FULTON — On both sidelines of the football field, the coaches waved and signed furiously to their players. They hoped to catch someone’s attention before the center gave the signal for the play to start.
“It is hard to get their attention,” said Michael Eldred, offensive coach at Missouri School for the Deaf. “You have to wave your arms to get eye contact.”
He is deaf. So are his players.
Cheerleaders led the crowd in a cheer, keeping beat by the thumping of a big bass drum they could feel in their chests. Students standing at the fence signed along with the cheerleaders.
Meanwhile, clusters of conversations took place throughout the stands. A flurry of visual messages was punctuated once in a while with an auditory message. The rustle of the cheerleaders’ pompoms could be heard in the back row of the bleachers.
No announcer commented on the afternoon game Oct. 9. The spectators had to watch closely to make sure they didn’t miss a play.
Missouri School for the Deaf was playing Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf: the Eagles against the Trojans.
Missouri coaches waved to catch the players’ attention. When Missouri is on defense, the coaches point and gesture to fine-tune the players’ positions on the line. Changing an offensive play is a little harder.
“Once an offensive play is called in the huddle, it’s too late to change it,” Eldred said. “You have to call a timeout to change the play. It is hard to get the players’ attention.”
Eldred played quarterback in high school at Wisconsin School for the Deaf. He went on to play wide receiver at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the only university for the deaf in the United States.
The other coach, Charles Galbreath, can hear. Both are teachers at the school.
Each play has a sign. The coach gives the play to the quarterback, and then the quarterback relays the information in the huddle.
An option play is shown by the sign for O then moving it in a circular motion either to the right or to the left.
Nick Wolfe, a halfback and a junior at Missouri School for the Deaf, said to prevent the other teams from seeing their plays, they line up around the quarterback.
Wolfe has been deaf his entire life. He started playing football as a freshman. When Wolfe is asked whether communication is difficult on the field, his eyebrows draw together in a look of confusion.
His face asks the question, “Why would it?” He has never known the shouts of coaches or the calls of fellow teammates. All he has known is communicating by sign language. He doesn’t feel he is missing out. Being deaf is a part of who he is.
“Most of the time communication is smooth,” Wolfe said. “Sometimes our motivation is just low.”
When Wolfe is on the field, he doesn’t need to hear his competitors. He can feel them.
“When I feel them behind me, I run harder and try to escape to try for a touchdown,” Wolfe said.
When the players come to the sidelines between plays, the coaches sometimes sign directly in their faces, giving them ardent instruction.
During the first and second quarters, the coaches from Missouri tried to guide their players to stop Minnesota.
A couple of Missouri players threw their helmets to the ground while signing their frustrations to one another in response to a play that happened.
There was reason to be frustrated. At the end of the first half, Minnesota was winning 66-0. The game was called at halftime.
During most games, fans in the stands wave their hands in celebration for a good play by the home team.
Wolfe said he can feel the fans supporting him.
“I feel the fans and I see them,” he said. “I have a lot of pride inside. Deaf culture always has pride. We never like to give up.”
The Eagles have had challenges to overcome this season other than those on the field.
The team started with 18 players, but because of injuries it has 14.
Because of the team’s small size it plays eight-man football on an 80-yard field instead of 11-man football on a 100-yard field.Bob Washington coached the football team when it played 11-man football. He has worked for Missouri School for the Deaf for 24 years as a teacher.
“We used to play against hearing schools,” Washington said. “That was when we had more students.”
The small number of football players is in part because of the shrinking enrollment of Missouri School for the Deaf.
“I wish we had more deaf kids here,” Eldred said. “We’d have a better sports program if we had more students. Deaf students get opportunities here that they might not have at a hearing school. There they just sit back and watch others play. Here they get to play and meet other people like them. Deaf culture is important.”
Throughout the seasons, deaf culture meets hearing culture in competition. Missouri School for the Deaf plays hearing teams in volleyball, basketball and track. Football is the only sport at the school that competes against only deaf teams.
Sports affect most students at Missouri School for the Deaf. Of the 51 high school students, 39 participate in a fall sport.
“Sports here are more than just games of competition,” said Ella Washington, athletic director for Missouri School for the Deaf. “It is a process of socialization. They develop close friends that last a life time.”
The Minnesota team bunked in the dorms on campus and hung out with its competitor the night before the game.
The football team from Missouri School for the Deaf gets the same hospitality when it travels to play teams in the Great Plains Schools for the Deaf Conference. Teams in Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota and Iowa make up the conference.
The Eagles also log a lot of hours on a bus to other states such as Oklahoma, which is 10-hour trip, and to Louisiana, which takes 14 hours.
The Eagles are 1-6. “I promise next year the football team will be better,” Wolfe said.