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Sound judgment: Seattle’s deaf fullback inspires at Super Bowl

Over and over, Derrick Coleman, believed to be the first legally deaf offensive player in the NFL, has had to prove himself on a field and has done so.

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
Super Bowl Jim Litke
Elaine Thompson - AP
Seattle fullback Derrick Coleman is an inspiration to many because of the way he copes with his hearing impairment. He never listened to people who told him what he couldn’t do. He couldn’t hear them, anyway, on his way to becoming an NFL player.

NEW YORK Listen up.

This is a Super Bowl story worth hearing.

They used to call Derrick Coleman “four ears” on the playground sometimes when he was growing up because of the hearing aids jutting out of his ears.

When Coleman first started playing football as a kid, the feedback in those hearing aids was so intense that it hurt. His mom solved that problem by cutting up pantyhose and wrapping them around her son’s head under his helmet.

On Sunday, Coleman will suit up for Seattle. He is a backup fullback who is believed to be the first legally deaf offensive player in the NFL. His journey to the Super Bowl has inspired many. A one-minute Duracell ad on YouTube that chronicled his story has been viewed more than 13 million times.

“Everybody has problems,” Coleman said this week. “Nobody is perfect. I wear a hearing aid. Some people have glasses. Some people have depression. Everybody has something. But as long as you don’t let that get in the way of what you want to do, you can do anything.”

Coleman doesn’t have complete hearing loss, but since age 3 he has been unable to understand people talking without his hearing aids. The cause of his hearing loss is thought to be genetic.

“I always use a scale from zero to 10,” he said, “with zero being completely deaf and 10 being perfect hearing. Everybody else is around eight, nine, 10 – normal hearing. Without my hearing aids, I’m probably about a two. With my hearing aids, I’m about a six, seven or eight, depending on the day.”

So how does he communicate? Coleman is an expert lip-reader, which he calls “my backup plan” whenever his hearing aids aren’t working or the stadium is too loud. He knows little sign language.

He picks a position in the huddle so he can read quarterback Russell Wilson’s lips, and Wilson has to turn around and tell him any audible that is called at the line of scrimmage. He now uses a skull cap instead of pantyhose to keep his hearing aids in place.

“I’ve learned to adapt,” Coleman said. “If Russell ever breaks the huddle and I didn’t understand a play, I’m not embarrassed. I’m not shy. I go up to him and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t hear it.’ 

Over and over, Coleman has had to prove himself on a field and has done so. In his first high school game, he fumbled three times in the first half, then scored three touchdowns in the second.

From Los Angeles, Coleman stayed local for college and went to UCLA, where he was again a very good player, scoring 19 touchdowns in his career and thriving in loud stadiums like Oregon and Tennessee.

He wasn’t good enough to get drafted in 2012, though. The Minnesota Vikings picked him up as an undrafted free agent but cut him in training camp.

Seattle signed him in December 2012 and he has stuck on the team since. His story has gone national in the past couple of weeks as the Seahawks made a push to the title game.

With Duracell’s help, Coleman also has provided Super Bowl tickets to 9-year-old twin girls with hearing impairments, one of whom named Riley wrote him a touching letter that their father later posted on Twitter.

“Dear Derrick Coleman,” it read, “I know how you feel. I also have hearing aids. Just try your best. I have faif (sic) in you Derrick.”

Coleman wrote back and then agreed to a surprise meeting with the twins.

If you’re thinking you heard the name Derrick Coleman before, you probably have. You are likely thinking of the me-first NBA big man who once starred at Syracuse and also played for the Charlotte Hornets.

That Derrick Coleman was so completely uninspiring that in 1995, Sports Illustrated put him on the cover with the caption: “Waaaaahhh! Petulant prima donnas like New Jersey’s Derrick Coleman are bad news for the NBA.”

This Derrick Coleman, however, is good news for the NFL.

He keeps a sense of humor about his disability, joking that he turns his hearing aids off whenever he gets in an argument with someone.

“That just makes them madder,” he said.

Seems like sound judgment to me.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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