After playing at Kennedy as a junior, Nicholas was cut, he said, because the coach couldn’t fully hear him. Now, more than three decades later, Nicholas relishes the ability to hear his own players with the help of a high-powered hearing aid.
He can converse comfortably with his players at close range, using a high-pitched voice that is firm but muffled, as if he were talking while trying to hold his breath.
“They know when to communicate with me and when not to communicate with me,” Nicholas said of his players.
Eight years ago, Nicholas was terrified to be in this position — having a severe hearing disability and wanting to teach teenagers in Montgomery County how to play soccer. He was fresh off a stint with the U.S. Deaf Soccer men’s national team, for which he competed internationally for 20 years after a stellar soccer career at Gallaudet. His life was in limbo after his playing career faded. He had been feeling empty and restless for several months in 2005, when his wife finally urged Nicholas to think about a coaching career.
“Ever since then, I found my calling,” he said.
Born deaf, Nicholas is a capable speaker, a database engineer at L-3 National Security Solutions and a favorite at the high school in western Montgomery County, where on a recent Friday afternoon he struck up conversations with nearly everybody he came across on campus. But teaching teenagers how to play a sport is a different challenge — one purely driven by communication. It is not a business in which hotheads or the socially awkward thrive, let alone a coach who has difficulty hearing his own players’ voices from long distances.
“I was very, very nervous,” said Nicholas, who coached at Damascus for one season before taking over at Poolesville in 2007. “I was afraid that the kids wouldn’t understand me. And I was just nervous that the kids would not be able to understand where I came from and how I could bring that high level of playing that I had down to the high school level and how determined I was to make them good soccer players.”
To do that, Nicholas had to learn how to articulate years of accumulated knowledge to his players. He only would be able to talk to players face-to-face, but he would also be tireless in pushing his boundaries. That meant watching his players for signs of weakness or hitches and filing his thoughts to share later when he had them close. He also needed a “system to develop naturally” in relaying signals on the field, which was front and center Monday against Magruder.
Sometimes he had to rely on pure hustle. Once during the game, he ran up the sideline when the ball was at the far end of the field, trying to get the attention of his players, using all the might in his vocal cords to yell instructions.
His methods may be unconventional, but Nicholas and his players are proven winners. The Falcons were the Maryland state runners-up in 2007 and have one region title, one division championship and two quarterfinal appearances in the past six seasons.
“He knows what he’s talking about. He’s got experience,” Poolesville senior forward Jonathan Hart said. “I don’t think it affects him in a negative way, his disability, but sometimes kids take advantage of it. That’s the downside, but he usually picks up on it.”
Nicholas said he has had a few players judge his disability, causing problems. And the boys will sometimes “play tricks” on him, making light of words he doesn’t properly pronounce. He usually laughs it off, the sign of a man who was forced to develop a thick skin long ago.
Tony Ventura, a four-year player for the Falcons, said he often will hear players on opposing teams make fun of his coach, but that just makes the Falcons’ team gravitate toward Nicholas more. While he had trouble speaking as a young boy, Nicholas said he struggled to make close friends until he started playing soccer. It was always a place where his disability was irrelevant, though sometimes he would take out his hearing aids because of discomfort or when the pieces were knocked out of his lobes after a collision with another player. It allowed him to tune out the background noise.
“He doesn’t let it get to him,” Ventura said. “I think that helps him build his personality and his character.”
But as a coach, Nicholas is trying to turn that noise up. In many ways, he’s conquering his disability on a daily basis. He’s raising four children, none of whom are deaf. He has pondered teaching them sign language but has no problems talking with them, he said. He still relies heavily on e-mail to communicate with the world and uses a special phone application that transcribes phone calls as they happen.
Technology isn’t an option on the pitch. Nicholas held dozens of conversations with his players on the field during Monday’s game, and he was constantly using hand signals. He knew when to leave an important moment of the game and help an injured player, and he later stretched out another injured player while the final seconds ticked away. It was the strongest form of language any coach could offer on that night.
“People were awkward towards me because I could do the things [on the soccer field] they could do, sometimes even better. And sometimes they would look at me,” Nicholas said. “Here’s a deaf kid, he could do the things they could do, and he was so normal.”