‘We’re not just a deaf school’: The drumbeat behind Gallaudet’s

WASHINGTON — Last week, on an unseasonably warm November afternoon, Gallaudet offensive line coach Todd Collins jogged onto the field, pushing the team’s big bass drum on wheels to midfield, where he banged on it repeatedly, signaling to the nation’s only deaf and hard of hearing team it was time to stretch. While many couldn’t hear the thunderous, rhythmic beat that echoed through the otherwise quiet campus, they could all feel its vibration.


Lateral stretch to the right.


Lateral stretch to the left.


On one knee for hip flexors.

Coach Chuck Goldstein, who is hearing, hasn’t used a whistle at practice in 13 years.

“At the end of the day, when I come into these gates, and I come into work, I’m not deaf, I’m part of this community,” he said. “I’ve learned about the culture. I respect the culture.”

As the sun set on the nation’s only entirely deaf and hard of hearing campus, the lights in the nearby dorm rooms glowed softly. When one blinks, it signals a visitor has arrived. The doorbells at Gallaudet change the lighting instead of making a sound because most students wouldn’t hear a doorbell or a knock. On game nights, it’s not uncommon to see multiple windows winking on different floors. In the morning, alarm clocks vibrate under pillows.

The football team is undersized, composed of many players who have never been on a full roster, are still learning their position and can’t hear when the official blows a whistle to stop the play. They were picked this preseason to finish fifth in the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference, but the Bison have won their conference title and are returning to the Division III NCAA tournament for only the second time in school history, and the first time since 2013. They will travel to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, on Saturday to face No. 8 Delaware Valley University in a first-round game at noon ET.

“With all the close games, and you’re not supposed to be winning, it’s almost like the cherry on the cake every time you win again,” said defensive coordinator Stephon Healey. “I think the world has a lower expectation of us. We have a belief in ourselves, and to be able to get it done has just been … it’s been pretty magical, to be honest.”

Practice last Thursday began with only about 50 of the 70 players on the Bison’s roster. Illness was working its way through the locker room, where other players are injured, and none are on scholarship. That’s life in Division III football — the team buses from the nation’s capital to games as far as Maine, and the press box consists of an open-air space under a metal canopy. Healey is also the strength and conditioning coach — for every sport.

There are only three full-time coaches on staff: Goldstein, Healey and assistant coach/recruiting coordinator Shelby Bean. All of the coaches are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), and nine of them are former players, including Collins, who is hard of hearing and was on the 2013 conference title team.

The Bison have a hard-of-hearing receiver playing quarterback. They have a deaf offensive tackle who is less than 200 pounds. And the hard-of-hearing freshman long-snapper?

“He’s gotta be 5-foot-4,” Healey said. “He looks like he’s 10 years old. I would argue he’s the smallest college football player in the country.”

But the Bison aren’t interested in your sympathy.

“We’re not just a deaf school,” Collins said. “We’re here, we’re going to compete for a championship.”

Every season, 12 to 15 players join the team who don’t know ASL, creating a natural divide between players who are deaf, and the others who are hard of hearing. Some have cochlear implants, some have hearing aids, some are deaf in one ear. Bean was born with Goldenhar syndrome, a rare congenital condition that required his external ears to be surgically removed. The numerous surgeries he had as a child left his face paralyzed, so he can’t smile, frown or even blink.

“You talk to other coaches, and it’s tough to get that appreciation across,” Healey said. “Like, yeah, we all have problems. No, no you don’t. It’s not the same as here.”

GOLDSTEIN MADE THE shape of a C with his right hand and tapped his thumb on his cheek just underneath the rim of his glasses, signing “Coach Chuck,” a nickname he had to earn.

When Goldstein first joined the coaching staff in the summer of 2009 as an offensive coordinator, he was “fingerspelling” his name, but in the deaf community, he eventually earned a “sign name,” which a deaf person gives as a symbol of friendship and respect.

Like many of his players who enter the program, Goldstein had to learn ASL when he was hired from North Point High School in nearby Waldorf, Maryland. The former linebacker at Salisbury University took a “Jump Start” ASL class Gallaudet offers to incoming students and staff, but ultimately became fluent from being immersed in the campus culture — and from his mistakes.

In one of his first games as head coach, Goldstein became frustrated the team wasn’t playing well against Merchant Marine. It was halftime, and they had already fumbled three times.

“I wanted to let them know I was angry,” he said. “I was pissed. I was like, ‘All right, they’re gonna know this is not OK.’ So I come in, I take a chair and I throw it against the wall. And three kids turn around. They weren’t facing me, and none of them heard me except for like three kids.”

