Deaf team in US turned by ESPN’s documentary into underdogs

A deaf high school football team in California, as the underdogs of the league, are the aggressors – literally – as they are said to make up 15% of the league.

Heading back to action against a deaf football league, deaf football team turns perceived disadvantage into gridiron strength Read more

Perceived, that is.

According to the L.A. Times, an ESPN documentary titled Finding Faith, which premiered in the US on Sunday, documents the story of the Millers and whether or not deaf students can out-perform hearing ones on the gridiron. But it also adds an important footnote – deaf students represent a disproportionate 15% of the community in their school, according to a study published in April by The Family History Library – a significantly higher percentage than average across all of the 3,000 or so towns it is possible to visit in the US.

John Mikkael Blackthorne, a football coach who played at the School for the Deaf Los Altos High School, said he is hopeful that his team’s momentum will help to “bridge the gap” between deaf and hearing parents. “The fact that we’re almost one team, it kind of suggests it’s almost the same,” he said.

Not only do deaf students play for Millers, they also play in different age groups and adapt strategies in both cases. Their first year in the Deaf Football League (DFL) in 2006 wasn’t impressive. In 2007, the team barely managed to finish first in its group. The following year, though, they rose to third place and have stayed competitive ever since.

DFL, played year-round, emphasizes the autonomy of the deaf players and their coaches. Players exchange plays verbally via loudspeaker or as they play and they return plays in-game, aided by specially equipped headsets.

“I think they struggle with the size and size of hearing kids and a lot of the differences in communication,” Blackthorne said. “It’s kind of a bit more challenging for them … But if any time they get a chance to practice like that, I think it comes through.”

Mikkael is optimistic that deaf students can handle the responsibilities of mainstream coaching positions, yet his initial fear is that people might not be able to understand how Deaf players operate. “I was very nervous about how kids would react,” he said. “A deaf kid trying to coach, I’m sure some people were going to be like, ‘Oh, they need a translator.’”

He never felt that the issues with communication would be that serious, but was nonetheless grateful that deaf football coaches can answer questions from parents.

Blackthorne, a 17-year head coach, is quoted in Finding Faith as saying that deaf students learn to play by just running backwards, forward, sideways, in and out, and back, back, back. He also said deaf students play with different techniques than they did 15 years ago, adding that they can shift the playing field. “We have to teach them how to gain the advantage in whichever environment they’re in.

“Wherever the hearing kids have the football, there’s one advantage the deaf kids do not,” Blackthorne added. “You need it, just because you have it.”

The story isn’t universally favorable. In 2007, Bellflower high school saw 21 of its players sign to gain a “game time advantage”. The practice didn’t work and the outcome was changed to a tie, but it drew criticism from the media and community.

Perhaps, however, the most difficult might be to convince deaf parents.

“The challenge is not just for the kids themselves, but for the hearing parents that need to reconcile … Maybe they need to redouble their commitment to listening and supporting deaf children,” Mikkael said.

“For the parents, I understand that every single week, it’s quite frustrating,” he added. “But they also need to realize that we’re teaching deaf students how to play and we’re teaching deaf parents to get their child to understand what they’re seeing. The whole thing is kind of difficult.”

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