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Deafness no handicap for Hopewell wrestler Cliffton Pittman

At first glance, Cliffton Pittman looks like any high school athlete.

Pittman, a junior, is the starting right tackle on Hopewell High’s football team and a winning heavyweight on the Titans’ wrestling team.

It’s not until you see Pittman away from the football field or wrestling mat that you notice something different – the hearing aids he wears in each ear.

Pittman has been legally deaf since birth, but that hasn’t stopped him from playing sports at a high level.

“I can hear a little bit, but not everything,” said Pittman, who can’t wear the hearing aids during matches. “If coach is yelling at me, I can hear it, but things very far away, I can’t hear it. (But) it helps me focus.

“It makes me more aggressive, just to prove to everybody that I’m not helpless.”

Pittman is 16-12 this season at 285 pounds entering the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A Western Regional tournament held Feb. 13-14 at Hough High School.

He’s posted third-place finishes in two tournaments this season: the NOGA Invitational on Nov. 29 at North Gaston High School and the MECKA 4A conference tournament on Jan. 31 at Mallard Creek High School.

“He’s a great kid. I think of him as one of my own kids,” Hopewell coach Derek Bryant said of Pittman. “He’s a very quiet individual, he’s a funny guy, but a very good leader for the team. He helps get the other guys motivated, especially our young guys.”

Pittman began wrestling while attending Coulwood Middle School in northwest Charlotte.

“I had a friend on the football team, and he asked me to come out,” Pittman said. “At first, I was like ‘eh’ … but I came to one practice and fell in love with it. It’s a physical sport, and I do like to slam people.”

Of course, Pittman’s deafness results in some changes in his matches.

For example, referees use hand signals to indicate the start or continuation of Pittman’s matches, or touch him on the shoulder to warn him about going out of bounds.

As for Bryant, it’s forced him to improve his communications skills, something that’s translated over to the rest of the Titans’ wrestling team.

“I’m a pretty animated coach, but I have to be more animated with him so he can understand,” Bryant said. “As the season’s progressed, we’ve learned how to communicate in a more efficient way when he’s on the mat.

“We’ve learned little signals to each other, doing moves on the sidelines that he can see, things so he can understand what I’m trying to get him to do during the match.”

Said Pittman, “Every time the ref blows the whistle or there’s a break in the action, I’ll look back to see what he’s doing. Sometimes it makes me smile or laugh, seeing what he’s doing, but I get focused back on the match.”

While some wrestlers draw motivation from the crowd noise, Pittman’s motivation comes from somewhere else.

“It’s just me and my opponent. When I’m wrestling, I like to think about my family, because I’m wrestling for them. … I’m wrestling for my Dad, because he’s sick now,” said Pittman, whose father, Cliffton Pittman Sr., has diabetes and recently had his right leg amputated.

While Pittman is only a junior, he’s already thinking about life after high school, especially where wrestling is concerned. And a dream he has.

“I want to wrestle in college,” Pittman said. “But if I don’t get a scholarship for it, I’m thinking about walking on somewhere in either wrestling or football.

“I haven’t thought much beyond that, but if I had the chance to wrestle in the Olympics, I would, just to prove that a hard-of-hearing person can do it too.”