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A deaf football team vanquishes opponents – and stereotypes

The Silent Warriors in Alabama have won four national championships, defeating hearing and nonhearing teams alike.

By Carmen K. SissonCorrespondent / December 16, 2008

Guiding hand: Paul Kulick, head coach of the Silent Warriors, discusses a play in sign language with the team.

Carmen K. Sisson

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Talladega, Ala.

The Silent Warriors aren’t a big football team. They’re not a heavy team. Only five of the 33 players tip the scales at more than 200 pounds, most at considerably less, but they’re light and they’re quick.

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Underestimate the Alabama School for the Deaf (ASD) if you want. They like it that way. You won’t know what hit you until you’re facedown in the turf, inhaling the scent of fresh-mown grass and Alabama soil, staring at the final scoreboard, which illuminates your flawed logic. ASD, billed as “home of the champions” and winner of four national football titles against hearing and nonhearing teams, is one of only 30 deaf high schools in the US playing 11-man football. The team shows up ready to compete.

The shady, oak-strewn campus sits in the heart of downtown Talladega, Ala., a city known mostly for its international speedway. But it is heavily influenced by the presence of the 150-year old Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind (AIDB), of which the ASD is a part.

The institute began as a school for the deaf and hard of hearing and expanded to include students ages 3 through 21 who are blind or vision-impaired. Local restaurants offer menus in Braille. Churches and businesses have deaf interpreters. The fire department provides strobe smoke alarms. Every aspect of life in Talladega and at AIDB is geared towards helping residents live independently.

Some students attend class and return home in the evenings, while others live in dorms. They learn everything from math and history to preparing meals, washing clothes, and socializing in a college-like environment. Afternoons and weekends belong to athletics, with more than 60 percent of the school’s 112 students participating in one of six sports: football, basketball, volleyball, track, soccer, and cheerleading.

But on Friday nights, in a state where there are two religions, football and football, there’s only one game in town – ASD’s weekly matchup. Every week, fans flock to the stadium to see the Silent Warriors trounce their competition and prove something you’ll hear a lot around here: Deaf people are like everyone else; they just can’t hear.

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As you enter the stadium, two things are immediately apparent – the Warriors are winning and the game is loud. Though the players can’t hear them and 70 percent of the fans can’t hear either, they chant with the cheerleaders anyway, stomping their feet against the metal seats and keeping rhythm with the drum, an integral component not only of deaf football, but deaf culture.

The game flows smoothly. ASD head coach Paul Kulick sends plays via sign language to the quarterback, who signs them to players in the huddle. Someone on the sideline then bangs the snare drum, which the players feel, and the play begins. At times, deafness becomes a strategic advantage. Since no offensive play can begin until Mr. Kulick signals for the drum sequence, he controls the tempo – even when the opposing team has the ball.

Yet problems arise, too. When the Warriors are playing another deaf team, the opponents can interpret the plays Kulick signs from the sidelines. So in these games, he sends in plays by number, which the quarterback translates by looking at a wristband. Hearing teams can be just as nefarious. Kulick says they sometimes hire interpreters to read his signals, forcing the team to resort to the wristbands.

Ordinarily, the snare drum also signals referee calls and other key elements of the game. But Kulick has decided to see how the players perform tonight without it. Last week, vibrations from fireworks at the nearby motor speedway left the players confused. The double-wing formation the team prefers doesn’t require the drum, anyway, and it sometimes messes up the line, because not all players can feel it well.

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