By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009
As a star running back and linebacker for the Maryland School for the Deaf, Ryan Bonheyo did not have to worry about hearing his quarterback's snap count or a referee's whistle signaling a play dead.
For four seasons, Bonheyo played with other deaf students at one of only nine schools for the deaf in the country that fields an 11-player football team.
But this fall, when he suits up with the football team at Towson University outside Baltimore, he will be entering a different world. In a rare move for a Division I college athletic program, Towson yesterday formalized a full scholarship offer for Bonheyo to play for the school, making him one of only a handful of deaf athletes to receive a scholarship to play college football.
Bonheyo, 18, who stands 6 feet 2 and weighs 210 pounds, said he is aware that many people will be following the course of his college career to see whether he can prove that a deaf athlete need not limit his college athletic aspirations.
"I've already opened doors for a lot of deaf people at my school," he said through a sign-language interpreter. "A lot of people feel deaf players have to go to Gallaudet," the federally funded school for the deaf in the District where Bonheyo's father starred on the football team in the early 1980s. "I want to show them deaf can go higher than that."
While the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 is widely credited with opening the doors to deaf students at college campuses across the country, its record of expanding that reach into college athletic programs has been mixed. There are only a few current or recent deaf football players on top-level NCAA teams, and just a handful of deaf athletes have received scholarships to play football or any other sport.
In the 19 years since the law was passed, scholarships for deaf athletes have averaged less than one per year, according to Chris Kaftan, a spokesman for the USA Deaf Sports Federation. Kaftan added that the exact number is unknown because some deaf or hearing-impaired athletes do not want to be associated with the deaf community.
"I'm just glad to have an opportunity to play at a college level," Bonheyo said. "It's a lifelong dream -- get that equal-rights thing going."
Part of Towson's appeal to Bonheyo and his family was its willingness to offer Bonheyo interpreters in the classroom and for football practices and games. Towson was the only school to offer him a scholarship, an offer Bonheyo accepted by signing his official letter-of-intent to play for the school. He was among the more than 100 Washington area football players to sign the paperwork to accept high-level college football scholarships yesterday, the first day high school seniors nationwide could do so.
Rob Ambrose, Towson's first-year head football coach, said he has already been in contact with the school's special services division to help ease Bonheyo's transition onto a team with 60 or more players, none of whom has likely ever played or practiced with a deaf teammate. The coaching staff has looked into taking American Sign Language classes. Ambrose took a year of sign language when he attended Towson in the early 1990s, though he said: "That was a long time ago. We're all going to be broadening our horizons."
A two-way star in high school, Bonheyo is expected to play defense at Towson, which will somewhat ease the challenges he faces. Defensive formations can be easily conveyed to players through hand signals from the sideline; he also will be able to react to the offense's snap of the ball rather than wait for a quarterback's count.
"It's going to be big change; growing up, I've been around deaf people most of my life," Bonheyo said. "I prefer to find out and know my limits rather than wonder for the rest of my life."
Ambrose said he is not overly concerned with being able to coach his new recruit. "Body language and hand gestures are a staple of everyday life," Ambrose said. "You learn how to read people. I can look at the kid and be able to start communicating. Once we develop a baseline of gestures, we'll be able to communicate well. . . . During a game, there is a whole lot of communication that goes on without talking -- waving hands and touching body parts."
Bonheyo -- pronounced bon-HEY-oh -- rushed for at least 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons at Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, where his father, Andy, is the head football coach. His mother, Lori, also is deaf, as is his younger brother Todd, a sophomore wide receiver and free safety at the school.
"He can run, he's a tremendous hustler and he is physical at the point of contact," Ambrose said. "He does all of the things you would want out of an outside linebacker, defensive end kind of guy."
Bonheyo has a pair of recent predecessors at the Division I level: UCLA running back Derrick Coleman, a freshman last season, and former Oklahoma State cornerback Martel Van Zant, who started for the Cowboys in 2006 and 2007. But Bonheyo remains a rarity.
"What's the percentage of high school kids that get Division I scholarships? Less than one percent? Now he is a one-percenter," Gallaudet football coach Ed Hottle said. "He has an opportunity to not only go play Division I football, but also to have an opportunity to quite possibly open some eyes to what is perceived as a disability but in reality is very much not."