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Deaf students tackle sports with gusto

Nick Conway is just like every other kid on the practice field at Taft High School. He horseplays and talks trash. He carries himself with the same cheeky bravado. His grimy uniform could use a good washing too.

It would seem being born deaf could have been a problem. But the team shrugs it off. He’s one of them, they say. Some are even learning sign language.

“They’re family to me,” Nick, 16, a defensive lineman, said of his teammates. “They have welcomed me as a brother. They learned my language. They have learned to communicate with me.”

At Taft, the Woodland Hills school designated by the Los Angeles Unified School District for deaf or hard of hearing students in the San Fernando Valley, athletics are becoming a way for deaf students to make themselves part of the campus community, said Assistant Principal Robert Clarke.

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The school has eight sign language interpreters, and three of them agreed last year to work alongside the student athletes. Now, deaf students play football and basketball, and compete in cross country and track with interpreters at their side at games and practices.

The varsity coaches noticed Nick because of his hard work and quick feet. They didn’t even know he was deaf when they started eyeing him for varsity, said Chris Rizzo, Taft’s assistant head coach and defensive coordinator.

“He definitely stood out. Before I even knew he was deaf, I saw him out there,” Rizzo said. “I knew he could help us. He’s a football player.”

They were more concerned about his size than this deafness. Rizzo worried about Nick, a 5-foot-4, 150-pound junior, sharing the field with players more than twice his weight. He compensates for his size with resilience.

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“When you see him on the field, you can’t see any difference from anyone else, except for his size,” Rizzo said. “He makes up for it with heart. He has the heart of a 300-pounder; he probably has more heart.”

Playing football is something Nick’s done since he was 9 and is his passion, he said, signing to an interpreter as he strapped on his pads for practice. “I love the physicality of it, the action,” he said. “When I put on this helmet, I’m a different person. I’m a warrior.”

Nick’s mother, Elizabeth Barreto, who’s also deaf, said she worries about her son being injured, but recognizes that football has taught him discipline and maturity — and “how hard work can help him be successful.”

“He doesn’t give up,” she said. “He’s so focused.”

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“I try to prove every day that I belong here, so I have to work hard,” Nick said. “It’s not just talk. I have to show them. Now’s my opportunity to make a difference. I want to be a leader.”

He has an ebullient personality and an expressive face that can practically say everything he wants before his interpreter has a chance to. He’s become a leader among his teammates and his deaf classmates.

The deaf students have seen Nick’s success, and more are trying out for sports and taking part in after-school activities, Clarke said.

Matthew Flores, a sophomore, plays basketball and runs cross country and track. (He may not be the fastest, he said, but he can run forever.) He said sports has allowed him to make a name for himself at the school.

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“I’m meeting a lot of hearing students through basketball,” said Flores, 15. “I just go up to people and be like, ‘What’s up?’ I just start talking with them [with the interpreter]. There are no boundaries here.”

Emily Sidanski, a freshman, played basketball before coming to high school. When she tried out for the team at Taft, Emily said, she wasn’t nervous. “I go for it and see what happens,” she said.

Many of the deaf students previously played sports without interpreters, and coaches and teammates devised their own ad lib sign language to communicate. But the interpreters have become crucial in allowing the athletes to be fully participating team members.

Gina Campbell, who’s Nick’s primary interpreter, said the assignment came with a steep learning curve: She didn’t know football, and the coaches had never worked with a deaf player.

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As a 45-year-old woman and a mother, Campbell had some apprehensions about taking on a role that put her alongside a bunch of raucous high school boys playing a dangerous sport. The off-color jokes, the locker room banter, the sarcasm — she has to convey it all to Nick. “And you wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve had to translate,” Campbell said.

rick.rojas@latimes.com


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