Now Goldstein stands on the chair when he’s addressing the team in the small locker room so they can all see him. His film sessions are organized because there is no time to waste. Lights off, show the play, lights on, sign it, explain it. Repeat. Goldstein led Gallaudet to .500 seasons or better in three of his first four years, including a 9-2 mark in 2013, the last time the Bison earned the ECFC title.

Since then, though, the program has endured six straight losing seasons, a canceled 2020 season during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a 4-3 NCAA mark last year. This year’s team finished 5-1 in league play to earn its automatic qualifier bid to the field of 32 teams.

“Since we’re a small Division III football team, we are well-known to beat the odds,” said senior linebacker Stefan Anderson, who is deaf and communicated through an interpreter who also happens to be an assistant cross-country coach at the school. “Because the refs can hear and we’re deaf, it’s a disadvantage for us, however, we find a way to win. Even though there are some barriers for us, we still find a way to take down those barriers. We had the attitude of bring it on, we are going to prove you wrong. So you can see where we are now as champs.”

Senior defensive end Rodney Burford, a charismatic player who is one of the outspoken leaders on the team, was born in Brooklyn, but played football at the Maryland School for the Deaf with Anderson. Burford was used to the winning culture at his high school, which is why joining the 3-7 Bison in 2017 was an adjustment.

“The team was split like the red sea,” he said. “We had a group of deaf people, they didn’t want to talk to hearing people. Then you had a group of hearing people who didn’t want to talk to the deaf people. As the years went on, every year it was a sense of unity more and more. Last year was the best. We had Jump Start students mingling with the deaf people and they were making up signs. They were happy they were giving effort. It was a blend of both communities coming together. It was growth.”

“Bison Athletic Training” is depicted through sign language on the window to the Gallaudet football training room. Heather Dinich/ESPN

ABOUT 90 MINUTES before kickoff, Goldstein and his staff meet with officials to make sure they understand deaf culture and emphasize most of their players cannot hear the whistle. Those within the program say almost every game, somebody is penalized for a late hit. Referees sometimes warn players before calling a foul that they will throw the flag if they see it a second time, but they can’t communicate that to the Bison — or don’t try. There are no interpreters on the field, aside from some players like offensive lineman Mitch Dolinar, who is hard of hearing and often tries to help.

“People just don’t understand — deaf means I cannot physically hear,” said Dolinar, who wears his hearing aid during games. “You still see refs still trying to talk to Rodney, still trying to talk to him, and I have to come in, ‘He cannot hear you. Talk to me or talk to the coaches.’ I’m lucky I have a hearing aid, I can hear what you’re saying and interpret for them sometimes, but I’m not on the defensive side of the ball where we have a lot more guys on defense who are deaf.”

While nobody is tracking what penalties occur because a player didn’t hear the whistle, Gallaudet has been flagged 82 times this season for a total of 809 yards, compared with their opponents’ 63 penalties for 584 yards.

“I look at officials like the weather,” Healey said, “they’re like a natural disaster. They’re a necessary requirement, but at the same time, you have no control over it.”

Eventually, they’re able to laugh. Goldstein says Healey is the most comical character on the sideline when a play is imploding. Healey is a native of London, England, and the staff and players say he’s like Dwayne Johnson with an English accent. He’s the most animated, yelling on the sideline even though no one can hear him, waving his arms, before ultimately ending in the “Surrender Cobra” pose, with both hands on his head.

All of it, he said, is worth it.

“We’re recruiting players, we’re keeping kids in school, and every day is a step toward a victory,” Healey said. “That’s why this has been so sweet. It’s nine years of waiting. And it pays off. It’s just nice to have something pay off.”

Last month, on Homecoming weekend against their rivals, Maritime, Goldstein had an opportunity to use a play he was saving for the right moment. Gallaudet had scored 22 points in the fourth quarter and needed a two-point conversion to tie the game and send it into overtime.

Quarterback Brandon Washington, who runs the Bison’s triple-option offense and ranks 15th in the nation with 145.78 all-purpose yards per game, only caught the quarterback sneak part of the play before he turned around and ran back onto the field.

He missed the second part, about the pass.

Goldstein was screaming Washington’s name on the sideline, desperately trying to get his attention. They had no timeouts left. Gallaudet lost 26-24.

“That game didn’t come down to one play,” Goldstein said. “It never comes down to one play, but that was just one we couldn’t get.”

“I’ve seen everything you could see,” Goldstein said. “The unnecessary roughness, the late hits. Sometimes we’re stuck in a play call. The defense is based on checks and changing, but if somebody is lined up maybe 3 feet off — you want a corner to get inside leverage — our corners are deaf. You’re not getting their attention. You’re running, and you’re putting your hands up, and you’re trying to run down the sideline to get their attention, but sometimes you can’t, so you’re stuck in a play call that you don’t want. You might just have to run and live with it and hope that you can make up for it, but it is what it is. It’s who we are. It’s never going to change.”

