Big Hitters Who Can't Hear : For This Eight-Man Football Team, the Signals Are Silent


Lory Kuschmider never yells at his young football players from the sidelines.

"I use the secret code," said Kuschmider, head coach at Kansas School for the Deaf. "I just hope the other team doesn't know ASL (American Sign Language)."

Kuschmider and all 13 of his players have some form of hearing loss. But student-athletes at KSD, like those at deaf learning centers nationwide, are no different from those in other high school programs--euphoric in victory and saddened in defeat.

The Jackrabbits (0-8), who play in the Eight-man Great Plains School for the Deaf league, ended their worst season recently, having been outscored 461-90. Four losses came to schools whose students have normal hearing, while deaf schools in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri handed KSD its other defeats.

Kuschmider, who also acts as KSD's athletic director, basketball and track coach, called it a "learning year."

"We have no leadership, not a single senior," he said. "The kids don't give up, and I don't get mad at them. . . . We've learned a lot."

Sophomore running back Brock Maelzer, who was born deaf, wants no sympathy on the football field. He scored KSD's final touchdown of the season in the team's 62-6 loss to Elwood, a hearing school.

"(Being deaf) is not a handicap," Maelzer said through an interpreter. "I love football. Still, it's disappointing to lose."

Mike Hernandez, assistant football coach and social studies teacher at KSD, said people are in for a surprise at games involving deaf teams.

Referee Alan Shirling said: "It's more quiet than I'm used to, but the kids can play. They can't hear the whistle, so sometimes you have to rap them on the helmet to get their attention."

The school's athletic program includes football and girls volleyball in the fall, boys and girls basketball in the winter, and boys and girls track in the spring.

Kindergarten through 12th grade students attending KSD are classified in three different categories: hard of hearing, mild hearing loss and profound loss.

"Profound loss means they cannot distinguish anything but loud sounds and vibration," Hernandez said. "Those with mild loss may seem to have a speech impediment. And those who are hard of hearing have difficulty hearing in crowds.

"With football, you already have a hearing impairment. Now stick a helmet over their ears, and it about takes it all away. There are no specialty helmets."

Deaf football originated the huddle. The team at Gallaudet College in Washington, a noted school for deaf students, devised the huddle in the 1890s so opposing players couldn't read sign language on the line of scrimmage.

"It was very descriptive to other teams what plays were being called at the line of scrimmage," historian and former KSD athletic director Larry Beaver said. "The idea came up to huddle at the line of scrimmage, thus denying the other team an opportunity to read the play."

John Gournais, a former standout at KSD now attends Gallaudet.

"It was a goal of mine to become an All-American while at KSD," Gournais said through an interpreter. "I worked hard and was named national player of the year (for deaf schools). I played football at Gallaudet my first year (in 1992) and found my experience (at KSD) helped me for the future.

"Football is an opportunity for us to compete against our peers."

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