Sound and the Fury

By Brooke Foster
Sunday, August 19, 2007

A LARGE BASS DRUM WAS ROLLED TO THE CENTER OF THE FOOTBALL FIELD, and a skinny sophomore wearing hearing aids picked up what looked like a giant matchstick and swung. There was a crack, then an echoing boom. The force smacked Coach Ed Hottle in the chest, sending tremors down to his toes.

Hottle's players also felt the vibration.

It signaled to them to drop to the ground and stretch their legs out. Another drumbeat, and they fell forward over their thighs. Another, and they reached toward their toes.

On this Sunday afternoon last October, the Gallaudet University football team was in Dover, Del., to play Wesley College's junior varsity. Gallaudet is the nation's only university dedicated solely to the hearing impaired, and its club team is the only deaf college football team in the country. After Gallaudet hired Hottle in 2005, the Bison went undefeated for the first time in school history. So far in 2006, they'd won their first three games.

"They ain't going to hear what's coming to them," said a burly Wesley player watching the Gallaudet players. Wesley is a successful NCAA Division III program. The Wesley players were joking about their opponents and wondered aloud what the Bison were saying to one another with their hands.

Hottle knew opposing teams often consider Gallaudet an easy win. He once overheard an assistant coach call the Bison "a bunch of retards." Hottle couldn't wipe the smirk off his face when they beat that team by 10 points.

Now, minutes before kickoff at Wesley, the Gallaudet players gathered together. "How many times have you been shut down, told you couldn't do something?" Bison running back Robert Haney signed. The players grunted. A few made loud screeching noises -- most of them couldn't hear the sounds, but they could feel the vibrations. "They think you're nothing," Haney signed. " They're nothing."

When Hottle spoke, he looked ticked off. "I talked to their coach earlier," Hottle signed. "He said, 'I guess you guys were undefeated. Who did you play?'" Hottle made a disgusted face, then signed. "They ought to know who we played." The players roared.

Two hours later, they'd celebrate their 12th straight win.

ON A MARCH EVENING IN 2005, AS SOON AS HE AND HIS WIFE, ASHLEY, PUT THE KIDS TO BED, Hottle popped in a DVD -- "Signing for Dummies" -- and practiced the alphabet. He wanted to learn how to sign, "My name is Ed Hottle," before his job interview at Gallaudet the following week.

Not long before, Hottle had been skimming through coaching jobs in the NCAA News when he noticed that Gallaudet was searching for a head coach. He figured that there was someone more qualified than he was to lead a deaf football program, but he applied anyway. At the time, he was the coach at Calvert High School, where the team's 2004 record was 1-9, but his dream was to one day run through the tunnel at the University of Notre Dame. He was realistic, though. First, he had to get a head coaching job on the college level. He'd already worked as an assistant coach at Frostburg State University, Denison University and Wesley.

As he drove through the wrought-iron gates of Gallaudet's leafy campus in Northeast Washington, he started to get anxious. He'd grown up in Northern Virginia, but he'd never been to Gallaudet, and he'd never known a deaf person. Just treat them like you would anyone else, he told himself. He reminded himself to look at the person signing -- not the interpreter. His mom had advised him that the latter was considered rude. She'd had a few deaf patients in the doctor's office where she worked as a medical assistant.

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