There are times when a game is mor than a game. That is the case here, when Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD), a federally funded high school in Northeast Washington, plays football against regular teams. Quantico High Shcool, a school filled with the children of Marines, discovered that when MSSD beat them 32-0. It was MSSD's 12th straight win and eighth straight shut out.
"These kids," says head coach Bob Westerman, "have a lot to prove."
To his players, what this game is all about is dignity. The world of the deaf is apart, distant and silent. For the deaf, speech is extremely difficult; deaf and mute, unfortunately, still often go together. So they are cut off.
The hearing world -- the world -- ignores them. Puts them aside in special schools like this one. Sometimes diagnoses the young as retarded. Laughs at them, calls them "dummies," shunts them aside. But in football they can not be shunted aside.
So they like football. They use it to prove something -- not that they are better, not even that they are just as good, but simply that they are here. That's all they want to prove.That they are here .
They commit themselves to that. MSSD has only three players who weight more than 180 pounds, but if the team is small, still it has a personality. It is quick. More than that it is intent. At practice this is clear. When the managers pound a huge drum the players feel the concussion and explode. How hard they work! How fiercely they go at each other! In their huddle there is a sense of will. And this is only practice. There is a grimness about them, about their concentration. Yet the grimness is subsumed by something else, by a closeness. The team is holding hands in the huddle; the huddle gives off warmth.
Friday is the game. Westerman expects it to be tough and is apprehensive. In the locker room the team is getting dressed. The only sound is that of locker doors clanging. Just before they take the field Westerman gathers them together and both speaks -- for those who can lip-read -- and signs at the same time. Signs represent concepts, not letters; in that it is a primitive and eloquent language. It strikes deep.
"Remember," Westerman says, "This is your home field. This is your place of pride. MSSD Eagles do not lose football games in their place of pride."
They must not lose here, not to a hearing team. And they know it.
The game begins. MSSD kicks off to Colonial Beach, the opponent. On the first play Colonial runs off-tackle. The defense swarms, penetrates is just short of vicious; eight defenders are in on the tackle, for a one-yard loss. On second and third down Colonial throws the ball; both times it is almost intercepted, and Colonial must punt. Then MSDD sweeps down the field. A run -- than a pass! Mark Panella, the quarterback, back to -- great throw! Joey Vincent is deep, deep, running under the ball! He catches it! and is tackled on the seven yard line. Two plays later MSSD scores! Colonial gets the ball again and loses 10 yards on first down, four more on second, throws incomplete on third and punts again. This time MSSD is methodical, ramming the ball at 10 and 15 yards a play down the field into the end zone. Panella, Vincent, Todd Silvestri, David Dormody, Jim Smith, and the rest have decided that the tough game Westerman expected would not be tough. They score again. But then Colonial comes back and scores. The attitude on the sidelines is less one of rage than of all right let's get bact to work . On the second play after the kick-off the MSDD linemen execute. They knock everyone down, and Wilton Downs sails 50 yards untouched into the end zone, right up the gut, right through the heart of the defense. On the MSDD sideline a player roars. It is a roar unsullied by the contours of speech. It is pure emotion, rage and joy and triumph mixed, a sound from the jungle. And it is a sound no hearing person could make. It is a little frightening.
The final score is 32-16. Both teams are shaking hands, the Mssd players grinning and hugging each other. Almost the whole school has watched the game and the players, 15, 16, 17 years old, grin at their girlfriends and hug them. It seems like any high school whose team just won 13 in a row. So it seems. But in most schools football players are a little separate, a little distant from other students. They are the doers and the others the spectators. At MSSD that distance does not exist. Instead the players represent the others. They share a weight and the players can lift that weight from all of them . . . for a little while. For they have indeed proved that they are here.
As Westerman leaves the field a young black girl, perhaps 15, touches his arm and he turns to her. She signs. "Are you proud of them?"
"It's your school," he answers. "It's your team. Are you proud of them?"
There is no need for her to sign an answer. Her smile lights up the day.