Adham Talaat stood inside the T.J. Maxx stockroom, in Alexandria’s Kingstowne shopping center, surrounded by suitcases. He had worked his shift unpacking boxes, tagging items and organizing them for the sales floor. Heavy objects were often the 6-foot-6 strongman’s responsibility. The hours blurred together, and in the steady pace of his work he thought about how he had arrived at this moment.
Two months before, he was a freshman on an athletic scholarship to play football for the University of Massachusetts. Now, on this summer day in 2009, he was back living with his mother in her one-bedroom apartment in Springfield, taking community college classes and working a stockroom job.
His shift ended at 7 or 8. He’d then drive to his alma mater, West Springfield High School, where the janitors would let him in so he could start his workouts: jogging, weight-lifting and drills, pushing himself to exhaustion. His motivation was the reaction around town spawned by his unexpected return: He had made a terrible decision leaving UMass. He was a waste of talent.
Talaat was nearly deaf, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t aware of what people were saying. He was determined to play football again — if he could find a second chance.
Four years later, Talaat is one step away from his football dream. Last year, he helped lead the 2013 Gallaudet Bison to a 9-0 start and the NCAA Division III playoffs for the first time in the school’s 150-year history. This week, Talaat hopes NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will say his name at the NFL draft and make him one of only a few hard-of-hearing players ever to be drafted into the NFL.
Only a few deaf or severely hard-of-hearing athletes have played in the NFL (the National Association of the Deaf says distinguishing between “deaf” and “hard of hearing” is an individual choice). The first was defensive tackle Bonnie Sloan, who played four games for St. Louis in 1973. Kenny Walker, a former defensive lineman, played two seasons for the Broncos in the early 1990s.
Perhaps the most well known is Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman, who went undrafted in 2012 but signed with Seattle. Coleman became nationally recognized during this year’s NFL playoffs when he was featured in a Duracell commercial telling his story. He visits schools to talk about how being deaf has motivated him.
In an April interview with Mediaplanet, Coleman said playing in the NFL “allows me to share my story with not only those who are like me and have the same hearing disability that I have, but to everyone chasing a dream. ... Don’t listen to people who tell you that you can’t do something.”
That few deaf athletes play professional sports is “not because they’re not physically capable or talented,” says Clifford Carey, communications director at EarQ, a hearing-loss resource group . “Many talent evaluators assume the communication barrier will inhibit top performance. So you end up seeing many hard-of-hearing and deaf athletes in the second- or third-tier levels of pro sports. It’s tough for them to make the leap, and some of it, quite honestly, is perception.”
Parents, Carey says, sometimes discourage their children from being involved in sports to protect them, and “perceptions, misnomers by adults can sometimes inhibit a child’s willingness to participate.”
Other parents see athletics as a way for hard-of-hearing youth to experience an equal playing field. “Sports are sometimes a great place to show everyone that deaf people can compete and play like everyone else,” wrote Kevin Kovacs, athletic director at the California School for the Deaf and a former Gallaudet basketball player, in an e-mail. “Without sports, a lot of people would have a huge misunderstanding about who deaf people are and what they can or can’t do.”
Kovacs played high school basketball at the California School for the Deaf. In his free time, he’d walk to a park to join pickup games with hearing players. He was often the last player chosen. “It was always a challenge to get myself in and be able to play,” Kovacs wrote. “I had to stand up for myself and put myself in the game.”
Talaat was born in 1990 in Alexandria . As a baby, he sometimes seemed to ignore his parents when they called his name. “He’d bang pots and pans together, and where most babies would stop when it gets too noisy, he’d keep doing it,” says his mother, Nesrin El Bannan. At the time, she and her husband, Youssef Talaat, assumed Adham was a late bloomer.
When Adham was 18 months old, his Egyptian American parents took him to visit their families in Zamalek, a district of western Cairo . Adham’s grandmother, Laila El Bannan, worried something was wrong with his hearing. Nesrin reassured her that doctors had checked him. Laila persisted, so they took Adham to a doctor. He ran several tests before telling them Adham had significant hearing loss.
The family returned home the next day and scheduled an appointment at Children’s National Medical Center, where his parents learned that Adham had severe-to-profound hearing loss (experts define hearing loss on a scale between mild, moderate, severe and profound). “It was the biggest shock of my life,” Nesrin says.
She and Youssef enrolled Adham in preschool at Fairfax County’s Camelot Elementary, which offered curriculum options for hearing-impaired children, including an American Sign Language classroom. A speech therapist encouraged Nesrin and Youssef to enroll him in the specialized classroom, but they resisted, wanting him to be “as normal as possible,” Nesrin says.
Adham was fitted with hearing aids. Initially, he hated them and would hide them. Nesrin often took him to the park, identifying animal sounds and imitating them so Adham would learn to differentiate.
