ricocheting noiselessly around the room. Often there are more than two people talking at once, fingers flying furiously as the conversation is joined and the signs begin to multiply. Yet there is barely a sound.

Standardized tests have shown that the average 18-year-old deaf student scores at or below a fourth-grade level in reading, but the 2,400 students who attend Gallaudet University are far from average. Some have grown up in deaf families in which American Sign Language (ASL) is the only method of communication. ASL is a unique, entirely self-contained language in which the hand signs are not literal representations of spoken English words or sounds. Deaf children who grow up with parents and siblings who hear often reach school age not having learned any language, and some run the risk of never learning to read, write or think in English. Those who are either born deaf or lose their hearing before they are old enough to acquire normal speech usually do not begin to learn to read or write English until they start to attend school.

To a degree, this is a political issue for the deaf; when communicating among themselves, ASL is the preferred means of communication over signed English, which presupposes an understanding of spoken English. It is the conviction of many deaf people that signed English is a poor substitute for their own, much more precise language.

Though many deaf people shun comparisons with the blind, Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf, contended that deafness was the greater of her handicaps because it cut her off from people. As Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English lexicographer, wrote, "To be defective in language, for a human being, is one of the most desperate of calamities."

Yet deaf children who are brought up using ASL exclusively often have little more interest in learning English than hearing kids do in learning Latin. Silvestri checks course catalogs each semester to see if the classes he is considering have professors who are good ASL signers. "If they're not a good signer, I can't understand," he says. "If they sign English, it makes me bored. I'm weak with writing and reading. I have to go to a special tutor, but I get bored. I read three or four sentences, and then I quit."

While Silvestri's parents are both hearing, he has spent all of his school years in deaf schools (including three years in the Gallaudet secondary school), where he learned to converse in ASL. However, as with the majority of deaf youngsters who are educated in regular public schools, Silvestri was usually taught in a form of signed English or by teachers who used sign-supported speech. A study undertaken by Gallaudet's linguistics department two years ago concluded that the signed portion of this form of speech is largely unsatisfactory and probably ought to be discontinued. And yet the system remains the predominant one in the nation's elementary and secondary schools for the deaf, and it is still used to some extent at Gallaudet.

"English is a spoken language, and there is no direct way to produce English with your hands," says Scott Liddell, a Gallaudet professor of linguistics who helped conduct the study. "So when these kids who have been brought up using ASL signs hit first grade, they usually find that their teachers don't use the language they know."

All of the players on the football team use signs, but even at Gallaudet not all of them speak the same language. Some use ASL, but most rely on a mixture of voice, lipreading (a popular misnomer that would more accurately be described as lip guessing) and some form of signed English. "About half our students arrive here without ever having signed," says I. King Jordan, the school's president. "They come here having spent 18 or 19 years seeing or feeling that they don't measure up."

"A lot of these players were never exposed to deaf people," Pelletier says. "They come here and go through a period of emotional adjustment. They ask themselves, Am I deaf or am I hearing? Which side am I on? I have several players who never played a game in high school. They play a lot here, and that gives them confidence. We don't cut anybody, because we never have more than a hundred players."

Peck is one of several Gallaudet players who went to a public high school with hearing students. "I didn't know anything about deaf culture," he says. "When I first got to Gallaudet, I didn't like it. I didn't know one word of sign language. It took me two or three weeks to learn enough sign just to play football."

Peck has not yet won the trust of all his teammates. "I think Ron had trouble accepting his deafness," says Gallaudet sports publicist Greg Seiter. "He thought he could get by with a little sign and speaking the rest of the time, but he found out pretty quickly that just won't work at Gallaudet. If you can't speak the language, you're always going to be an outsider here."

"You have to learn to face your deafness, the deaf world," says Silvestri. "Sometimes it's hard for people to adjust who've been in the hearing world. They push it away. Ron was a very slow learner at sign. His girlfriend [who is also deaf] talks a lot. They should speak more in sign."

Most of the players Gallaudet recruits from mainstream high schools have spent their football careers at noseguard, the ghetto to which the deaf invariably are banished by their hearing coaches. "They put me by the ball," says Scott Staubach, who played the position at only 5'7" and 160 pounds. "They thought I couldn't do anything because I couldn't hear."

When Staubach got to Gallaudet, he was converted to a defensive back. "He didn't play much in high school," Pelletier says, "but he wanted to prove himself. It took him two years to begin to believe he could do it, and then he exploded."

"The communication with the coaches was a lot easier here," Staubach says. "My high school coaches didn't want to sit down and talk with me. I think they really had no patience, but I had to accept it. What could I do?"

