Seahawks' Coleman thrives despite being legally deaf
By Alan Robinson
Published: Friday, Jan. 31, 2014, 11:45 p.m.
NEW YORK — While Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman's teammates were engulfed by the enormous sound created by Seattle's decibel-creating “12th Man” fan base following the NFC championship game two weeks ago, he could feel only the good vibrations of winning.
Coleman, a backup fullback and special teams ace, is the first legally deaf offensive player in the NFL. He was preceded by two defensive players — Bonnie Sloan with St. Louis in 1973 and Kenny Walker with Denver in 1991 — but he is the first to carry the ball and make the necessary line-of-scrimmage adjustments that offensive players must perform when a quarterback changes a call.
Coleman adjusts with the help of hearing aids that give him 60 to 80 percent of the hearing a nonimpaired person has and by reading lips.
“If he ever breaks the huddle and I didn't understand a play, I'm not embarrassed. I'm not shy to go up to (QB Russell Wilson) and say, ‘Hey, I didn't hear it,' or just grab him right quick and ask him again,” Coleman said.
Coleman's adjustments are so slight that some of his teammates didn't know he was hearing impaired when they watched him gain 1,252 yards during his final two seasons at UCLA.
Without the hearing aids, he can hear only deep bass sounds — about a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10, if 9 to 10 is normal, he said. During games, he puts in water-resistant hearing aids that he secures by wearing a skull cap under his helmet.
“Playing in the NFL is incredibly difficult, and when you're kind of dealt a short stick, it's that much harder. His perseverance is really incredible,” teammate Max Unger said.
Coleman's parents learned when he was 3 that he had a genetic abnormality that created the hearing loss. But after being fitted with hearing aids, he was able to attend public school and play sports after doctors said it wouldn't further worsen his condition. Some youngsters taunted him when he was growing up, but he said he had an escape mechanism — he turned down the volume.
He wasn't drafted out of college, but he hooked on as a nondrafted free agent with Minnesota. After the Vikings cut him, he joined Seattle's practice squad in December 2012 then made the team this season.
Before then, he kept being told, “ ‘Oh, well you wouldn't be able to play in the NFL,' ” he said. “But I played Division I college football. I played in some loud stadiums — Oregon, Tennessee — and I still did fine there. I never really had any or caused any problems, and if I ever did, I made sure it was corrected before I ever went out there.”
This season, the 6-foot, 233-pound Coleman started three games for Seattle and has eight catches, one for a touchdown.
“He has demonstrated to others that have that kind of issue, how far you can take it and what you can do and how there are no boundaries,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
Duracell featured him in a commercial that was viewed more than 13 million times online. So did hearing-impaired sisters Riley and Erin Kovalcik, who wrote him touching letters relating how he inspired them. Coleman responded with a hand-written letter, then with two Super Bowl tickets.
“Everybody has problems. Nobody is perfect,” he said. “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 you want to do.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.
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