“At first I wanted to play football so that I’d be popular.... But once I hit my junior and senior years ... I felt an inner drive to be the best I could at everything that I did.”
No one in the family — Adham has a younger brother, Ashraf — learned sign language. Instead, Adham taught himself to read lips.
He started playing sports when he was 6, signing up for soccer and basketball with the Springfield youth league. But he didn’t play football because the helmets couldn’t fit his hearing aids. Still, football was his main passion, and he memorized stats and rosters and watched Washington’s NFL games with his father every Sunday.
He learned sign language in high school. He also used an FM system, a device whereby his teacher wore a microphone that amplified his or her voice into Adham’s hearing aids. Adham graduated West Springfield with a 3.54 GPA.
Although he excelled academically, his social life was sometimes a struggle. He had been bullied by classmates — two, in particular — during middle school. “I was also overweight then,” Talaat says. “Sometimes people want to feel better about themselves by putting others down. They saw the hearing aids as something different that they could exploit.”
By the time Talaat entered West Springfield, equipment maker Riddell had released the Revolution helmet, whose space and padding allowed for hearing aids. He decided to try out for the football team. “At first I wanted to play football so that I’d be popular,” he says. “But once I hit my junior and senior years, I started not to care what other people thought, and I became more independent. I felt an inner drive to be the best I could at everything that I did.”
He’d eat lunch in his coach’s office, watching film and discussing plays with the staff. He didn’t drink, smoke or go to parties and rarely dated, choosing instead to spend his free time with his family or on football.
“Adham’s whole life — it’s all football,” Nesrin says.
By his senior year, Talaat had grown to 6-foot-5. After hours in the weight room, he had chiseled his physique. He began to think seriously about playing in the NFL and mapped out a detailed plan of how he might get there.
Talaat earned a starting spot on West Springfield’s defense, and the team finished the season with a 10-3 record, winning its first conference championship in more than a decade. Small schools tried to recruit him, including Division III Gallaudet, but Talaat’s head coach thought that he was a Division I player. UMass, under head coach Don Brown, was the only Division I school to offer Talaat a scholarship. Talaat accepted.
Because UMass didn’t have any remaining athletic scholarships for 2008, it decided to grayshirt Talaat, meaning he had to wait a semester before enrolling. For six months, Talaat lived at home, worked at Costco and dedicated himself to his football workouts.
He arrived in Amherst in January 2009. A few weeks later, he read that Brown had left UMass to be the defensive coordinator at the University of Maryland. “He hadn’t even told me he was leaving,” Talaat says. “I had to learn it from a third party.” Talaat had few friends on campus and felt isolated so far from home. And he didn’t meet the new head coach and his staff until several weeks later. “Their whole philosophy and the way they saw me fitting into the program … it was nothing like I had in mind with Coach Brown,” Talaat says.
Every night, he’d text his mother, telling her how unhappy he was. “I wanted him to come home, but I also said to him, ‘If you come home, remember that you might not have another chance to play football,’ ” Nesrin says.
Talaat withdrew before the end of the spring semester to keep his four years of athletic eligibility. He was unsure, though, if he’d ever be able to use it.
After he left UMass, Talaat’s father picked him up at the airport and dropped him off at his mother’s apartment (Talaat’s parents had divorced when he was in middle school; they have since remarried each other). His father told him he needed to get a job and go back to school. “He didn’t want me to get into the habit of quitting when things get hard,” Talaat says.
He enrolled in part-time classes at Northern Virginia Community College and was hired by T.J. Maxx. UMass had placed restrictions on his release, meaning that Talaat couldn’t play football for other schools in the then Atlantic 10 Conference for two years , including William & Mary and other in-state schools that had shown interest in him during high school. He tried to contact out-of-state programs but had little success.
In fall 2009, he received a Facebook message from one of his high school teammates, Henry Dodge. Dodge, who had minimal hearing loss in one ear and had joined the Gallaudet football team, talked to head coach Chuck Goldstein about Talaat. Goldstein remembered Talaat from his earlier recruiting attempts and started texting him, asking if he’d want to visit Gallaudet. Talaat and his father came the following week.
“Gallaudet felt very comfortable,” Talaat says, even if it was a different football experience from what he had grown accustomed to. West Springfield crowds averaged in the thousands; Gallaudet games drew several hundred fans. The visitors’ side didn’t even have a seating area. Most collegiate football rosters have between 100 and 150 players; Gallaudet averages 55. The Bison traveled everywhere by bus, including the 13 hours to Maine, and they sometimes filled out their schedule by playing club teams.
After his visit, Talaat sat in the car, praying. As a Muslim, he says, his relationship with God is the most important thing in his life. “After praying, I had this overwhelming feeling like, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be,’ ” Talaat says.
