Almost nobody yells for my favorite football team. Their coaches never give them a single encouraging word. Their cheerleaders rarely make a peep.
That's because my favorite football team is California School for the Deaf at Riverside, which is 9-1 and plays like a light-rail train. The Cubs are fast, noiseless, and you definitely don't want to get hit by them.
Only when they celebrate do they get noisy. CSDR won the San Joaquin League title last week for the first time in the school's 51-year history, and the players partied by slamming into one another, waving their hands like Al Jolson and turning the bass up on 50 Cent one crank past WINDOWS SHATTER and dancing madly to the vibrations.
"Teams really hate to lose to us because they think we're a handicapped team," signs coach Len Gonzales, who is deaf too, as is his coaching staff. "But we're not handicapped. We just can't hear."
They sure put up some loud scores. Last Friday CSDR thumped Twin Pines High from Banning, Calif., 34-8. It was so bad, Pines asked for a running clock in the fourth quarter. Said their coach, Jim Bridgman, without irony, "They do all their talking on the field." Uh, Coach? They don't do their talking anywhere.
Oh, well, that's not the dumbest thing anybody said that day. The dumbest thing was said by me, seeing the big bass drum CSDR uses to send instructions in warmups and asking, "Do you have a band?"
No, but they do have cheerleaders, who dance perfect routines on the sidelines to music only they can hear, while their crowd applauds with jazz hands. Hell, last season in Hawaii they won a competition in which CSDR was the only deaf school entered. "The good thing about being a group of deaf cheerleaders," says their coach, Stacy Hausman, "is that if the music cuts out, we just keep going."
There are advantages to being a deaf football team too. The receivers don't hear footsteps. There are no coaches screaming. And you don't have to listen to local sports-talk yokels rip you when you lose.
Oh, and there's this: When CSDR quarterback Mark Korn got creamed near the sideline in the first quarter, the Twin Pines defender came up jawing, "All day, baby! All day!" Korn just flipped the ball to the ref without a glance. Damn. Nothing deflates a trash talker like a deaf ear.
Up in the stands Korn's deaf mother, Wendy, was talking to another mom, who hears. "Oh, I hate hearing those terrible hits," the mom signed to Mrs. Korn. "I get so worried they're going to get hurt." Mrs. Korn's face fell like a bad soufflé. "You can hear the tackles?" she signed back. "I really didn't want to hear that."
Not to worry, Mrs. Korn, the Cubs deliver a lot more spleen-shakers than they get. "Everybody comes in doubting us," signs tight end Joey Weir, "but we're in the playoffs and they're not."
Actually, teams come in with a lot of questions. How do the Cubs handle snap counts? (Everybody watches the ball and goes on a tap from Korn to his center.) How do they audible? (They don't.) How do they hear the whistle? (They don't.) They've learned to stop when everybody else stops, but that can be trouble. One game this year Korn stopped on a rollout near the end zone because he saw his receiver stop. But the receiver had stopped because he was out of room. Korn got crushed and coughed up the ball, which was returned for a touchdown.
Some things you just have to learn for yourself. At halftime last Friday two kids sneaked into the little gym the CSDR players use to regroup and stared goggle-eyed as the Cubs signed and encouraged one another wordlessly. "See! I told ya!" the one kid whispered to the other. "They ain't sayin' nothin'!"
A few players tried hearing schools, but they knew they were home when they hit CSDR, the only all-deaf high school in Southern California. "I was first-string in summer camp my freshman year at one [hearing school]," signs running back Alberto Martinez, who rushed for 198 yards against Twin Pines and 319 the game before. "Then the coach shoved me aside because they couldn't talk to me. But I knew I'd make it somewhere."
The Cubs play for more than their school's colors. "I have deaf friends all over the state who are pulling for us," signs Weir.
They'll need it. This weekend Weir and his Riverside Brothers, as they call each other, will try to become the first CSDR team in any sport to win a playoff game. And as they pounded that drum and whooped their shrill coyote whoops and slammed their hands on tables in that tiny echoing gym after Friday's victory, I put my fingers in my ears and secretly hoped they would.
Assistant coach Keith Adams saw me, smiled and signed, "When you're done with this story, you'll be deaf too."
As I looked around and saw all the lung-crusher hugs and cantaloupe-slice grins, I thought, That doesn't sound so bad at all.
"Teams hate to lose to us because they think we're handicapped," signs Gonzales. "But we're not handicapped. We just can't hear."