The deaf had long accepted their second-class status. But in 1988 students and faculty at Gallaudet staged an uprising against the university's board when it attempted to hire a new president who was hearing and knew no sign language. This was nothing new—Gallaudet had never had a deaf president—but the upheaval that followed would change the deaf world forever. Asserting themselves as never before, the demonstrators shut down the campus and insisted, in Jordan's words, "that deaf people can do anything that hearing people can, except hear."

After less than a week in the job, Dr. Elisabeth Ann Zinser resigned, followed in short order by the hearing chairman of the board of trustees. Jordan, a former dean of the college of Arts and Science and professor of psychology, who had been deaf since the age of 21 following a motorcycle accident—was installed as president.

It was a historic moment, one from which there could be no turning back. For centuries the "deaf and dumb" (a phrase that was meant to convey imbecility) had been confined to institutions and were considered incapable of working or receiving an education. The success of the deaf-mute institutions in teaching sign language to the deaf in the 1870s stirred a furious debate among so-called oralists who believed the deaf should be brought forcibly into the hearing world.

The leader of the oralist movement was Alexander Graham Bell, whose wife was deaf. Bell invented the telephone in 1875 in an attempt to help the deaf hear better. Ironically, it was an instrument of no use to the deaf, and as its importance to the rest of the world grew, the telephone became one of the most formidable barriers to a deaf person's obtaining a job.

At a notorious conference of deaf educators held in Milan in 1880, Bell, who was himself a fluent signer, and other well-meaning, if misguided, mainstreamers demanded the closing of the deaf asylums and the discontinuance of sign language. For the remainder of the 19th century, sign language was officially discouraged in many European and U.S. public schools for the deaf, an educational catastrophe that the deaf would suffer without complaint for generations.

"The utmost extreme to which tyranny can go when its mailed hand descends upon a conquered people is the proscription of their national language," wrote a brokenhearted Robert P. McGregor, the first president of the National Association of the Deaf, shortly after the Milan conference. "What heinous crime have the deaf been guilty of that their language should be proscribed?"

This legacy of loss reached its horrific culmination in Germany during the 1930s, when the Nazis instituted a program of "race hygiene" that led to the forced sterilization of 17,000 deaf people. Inmates of deaf asylums were also among the first targets of the Nazis' monstrous "euthanasia" programs, designed to end the lives of the unnuntzer Esser ("useless eaters"). These programs were the forerunners of the systematic slaughter of millions of Jews.

The deaf world, its existence alternately threatened and ignored, orbited silently around the hearing one, a shadow planet. "When I was a little girl, I felt different from the hearing," says Leona Norrod, the mother of Gallaudet running back Rocky Murray. "It was a lot worse then. Hearing people weren't aware of deaf people as much as they are today. They used to make fun of us when we used sign language. Deaf people were scared."

Since the uprising at Gallaudet in '88, it has become apparent that on matters relating to their own culture the deaf do not speak with one hand. The school's own information center calls deafness "the hidden handicap." But as Silvestri, who is both an All-America wrestler and a product of the heady days on the barricades, insists, "I'm not handicapped. 'There's nothing wrong with my body, it's just my ears that don't work."

His deafness prevents Silvestri from monitoring his own speech or knowing what words sound like, so he has no means of modulating his voice. When he speaks, he produces a series of high-pitched yips that are almost impossible for a hearing person unaccustomed to Silvestri's voice to understand. "I hate to use voice," he says. "My voice is weird."

Cathy Valcourt, a Gallaudet sophomore with only about 50% hearing loss who works in the school's athletic department, says that when she and her friends are among the hearing, they frequently "turn off our voices" so they won't attract attention to themselves. "I think deaf voices are the most beautiful in the world," she says. "But hearing people think they're strange. We sound scary to you."

Even scarier to some hearing parents is the eagerness of many deaf people to have children who are deaf. "I would rather marry a man who is deaf or hard of hearing and then have deaf children," says Valcourt. Her friend Becca Batchelder, who like Valcourt is only partially deaf, agrees. "I tell people I want deaf children, and they get this shocked look on their faces and ask why I would want a thing like that," she says. "My grandmother was horrified when I told her."

It is a measure of the powerful hold the deaf culture exerts that 18 months ago neither one of these women had ever met another deaf person. "The Amish have their own culture and feel they're the same," Murray says. "It's that way with deaf people, too. We're in the same boat. Deaf people want to have deaf children so they can share the experience."

Murray's stepfather, Ernie Norrod, came from a family in which he was the first deaf child (he has two deaf brothers). "My parents were hearing, but they never figured out how to communicate with me until I was six years old," says Norrod. "I don't know what my parents think. I still can't communicate with my dad, but my mother is finally learning how to sign."

Murray's entire family is deaf except for his sister, Brenda, whose first language, nonetheless, was sign. Murray was sent to the Indiana School for the Deaf—a residential school in Indianapolis—when he was 3½ years old and stayed there until he graduated from high school. "I felt the dorm was the heartbeat of the deaf culture," he says. "I could go out and play sports or flirt with girls. My family understood. They had all lived in dorms, too, even my grandparents.

