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Loatman is unfazed by a sound barrier

Knoll is a Times staff writer.

He knows how good leather feels when it’s cradled in his arm. Knows what a defensive tackle looks like eating dust. Knows the synthetic smell of the end zone turf. And after leading Manhattan Beach Mira Costa High to a Bay League championship, running back Chris Loatman knows that victory tastes sweet.

He’s just not entirely sure how it sounds.

Loatman is deaf. At 14 months old, he contracted meningitis, and his fever rose so high that the nerves in his ears were damaged beyond repair. When he takes the field Friday night in the Southern Section Western Division title game against Quartz Hill, neither the piercing blow of a whistle nor the shout of a hovering teammate will break his sphere of silence.

No matter. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior will still know when to run right and when to pick up the blitz. His coaches and teammates have learned to announce the plays to Loatman using hand signals. Some of the motions are straight from American Sign Language, which Loatman has used to communicate since childhood; others were invented.

It’s a hodgepodge system that’s working. This season, the 19-year-old from Carson rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. He averaged nearly 6.0 yards per carry and was statistically the best runner in the South Bay. The night the Mustangs clinched the league title against Redondo, he cut through the Sea Hawks for more than 200 yards rushing.

“He’s a pretty dynamic ballcarrier,” Coach Don Morrow said at a recent practice. “He’s a real good what I call ‘between-the-tackles’ runner. He’s a very strong kid physically. We just try to tailor plays around his strengths.”

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Loatman can also read lips and said it helps that, like the blind comic book character Daredevil, his other senses are heightened.

“I have very good eyesight, so I can see a lot more,” he said through his interpreter, Jacob Henderson. “I can see plays developing before they happen.”

It has been that way since Loatman was introduced to a flag football league when he was 7.

“I wanted to be quarterback at first, but I’m a great runner too,” he said. “I love when people are trying to chase me, trying to hit me -- kind of like playing keep-away.”

He’s been blindsided more than once, but he said it comes with the territory. And just because he’s deaf doesn’t mean Loatman doesn’t get an earful from his coaches. Henderson attends all of Loatman’s practices and games and translates every word and expletive.

But certain things don’t need translation. Such as when Loatman randomly begins popping and locking to the music in his head (he loves hip-hop because he can feel the vibrations of the bass) or acts out jokes with elaborate miming. When he signs, his brown eyes dance as his fingers and arms gesture frantically. He has a stage actor’s range of facial expressions and a grin that trumps them all.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Henderson, 22, a student at El Camino College. “He’s just fun-loving, so much energy, a wild kid. Football’s perfect for him, because he’s always dancing and in high spirits.”

Henderson, whose cousin is USC safety Kevin Ellison, introduced Loatman to several USC football players and hopes to get him thinking about college. Currently, Loatman thinks he’ll head to a community college, although he has received a couple of inquiry letters from universities.

Sometimes Loatman is frustrated feeling that he slows conversations, and he navigates teenage life with a few adjustments. He uses his cellphone only for sending text messages and e-mail, watches TV with closed captioning and makes telephone calls using a video monitor. For some of his classes, he requires an interpreter -- Henderson, who said he is paid through a state program, is only with him after school -- and he is in an English program for the deaf. His hearing girlfriend is learning how to sign.

“I actually like the hearing culture a lot more than the deaf culture,” he said. “I grew up in the public school system and I’ve always interacted with hearing kids.”

A handful of his teammates have taken the time to learn the ASL alphabet as well as common phrases.

“He was my hero, so I wanted to be able to talk to him,” said David Romero, a sophomore linebacker who often talks to him. “As a freshman, everybody kind of looked up to Chris because he was the guy you wanted to be.”

Matthew Loatman, Chris’ dad, knows the feeling. The 41-year-old is an out-of-shape bus driver who never graduated from high school. Every time he watches his son run onto the field, his heart swells with pride and he starts thinking about exercising and going back to school.

“To see him play motivates me,” he said.

Before Friday’s game, you might see Loatman and his father in a special exchange that begins with a finger twist and a snap and ends with a butt of the heads.

And then Loatman will play an entire game without uttering a word.

Those dizzying moves on the field? They’ll speak loud enough.

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corina.knoll@latimes.com


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