CHAMOIS — It’s just before 7 p.m. After making the hour-and-a-half bus ride from Fulton on a two-lane road that continuously dips like a camel's back, the Missouri School for the Deaf boys basketball team is ready to take on the local high school.
The team is having its pre-game meeting right outside the gymnasium in a small cafeteria. Two lunch tables and three vending machines fill the room.
Ten players are huddled in front of one of the brightly painted tables with their arms wrapped around one another. They sway. Grunts and yelps emit from the circle of gold and green jerseys.
The players each have a varying level of hearing loss. Some wear bulky hearing aids. Others can hear well enough to have a conversation. Senior forward Dexter Corley Jr. cannot hear at all.
Inside the pack, they are signing, using their eyes as ears and hands as mouths. What is signed during the pre-game speech is similar to what could be heard prior to any high school basketball game. Things like: “Rebound well.” “Make smart passes.” “Get out in transition.”
But all of the players’ eyes are connected. It takes every ounce of focus just to communicate. Their facial expressions are exaggerated and filled with passion as they discuss the game plan.
The huddle breaks with an unsynchronized cheer and the team forms a single-file line.
The Missouri School for the Deaf's cheerleading squad, which consists of two girls who quickly changed out of their basketball uniforms after they lost to Chamois just minutes before, greets the players.
Corley Jr. is second in line. At 5 feet 9 inches, he’s not much taller than most of his teammates, but the senior is the Eagles’ big man. Corley Jr. is also a fullback on the football team, so he knows how to play tough. He’s wearing three pairs of socks of varying lengths, plus a thin sweatband around his shins.
When everyone’s ready, Corley Jr. and his teammates jog onto the court. Eight of the 10 boys on the team, including Corley Jr., are black. This creates a contrast with the Chamois bleachers across the gym where about 50 fans are sitting. It’s mostly relatives and girlfriends in the stands – the vast majority of them are white. None are black.
The Missouri School for the Deaf's players make their way to the far side of the gym for warm ups. The Chamois band is playing on a stage just behind their hoop. They’re blaring Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild.” But for Corley Jr. and most of his teammates, the entrance is silent.
As they pass the stands on their way to the hoop, a classmate is sitting two rows behind their bench. Next to her is an old snare drum. It’s worn from age and brutal beatings. As each player passes her, she pounds it with an oversized mallet.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
Just like when a powerful subwoofer blasts a low beat, Corley Jr. and his teammates can feel the vibrations.
Two years, too late
For two years, Dexter Corley Sr. thought that he had a perfectly healthy son.
“He mainly would communicate visually,” Corley Sr. said. “We kind of noticed that he wasn’t speaking. Usually when children turn 1 or 2, they’ll say words. Dexter would normally grunt some sounds. We thought that was unusual for him to be 2 years old.”
Corley Jr. had made regular visits to the pediatrician his entire life, and nothing about hearing loss had ever been brought up. But a trip to a different doctor just after his second birthday revealed the shocking truth.
“When we took him to the doctor, we found out he was profoundly deaf in one ear and totally deaf in the other,” Corley Sr. said.
For two years, Corley Sr. loved and cared for his son without ever realizing his disability. He never imagined having to learn the basics of sign language. He never thought about not being able to play music for his son. He never stomached sending his boy away for high school.
There was no logical explanation for Corley Jr.’s deafness. No childhood accident, no trace of it in his family history.
“It just hit me,” Corley Jr. signed to Athletic Director Ella Washington, who then interpreted the message. “My parents were behind me. They kept calling my name. I didn’t hear them, so they ran and caught up to me and got my attention. I was like ‘What, what, what?’ I didn’t know that I couldn’t hear.”
For Corley Jr., that day and that moment is just a vague memory. It’s one of those stories he’s heard his parents tell so many times that he doesn’t know if he remembers the actual moment or just the story.
For his father, it’s still gut-wrenching.
“It was devastating,” Corley Sr. said. “Me and my wife were devastated. We had never been in a situation like that before. We actually were going to file a lawsuit. He used to go to the doctor frequently and he never found out. He should have picked that up earlier before he was two years old.”
Corley Sr. and his wife decided against filing a lawsuit, however, instead opting to move on with their lives. They strove to find a balance between providing their son with every resource and opportunity, while not treating him any differently than his four siblings.
“We had a couple of friends of ours who have deaf kids, and they keep them so isolated,” Corley Sr. said. “We couldn’t stand that. I don’t even speak to them anymore. We never treated Dexter like he was anything other than a normal kid, and that’s the way he grew up. We didn’t want to let his handicap hold him back. He knew he had a problem. We didn’t need to tell him.”
Corley Jr. grew up in a St. Louis home filled with three sisters and a brother, all of whom can hear.
