By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 19, 2008
Players for Real Maryland, a new pro soccer club based in Montgomery County, have gathered behind the north goal of the No. 20 field at the vast Maryland SoccerPlex. The early-evening air crackles with sound -- a brew of English and Spanish banter, the thump of a foot striking the ball, a coach's pointed instruction, shrieks from youth teams practicing nearby.
For Monarchs defender Matt Eby, the disorderly setting is seen but not heard. Though he is a reserve on a team that will play in USL2, the third tier of the U.S. soccer system with 10 obscure franchises stretching from Bermuda to Cleveland, Eby has the distinction of being one of the few known deaf pro players in the world. He will be in uniform tomorrow afternoon when the Monarchs make their debut by hosting the Western Massachusetts Pioneers in the main stadium of the Boyds complex.
"I thought it would be very difficult because it's hard to become a professional athlete in any sport," Eby said through a sign language interpreter. "But I didn't think my situation would put me at a big disadvantage. I worked hard and proved to them that I could help the team."
Eby, 24, played at Gallaudet University from 2003 until 2006 and is an assistant coach at the school. He is a member of the U.S. deaf national team, which will compete in the world championship this summer in Greece.
Last fall, one of Eby's former coaches saw a notice that Real Maryland, launched by area businessman Victor Moran, was going to hold tryouts and encouraged Eby to attend. Among dozens of players in attendance, Eby first caught Coach Silvino Gonzalo's eye because an interpreter accompanied him.
"I thought to myself: 'How do I relate? How am I going to do this?' " said Gonzalo, a native of Spain who has coached amateur and pro teams in the Washington area for 23 years. "But you know what? You learn. It's very normal now. I don't even think about it anymore. He is just one of the fellows."
The number of deaf pro soccer players in the world is difficult to determine because there are tens of thousands of professional players around the world, but Eby (whose name is pronounced EE-bee) is believed to be the only one in the United States. Perhaps the most accomplished American was Silver Spring's Curtis Pride, who started for the U.S. under-17 national team at the 1985 world championship in China before pursuing baseball and playing for six major league teams.
Mainz defender Stefan Markolf, 24, is German soccer's first prominent deaf player, while Southampton midfielder Jason Euell, who is deaf in one ear, has spent 12 years in the English leagues and represented Jamaica's national team. Canadian goalkeeper Tony Chursky, who played in the North American Soccer League from 1976 to 1982, was also deaf in one ear, and, early in the 20th century, Englishman Albert Gardner, who was profoundly deaf, played for Birmingham.
There have been only two deaf NFL players: defensive linemen Bonnie Sloan (Cardinals) in 1973 and Kenny Walker (Broncos) in 1991-92.
Eby, deaf since birth, has played since sixth grade and was taught by his two older brothers, he said. (Matt is the only member of his family who is hearing impaired.) He starred at Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite High School before attending Gallaudet, where he also played basketball for three years.
Asked if he faced resistance in joining youth teams, Eby said: "They always seemed to want me on the team because I was pretty skilled. It was definitely difficult with the communication barrier, but people picked it up fast and I fit in."
Fitting in was not an issue at Gallaudet, a university for the hearing impaired that competes in Division III. He was a Capital Athletic Conference second-team selection three consecutive years, scored 21 career goals and, as a senior, was named the school's athlete of the year.
With Real (pronounced RAY-al), Eby has confronted challenges again. No one on the team or coaching staff knows sign language, and Eby does not read lips as well as he signs. Interpreters have accompanied him to practice on occasion, but for the most part, he arrives by himself and absorbs what is being instructed through gestures and body language.
"Sometimes communicating is a problem, but I am sure other players, even the ones who are not deaf, experience the same problems because you can be too far away from your teammate or there can be a lot of noise and confusion," he said. "In that way, I am not alone."
Gonzalo writes instructions on a notepad when necessary, "but usually I give just him the thumb's up or thumb's down."
Unable to hear the whistle, Eby must watch carefully for stoppages in play. He communicates with teammates by gesturing and making sounds. He is not a starter but is regarded as perhaps the top defender on the bench. Gonzalo said he plans to use him at left back, a position that allows Eby to see almost everyone on the field. "Eye contact is very important for me," he said.
"He is always aware of what is going on. It really has not been a big problem," goalkeeper Emilio Zelaya said through a Spanish interpreter.
Several friends from the hearing-impaired community are expected to attend tomorrow's match, said Eby, who after completing his physical education degree in December became a full-time dormitory supervisor on the Northeast campus and will continue to be an assistant coach this fall.
Real Maryland teammate Ronald Cerritos marvels at Eby's accomplishments.
"Sometimes it is difficult with him because talking is a big part of the game, but in the end, soccer is the same language," said Cerritos, a Salvadoran national team forward who played 10 seasons in MLS, including two with D.C. United. "He has the qualities, and he has the passion. Some players have everything, but they don't always bring passion to every practice and every game. I am watching this kid do a lot of things. For him, it is not an excuse to play soccer. He's an inspiration."