- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The score was just one among dozens on a busy college football Saturday, the moment a small one noticed by few.

For Gallaudet University, however, it was a milestone score and a monumental moment.

The Bison beat St. Vincent College 32-13 in their season opener Sept. 1, a victory that marked the return of the program to varsity football and the school’s first game back in the NCAA’s Division III, a level that includes schools like Catholic University and Frostburg State.

The nation’s only deaf college football team previously operated at the club level and played less competitive opponents. The victory over St. Vincent not only marked the Bison’s debut in the NCAA’s nonscholarship division but also snapped a 34-game losing streak against NCAA teams that dated back to 1991.

“I was completely speechless after the first game because we finally came to a day where we can prove everyone wrong that we, deaf football players, CAN play,” left guard Philip Endicott said in an interview by e-mail.

Losing was so routine at Gallaudet in the mid-1990s that the school dropped the sport to club level. The Bison regularly were blown out in 11 games against D-III opponents from 2000 to 2002. The school decided to re-establish the program as a varsity sport to enhance the student experience and to show that the 1,800-student liberal arts college can compete at a high level.

The victory was the latest brick in the construction of the program since Ed Hottle took over in 2005 as Gallaudet’s first full-time coach.

The program changed immediately: There was a new offseason weightlifting program, an intense recruiting effort and a previously unseen — or even asked for — commitment from players to the team.

“At first, it wasn’t football,” said Jason Coleman, a senior quarterback from Middletown, Md. “We won the deaf national championship at Maryland School for the Deaf when I was a [high school] senior, and coming to Gallaudet where they did not have a great football program was tough and frustrating. The players were there, but the program wasn’t.”

The program drew scant interest — only 21 players came to Hottle’s first team meeting — and produced few wins at first. That sense of futility was a distant memory during a recent practice on the campus in Northeast.

Players uprooted tackling dummies, and pads popped on a muggy September afternoon. Special teams drills got under way. A player missed a block on his man. The coach grimaced, got in the player’s face and shouted, “Do you want to play on Saturday?”

That scene plays out on hundreds of football fields on college campuses across the country. This one is slightly different: The backdrop is a bustling city, with ambulance sirens blaring and constant traffic just off the field at West Virginia and Florida avenues.

Hottle is fiery and loud. The player who missed the block might not have heard Hottle’s choice words, but he clearly picked up on the meaning of the coach’s body and sign language.

The player responded verbally, saying, “I want to play.”

Hottle took a crash course in American Sign Language when he was hired in 2005 after only one season as a high school coach — an adjustment, he said, that is the same as learning a foreign language.

Otherwise, Hottle said, dealing with deaf players is essentially the same as with any others.

“Football is football,” said the coach, who has a no-nonsense attitude. “It doesn’t matter if you can hear or not hear. There is no difference between these guys and every other college football player. They just can’t hear.”

There are, of course, some differences. Hottle, for instance, said he has to remember to stand with the sun at his back so his players can see his signals.

Hottle admits he was concerned when few players showed up at that first team meeting two years ago. But the number quickly grew, and the team finished that season with about 50 players, including some 15 recruits.

That team went 9-0, and last season the Bison finished 6-2 despite the distraction of having a game canceled and another moved because of student protests that shut down the campus and ultimately resulted in the ouster of the school provost.

This season about 65 players sport the blue and gold.

“I guess it got out that maybe he wasn’t that bad,” said Hottle, a Fairfax County native who played D-III football at Frostburg (Md.) State and was a longtime D-III assistant. “[The language] concerned me. What if you can’t learn it? I came to realize it was no different than any other practice I had been to. We found a way to get through it.”

And then some. Hottle and his players communicate almost exclusively by sign on the field, which made for a bumpy transition.

“We had to lip-read at first,” said Shawn Shannon, a senior wide receiver who came from the Maryland School for the Deaf. “I’d ask other players who had good lip-reading skills to help relay messages, or I would ask him to repeat. [Hottle] got great patience making sure the message gets across. Every year he’s gotten better, and we’ve gotten used to his signing style.”

As Coleman put it, “He taught us to play football, and we taught him how to sign.”

Some things they figured out together.

“We did away with the drum,” Hottle said. “We stopped running the wing-T, and we did away with the huddle because we don’t need any of the three.”

The drum, once used for starting plays, now is used only during pregame stretching. Coleman uses a hand signal or a touch on the center’s leg to call for the snap. Players watch for ball movement to start plays rather than await the vibration from the drum.

The no-huddle offense replaced the huddle, which was created at Gallaudet back in the 1890s. The Bison keep defenses off balance by calling plays in sign language at the line of scrimmage, figuring other teams would be confused if they tried to read a play.

And the wing-T has been replaced by a wide-open spread offense.

The results have been impressive. After the win over St. Vincent, the Bison drubbed Walter Reed, a club team, 44-0. Gallaudet will face a bigger challenge Saturday when D-III Greensboro (N.C.) College visits.

The team’s greatest win, of course, had nothing to do with football. The players joined a campus-wide protest against provost Jane Fernandes last fall, feeling she did not properly represent the university. Players held hands and blocked the school’s main entrance. Many were arrested.

Fernandes eventually resigned.

“It’s our decision to come together as a team and follow our rights and to stand what we believe in,” Endicott said. “We were not worried about our football season. … We finished what we started.”

One game was canceled, and the homecoming game was moved off campus.

But with that turmoil behind, the players are focused on finishing other business: the move to Division III. The Bison imagine a day when they will advance to the playoffs and contend for a national championship.

“The first game was awesome,” said Coleman, who completed 22 of 30 passes for 227 yards against St. Vincent with three touchdowns and an interception. “It was great for me because I have been waiting too long for something like this. Finally, whatever we do, it counts.”

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