“At home, sometimes I try to teach my sisters and brothers about sign language and about my world,” he signed. “They get it wrong sometimes, but that’s okay. They’re very supportive.”
Attending Gallaudet School, a school for the deaf within the Saint Louis Public Schools district, helped ease the frustration that can come with living in a world where everyone gets the joke but you.
After eighth grade, Corley Jr. and his family made the decision that it would be best for him to move to Fulton and attend the Missouri School for the Deaf. There, Corley Jr. would be surrounded by people like him.
“Academically, I’ve learned a lot,” Corley Jr. signed. “When I moved here, people were signing so fast, and I’m like ‘Whoa.’ But I learned to understand what they were signing. I like the socialization.”
Corley Jr. has tried hearing aids to revive his hearing, but he finds them more of a nuisance than a service.
“Hearing aids help some,” he signed. “But people were always yelling in them, so it got on my nerves. I don’t wear one any more. In school I do sometimes, but when people yell and play around, it hurts.”
He prefers the quiet.
Confusion on the court
CHAMOIS — Basketball can be a beautiful game to watch. Gracefulness and teamwork intertwine with explosiveness and athleticism. But take out just about every form of communication on the court, and things can get ugly.
The players on Missouri School for the Deaf's team get frustrated with each other quickly. They often collide on the court, throw passes to the wrong spot and fail to run any semblance of a cohesive offense.
“It’s hard for us to communicate out there,” Corley Jr. signed. “The freshmen are awkward. I try to explain, but it’s tough.”
After a quarter of play against Chamois, the Eagles trailed 13-0. They played tough defense but couldn’t figure out a way to score a point.
Things didn’t change much as the night went on. As the turnovers and fouls piled up, Corley Jr. puffed his cheeks in frustration.
“There are missed passes and missed baskets,” he signed. “I get frustrated a lot. There are so many errors and turnovers. I was angry at the team. I told them to quit fouling, but they didn’t listen to me.”
Every time the team did manage to score, the fans on Chamois' side of the gym couldn’t help but cheer. They sympathized for their opponent playing with a disadvantage. But the Eagles finished 30 points short and headed to the locker room with their heads down.
Just scoring wasn’t good enough for assistant basketball coach Bob Washington. He expected his team to compete. The Eagles received a fierce speech from him in the locker room after the game. The yelling was loud enough to be heard outside in the gym.
His great escape
FULTON – Corley Jr. sat in the driver’s seat of a car for the first time a little more than two years ago. He was taking a driver education course with Bob Washington, who teaches the course along with PE and Health on top of coaching basketball.
Corley Jr. turned the key, ready to experience that new sense of freedom, but the engine screamed at him through vibrations that something was wrong. Nervously, he let go of the key and felt the car hum back to normal.
“I thought I was ready to go,” Corley Jr. signed. “When I put it in drive, it jumped and bucked and stopped and I was like, ‘How is that happening?’ It was Mr. Washington stepping on his brake.”
While it's illegal to wear headphones behind the wheel because it can prevent drivers from being fully aware of what’s happening on the road, deaf individuals can legally drive.
“Statistics show that a lot of your hearing-impaired drivers are better drivers because they depend on their eyes to pick things up instead of their hearing,” Bob Washington said. “They are cued in more. They watch for movement and are very tuned in to movement, which is really what driving is all about.”
Corley Jr. developed a passion for cars during his freshman year while taking an auto body class, and he couldn’t wait to be in control of one.
After completing his course in driver's education, Corley Jr.’s obsession with cars was complete.
“I enjoy my freedom,” he said. “I can go visit different people at their homes. I can go to my friends' houses or pick them up.”
That’s the sort of connection every teenager makes with driving. But Corley Jr.’s relationship is unique. He can’t blast the radio or chat with friends in the car. There are no distractions. It’s just him and the engine.
When it roars, he roars. When it strains, he strains.
“I can feel the engine,” Corley Jr. signed. “When it starts up, I can feel that engine racing.”
Every morning, Corley Jr. finds his basketball coach and asks him one question.
“Can I drive your car?”
And every morning, head coach Kevin Voelker chuckles and reminds him that it’s against school rules to let a student drive his car. He knows what a thrill it would be for Corley Jr. to get behind his shiny 2008 Honda Accord, but he won’t bend the rules.
FULTON — It’s four days after the blowout loss at Chamois, and the Missouri Scool for the Deaf is hosting St. Albans for senior night, its final home game. The Eagles have won only two games this season and lost to St. Albans 35-29 in January.
Before the game, Voelker signs a speech about each of his three seniors; Ella Washington translates it for the few hearing fans in the crowd. There are only about 20 students in attendance, so alumni and family members fill up most of the tall bleachers.
In his speech, Voelker wishes each of his seniors good luck in the future and rattles off some stats. Corley Jr. came into the game leading his team in blocks and rebounds with 24 and 101, respectively. But when Corley Jr. receives his plaque, things never get emotional.