In 2010, he enrolled at Gallaudet, one of the world’s premiere universities for deaf students (it’s credited with inventing the huddle, in the 1890s). Talaat never wore his hearing aids during games; coaches communicated with the team via “sign-com,” a hybrid of signing and speaking. Teammates signed to one another.
“From day one, he was mature, focused and very goal-oriented,” Goldstein says. “Most guys who come in, we need to help them develop into men. Adham, with his previous experiences and his age, had a jump on everyone.”
“He’s raw but has a lot of talent. ... He knows he has an uphill fight.”
Skip Fuller , director of sports performance, TEST Parisi Football Academy
Although Talaat admits that he arrived with a chip on his shoulder about playing Division III football, by his junior season, he worked relentlessly on and off the field. The team voted Talaat one of three senior captains entering the 2013 season. After a 9-0 start, the team received national coverage, featured on “CBS Evening News,” ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Gallaudet won the school’s first Eastern Collegiate Football Conference regular-season championship before losing in the conference playoffs.
As a defensive end, Talaat became the most decorated player in Bison history and a finalist for numerous awards, including the Gagliardi Trophy, given each year to the best Division III football player in the nation. More than 23 NFL scouts visited campus during his junior and senior seasons to watch him. When Talaat met and talked with the scouts, he realized that they were evaluating his ability to communicate as well as his football talent. “I’m sure part of it was the scouts wanting to gauge my hearing loss and learn that it’s not a concern.”
Talaat was also the first Gallaudet student-athlete to earn first-team academic all-American honors. He graduated in December with a 3.91 GPA and a degree in physical education and began his preparation for the NFL draft.
In early January, Talaat moved to Bridgewater, N.J., to train at the TEST Parisi Football Academy , in a program for players preparing for the NFL combine and draft. His pro day, a session in which NFL scouts watch a player perform tests designed to measure his abilities and NFL potential, was scheduled for April 9. Talaat wrote to his agents that one of the things he wanted from the training program was to “not treat me any differently than the Division One guys, same attention, respect and effort.”
Talaat was the only D-III alumnus among the group, many of whom graduated from Division I powerhouses such as Louisiana State University and the University of Miami. Their typical day started with 9 a.m. workouts that lasted until 11:30, a break for lunch, then more workouts from 1 to 3:30 p.m. They had film review twice a week, yoga on Wednesdays and position drills on Mondays and Thursdays.
On a cold Monday in March, director of sports performance Skip Fuller stood at the far end of the field beside Talaat and former Miami defensive tackle Justin Renfrow, detailing instructions for a pass rush drill. The players faced each other, legs crouched and hands held up with elbows bent, one player trying to move around the other in a flurry of swatting hands and spin moves. Then they switched sides, repeating the drill until Talaat’s knuckles bled.
Afterward, the two sat in chairs, talking and laughing before moving on to the next exercise. “He’d be a great teammate,” Renfrow said. “He works just as hard as somebody coming from a D-I school and catches on very quickly.”
“He’s raw but has a lot of talent,” Fuller said. “He’s extremely hardworking and grinds every day, more so than some guys. He knows he has an uphill fight.”
In 2013, only 10 active NFL players were alumni of D-III schools. None were defensive ends. Talaat knew the long odds and was using them as more inspiration to surprise scouts on his pro day.
Six NFL scouts stood in a circle on Gallaudet’s football field on a sunny April morning. Talaat warmed up a few feet away. Gallaudet coaches and staff stood scattered around, signing to one another. The field’s perimeter chain-link fence had become a spectator hub, where about 50 Gallaudet students stood watching and signing. The field was quiet, with only the occasional shout of encouragement for Talaat.
Talaat performed several tests, including the 40-yard dash. The scouts called for several defensive-line drills as the last exercise, which would test Talaat’s speed, physicality, footwork and ability to follow instructions. One scout set up cones and tackling dummies before illustrating where and how he wanted Talaat to run. Talaat watched him speak, nodding, gesticulating and asking questions as he confirmed the exercise. Sweat poured off his arms and forehead as he guzzled water from a gallon milk jug.
Talaat had never done most of the drills. Still, his focus and athleticism were impressive. He ran the final drill three times, dodging and weaving between the dummies before turning the final corner and sprinting away.
The scouts and spectators applauded and walked over to shake his hand. (No scout could comment on his performance for this story, per their organization’s rules.) Talaat smiled. Gallaudet’s athletic director signed congratulations. Coach Goldstein, Talaat’s agents, Ashraf and Nesrin all hugged him.
“I’m relieved,” Talaat said afterward, sitting in the grass. “I’ve been waiting four long years for this moment.” He talked about the drills he excelled in and the ones where he felt he can still improve. “The scouts were smiling, and they said, ‘Good job,’ ” he said. “So now, we just wait and see.”
Anna Katherine Clemmons writes for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com.
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