Gallaudet University, a private school for deaf and hard of hearing students, claims to have invented the football huddle. Heather Dinich/ESPN

GALLAUDET’S FOOTBALL IDENTITY hasn’t changed in 128 years.

A sign that reads “HOME OF THE HUDDLE EST. 1894” is attached to the painted white brick in the hallway leading to the modest athletic offices and locker rooms. During that season, Gallaudet played two deaf schools, and quarterback Paul Hubbard was worried the other teams were stealing the Bison’s plays because they were signing in the open. Hubbard decided to pull his teammates into a circle, and the huddle was born.

The history lessons are scattered everywhere on the small, historic campus hidden in Northeast D.C., where enrollment hovers just under 1,600, and roughly 200 are student-athletes. The plaque at the baseball field honors former center fielder William Hoy, who is credited with inventing the signs for “strike” and “ball.”

“Hearing status doesn’t mean anything,” said offensive lineman John Scarboro, whose communication through ASL was relayed through an interpreter. “It’s nothing for us, because honestly they can hear and I’m profoundly deaf, but some of my teammates can hear as well. This game is just football with equipment, and I’m playing against an opponent, and my goal is to get the ball to the other side. We don’t worry about hearing status at all. It’s an unnecessary distraction.”

Burford was born profoundly deaf in both ears and wears a cochlear implant — except during games.

“That’s my advantage,” he said with a smile, “I can talk trash to you and can’t hear you say nothing back to me.”

These are athletes who hail from college football hotbeds like Texas and Alabama, and Burford’s father played football at Yale. While some attended schools for the deaf, others graduated from mainstream high schools, where Dolinar said it was more difficult for some of his teammates, including his best friend, to find an opportunity to play.

“They were good, but the coaches feared they couldn’t communicate with him, so they benched him,” Dolinar said. “There are deaf people who can play, but just need an opportunity.”

Last year, Goldstein sent an email blast through a recruiting service to 27,000 head high school football coaches searching for the players who wanted that chance. Goldstein said there are often players at mainstream high schools who aren’t diagnosed as deaf or hard of hearing, or don’t share that they are.

“Sometimes kids don’t want people to know that they have hearing loss,” he said. “We’ve found kids, their coach was like, ‘I had no idea. I always wondered why he was always standing to the left of me, or why he’s missing things at times.’ Because the kids don’t want to be treated any different because they can’t hear.”

There are about six players on the roster who learned of the program through the email blast, and another 60 potential recruits. The current roster of 70 represents 28 states, D.C. and Canada. The school’s recruiting pipeline, though, is the Texas School for the Deaf (10 players), followed by the Maryland School for the Deaf (six) and the California School for the Deaf in Riverside (two).

Collins, who graduated from East Islip High School in New York and was on the 2013 title team, said he doesn’t know where he’d be without football.

“When I went to high school, everyone called me the big deaf kid,” he said. “Now I’m here, I’m the big human kid.”

The education extends well beyond the Gallaudet gates.

In October 2011, Gallaudet’s team was eating dinner at a Ponderosa that no longer exists in Rutland, Vermont, and they were all using ASL to communicate as they loaded up at the all-you-can-eat buffet.

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Goldstein remembers the moment a little girl walked by and was staring at the players. He sat down at the table with the girl and her mom and introduced himself as coach Chuck. He learned the girl had never seen a deaf person before, so he explained how they were talking to each other.

“At that point, a light bulb went off,” he said. “Oh my goodness, her first impression of a deaf person is us, the Gallaudet football team. I set the bar really high about expectations when we travel. We represent every deaf person. I’m hearing, and I still represent the deaf community. If we act like fools, that little girl’s first impression is all deaf people are fools. And so we take pride in who we are and who we represent. That GU logo, we’re America’s deaf team. You see Alabama’s uniform, Penn State’s uniform, you know how they are. That’s what we are.”

For Gallaudet, the drum is equally as symbolic and part of their tradition, but it’s also used to celebrate a defensive stop or a big play — and it’s practical. Half a dozen or so beats during the game indicates it’s time for the special teams unit to take the field.

“We’re signing punt, but you have 70 guys on the sideline and no one’s looking at a person signing,” Goldstein said. “So we bang the drum, they feel the vibration, and they know where to look — the middle of the field, coaches sign the punt, everybody runs on the field.”

After a win, the big bass drum rolls back out.

“We can feel it,” Anderson said. “We can feel the beat of the drum.”

That’s when they start dancing.

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