Basketball hasn’t been all that fun for Corley Jr. He loves rebounding, blocking shots and scoring, but most of all he loves winning. And without that, the speech and plaque didn’t seem all that important.
As the seniors’ names are announced in the starting lineup, the fans stand and salute the players. Some clap, others yell or wave their hands and fingers above their head, and of course there’s the drum.
At home games, they replace the snare with a bass drum. Every time it’s banged, those who can hear wince from the extreme loudness.
Corley Jr. starts the game by winning the tip off. He quickly gives the Eagles an early 4-2 advantage by snagging an offensive rebound and banking in a put-back shot.
The Eagles maintained control of the game through the first half and went into the locker room with a 25-14 advantage.
While most of the players on the team typically look more athletic and about five years older than their opponents, physique rarely is enough to make up for their lack of communication.
Although things turn sloppy against St. Albans, the Eagles kept their cool. Instead of shooting glares and yelling at one another, they rebounded well and out-hustled their opponent.
Late in the third quarter, Missouri School for the Deaf’s lead, which had once been 15, was cut to seven. The Eagles' senior point guard Donte’ Darrington dribbled the ball up the court, made a quick cut toward the lane and launched a contested fade-away jumper.
The shot bounced off the back of the rim, but Corley Jr. managed to reel in his ninth offensive rebound of the game with a strong move to the basket that banked in the ball, extending the Eagles' lead to nine.
The team never collapsed and the Eagles went on to win 45-37. Corley Jr. scored 12 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and had three blocked shots.
“That was my best game ever,” he signed. “We had good teamwork. We just kept scoring more and more points, and then we were able to run the clock down at the end. It felt so good to get a win here. I was sick of losing.”
One final rally
JEFFERSON CITY — It’s a week after Missouri School for the Deaf’s senior night victory, and the Eagles are taking on Jamestown High School in the first round of the District Tournament.
The third quarter just ended, and the Eagle’s are being clobbered 53-15. There is not going to be a miracle run to the championship.
The players and coaches are aware of this fact. Bob Washington, who typically spends each game pacing along the sideline yelling as he signs to his players, is sitting quietly at the end of the bench keeping stats.
But for Corley Jr. and his teammates, this is one last chance to play together, so they rally.
As shots begin to fall, they start to relax. The Eagles refuse to go down easily. Their brute strength and size finally begin to take a toll on the undersized Jamestown team that so far had managed to dominate with disciplined ball movement and solid shooting.
With three minutes left on the clock, a Jamestown guard drives to the basket. Corley Jr. sprints from the backside and cuts the player off. Both players elevate, but Corley Jr. gets higher.
He cocks his arm back before swinging his hand forward, slapping the ball into the stands.
On the next possession, they attack him again. This time he spikes the ball into the ground. Twice more the Jamestown guards came at him and twice more they were rejected.
When it was all said and done, Missouri School for the Deaf lost the game 53-40. It did win the fourth quarter 25-0.
Carrying the name
While Corley Sr. and his son share a name, direct communication between them hasn’t always been easy. In fact, Corley Sr. knows the least sign language in the house.
It’s not that he didn’t want to learn or that he couldn’t. He just managed to get by without it. He never needed sign language to bond with his son. Eye contact, facial expressions and time formed a unique language that bonded the two.
“I’ve been around him long enough to understand him differently than a lot of people could without signing,” Corley Sr. said. “I’ve watched him grow. Most of the time, Dexter’s eye contact is enough.”
But now, as Corley Jr. will graduate this spring and head to Southwest Collegiate Institute for the Deaf in Texas, once again leaving his family, his father is working harder than ever to learn sign language.
“I’m working a lot more to communicate through sign,” Corley Sr. said. “But growing up, as close as we have been, I never had to use sign as much as everyone else did. But I’d love to be able to communicate more through sign.”
Corley Jr. will follow his passion for cars to Texas, where he will study auto mechanics.
“It’s going to be hard having him go away again,” Corley Sr. said. “I think about that every day. It’s hard when you got somebody that’s so close to you in heart.”
But being apart from his son is a sacrifice that Corley Sr. has made before and is willing to make again. He’s confident the time he lost with his son has put Corley Jr. in the best position to succeed in life.
“I’m so proud,” Corley Sr. said. “Every week he comes home, he’s got new trophies. His accomplishments of what he’s done with his handicap are amazing. He doesn’t let anything stop him. Anywhere he goes, he’s just a special dude.”
And anywhere Corley Jr. goes, he carries his father's name with him.
“It would be the highlight of my life to have a Dexter Corley III,” Corley Sr. said. “It would carry on the legacy from me to him and to his son. I believe that he will pass on the same love that we gave him. That would just be beautiful.”