NEWARK, N.J. — There was never any shortage of people willing to tell Derrick Coleman what he couldn’t do. If there’s any consolation to being the latest of three deaf players to ever make it to the NFL, it was that: He didn’t have to listen.
“Just turn your hearing aid off, Dad used to say,” Coleman recalled, chuckling softly at the memory.
Inspirational tales are rarely in short supply in the NFL. With some 1,800 roster slots available each season and an ever-present risk of serious injury, every player is a long shot just to get one and then keep it. But some face much longer odds than others.
You wouldn’t know that watching Coleman carry the ball for the Seahawks, or fly down the field on special teams. You might not even guess it watching him entertain a scrum of reporters during Tuesday’s lengthy give-and-take session — at least not until you were close enough to see the thin wire brace behind each ear holding his hearing aids in place.
He began wearing them at age 3, after being diagnosed with severe hearing loss. He still doesn’t know what caused the impairment — “It just up and left,” is the way Coleman described it — but either way, the taunts began soon after. From that day forward, the lessons his parents drilled into him about being “different” had only so much to do with trying to fit in; mostly, they were about how much more effort he’d have to put in to stand out.
“The fact that the guy is even here is a testament to that work,” marveled Broncos safety David Bruton, who might be called upon to stop Coleman. “I can’t even imagine what it would be like.”
Yet some of the workarounds Coleman devised actually turned out to be advantages, especially after he learned to read lips.
“That’s why you see coaches talk like this,” he laughed, covering his mouth with his hand. “Because of guys like me.”
On a good day, with both hearing aids in underneath his helmet, Coleman figures he’s on the lower end of average, maybe eight on a scale of zero to 10. On a bad day, with the sweat running into the earpieces and the static crackling, he’s a six. Without the aids in, he’s a two or less.
In the Seattle huddle, quarterback Russell Wilson doesn’t wear his mouthpiece, so Coleman gets a clear look at his lips. If he’s unsure about any of the calls, Coleman repeats them to teammates before they break for the line of scrimmage.
“He never makes it into a big deal,” Seattle tackle Russell Okung said. “Everybody understands that for something to work, it takes all 11 guys working together. When Derrick first came in, some guys maybe looked at it as a shortcoming. Once they saw how hard he worked, they realized he viewed it as an opportunity. It’s easy to get invested in a guy like that.”
It’s easier still once you find out how Coleman has embraced his role as both a valuable spare part for the Seahawks — he started a handful of games at fullback, filled in at tailback and has proven to be a monster on special teams — and an informal spokesman for what he calls the “deaf community.”
Two other deaf players — Kenny Walker and Bonnie Sloan — played on the defensive side in the league briefly in the 1970s. Though Walker eventually wrote an autobiography titled, “Roar of Silence,” neither man lasted long enough to become an advocate for the hearing-impaired. A commercial that Coleman appeared in recently for Duracell batteries, as well as an exchange of letters he had with a 9-year-old New Jersey girl on Twitter, both went viral. Coleman has never been shy about speaking out, especially to children’s organizations. But he realizes the Super Bowl platform is an opportunity he can’t afford to pass up.
“The hardest thing about being in the deaf community is getting over wall one,” he said. “Everything I do is going to affect them in terms of perception. ... What I’m doing now, getting the opportunity to play for the Seattle Seahawks and getting the chance to play in the Super Bowl, that’s basically saying that when people are hard of hearing now, you can do it, too.
“They’re not going to be saying you can’t do it because you’re hard of hearing. I’m making that step,” he added. “That’s why I go and talk to a lot of kids, because when they start making excuses and being lazy and people start getting that perception, they’re going to come to me thinking I’m the same way.
“Everything I do affects them,” Coleman said finally, “and everything they do affects us.”