"I went to deaf schools all my life," he says. "When I was a junior or senior in high school, I was thinking about going to a hearing school, but then I started thinking about my future. I thought, How will I be able to handle it? The people around me wouldn't be able to understand me. I wouldn't really be able to be myself. At Gallaudet I don't feel any handicap, any oppression. I feel Gallaudet is a special place for us, where we can be ourselves, like being part of a family."

Murray still holds his high school's rushing record (287 yards on 42 carries), a mark that seems unlikely to be broken any time soon unless there should happen to be another epidemic of rubella. Deaf schools had a baby boom of their own in the early '60s following a nationwide outbreak of German measles that caused thousands of children to be born without hearing. Murray's old high school had some 150 students when he was there in the late '80s, but last year there were only 41 boys in the high school, 25 of whom play on the football team. This development, needless to say, has not been particularly helpful to the Bison recruiters.

Pelletier locates most of his prospects not by way of any traditional scouting services but from letters and newspaper clippings sent to him by Gallaudet alumni and other members of the deaf community. Though it is a Division III school, Gallaudet occasionally goes after deaf players good enough to play at bigger schools. Bob Westermann, the Bison football coach from 1985 to '89, found himself going head-to-head with Nebraska in 1986 for Kenny Walker, an all-state defensive end from Crane (Texas) High. Cornhusker coach Tom Osborne promised Walker he could have interpreters on call and TDD phone service, which allows users to type messages back and forth to each other, and talked glowingly of Nebraska's deaf studies program. It was left to Westermann to point out that the deaf studies facilities were not at the main campus in Lincoln but 50 miles away in Omaha. Walker wound up at Nebraska anyway—where he became an All-America—and last April was made the eighth-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos.

Each spring, Pelletier draws up a list of recruits he thinks might actually show up at Gallaudet and of upperclassmen he hopes will come back. Last season they lost one key player to a religious organization, financial difficulties waylaid another, and some simply lost interest in football. Pelletier is never sure what he will have to work with until the middle of August. "In the past I would get very excited in the spring, and then every August I'd get depressed," he says. "I'd have to change everything around in the fall, because guys just didn't come back."

In 1980 the Bison started practice with only a few players, and the school decided to cancel its season. "The program was really a shambles," says Klees. "The feeling had always been that it was enough for the deaf boys just to be out there trying, and because of that the school had gone more than 50 years without a winning record."

But, just as it is with universities in South Bend or Miami, Gallaudet wanted a winning football team to make the school feel better about itself. "There's nothing magical about deafness to me," says athletic director Joe Fritsch, who has been at Gallaudet for 19 years. "We're like any other small school. When a coach who's just kicked your butt 69-0 comes up and tells you how hard the kids worked and what a meaningful experience it was, I just want to say, 'Save it, pal.' "

That sentiment finally led to the hiring of Westermann, who had become the coach of the high school team on campus after answering an ad in The New York Times and had gone on to win four national high school deaf championships. Westermann got permission from the school's administration to upgrade the off-season weight-training program and to recruit aggressively. He promised his players they could shave his head if they won five games; the Bison went 5-5 in 1985, his first season. "The emotion in the locker room after we won that [fifth] game was something I'll never forget," Westermann says. "It still brings chills."

Gallaudet was 7-4 the next season and 9-1 in 1987. "The biggest difference is that we went from playing just to play to playing to win," Westermann says. "When we started winning, it wiped out any stigma attached to this program. If you talk to those guys, you realize that they're as confident as anybody."

But when Jordan became president in the spring of 1988, it became clear to Westermann that the football program would not get the same level of priority, and after leading the Bison to a 6-3 record that fall, he decided to leave. "When Jordan came in, I didn't detect the same ardent interest," Klees says. "I think he feels it's just nice to have a program—good if we win, O.K. if we don't."

"I would love to have a football team that finished 11-0," says Jordan, "but it's more important to me that the student-athletes are students first. I don't want to see it deemphasized, I want balance. I like to win, and not just for the guys on the football team but for the whole deaf community."

This is true. Gallaudet has become a symbol to the deaf world, and its successes and failures are closely monitored. "They want to show there's no difference between them and hearing teams," Klees says. "It's really important to them to prove that."

As Gallaudet is more a home to many of its students than simply a place of learning, when the time finally comes to leave, many students contrive to find ways to stay on a while longer. Silvestri has spent virtually his entire adult life there. He has been in the hearing world, but he has never been of it. "Here there's a deaf community," he says. "I feel locked into that relationship, and I don't want to lose it. I don't know what it will be like in the future. I want to stay in the deaf community."