Two years ago when it opened, the Model Secondary School for the Deaf had to recruit its first football team. Today, its students have football fever.
Their team, the Eagles, is undefeated (5-0) and coming off a convincing 26-0 win over Maret. They recently defeated the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, which had been ranked No. 1 among deaf schools.
Two major reasons for the team's good fortune are coach Bob Westermann and player Jesse Wade. Westermann came to the school, on the Gallaudet College campus, in 1977 as a head football coach without a team.
Although the students were eager -- 45 of the 74 boys at Model Secondary tried out for the team -- they knew "absolutely nothing about the game," Westermann said. "We had to teach them everything."
To add to his woes, Westermann didn't know sign language, an obvious necessity at MSSD. But "it didn't take long to learn the language," he said. "I learned in about a month's time."
Meanwhile, a superstar was budding for the Eagles. Wade began as the starting fullback, but the position did not display the scope of his talent. When the team suddenly needed a starting tailback, he moved to that position. In his first start as tailback, he rushed for 245 years and four touchdowns against Congressional High.
"That was my most memorable and satisfying experience as a football player," Wade signed via Westermann. "We were 1-5 at that point and went on to win three out of our last four."
Last season as a junior, Wade scored 120 points, rushed for 1,178 yards and 17 touchdowns in leading his team to a 6-3 record. He is now the area's leading scorer with 76 points on nine touchdowns and four conversions. He has rushed for 638 yards.
Wade's emergence as a football player is literally a dream come true. He played basketball, but assumed his deafness would keep him off the football field.
"Although I was never really sure that I would ever participate in a football program when I came here to Model," he said. "I used to actually dream of playing when I was younger."
A two-year co-captain and consummate football player, Wade attributes his success to his teammates with the explanation, "Without the good blocking and support I receive from my offensive line, I would never be able to do as well as I have."
Westermann added that the rapid development of such players as offensive lineman Ron Symanski and backs James Smith (334 yards), Wilfred Overby (204) and Wilton Downs (272) has taken some of the offensive burden off Wade. The leader of the Eagle defense, which has posted two straight shutouts, is two-time deaf All-America Pete Downey. Downey leads the team in tackles, fumble recoveries and interceptions.
Called a "power tailback" by Westermann, Wade is a solid 6-2, 185 pounds. Westermann is convinced that Wade's size and ability will not prevent him from contributing to a major college football program.
"I have talked to several college scouts," said Westermann, "and they convinced me that with his ability, it won't matter that he is deaf."
And what will happen when Wade graduates from Model and takes his enormous talents elsewhere?
"That will be a sad, sad day for me," Westermann said solemnly.
"But the most important thing is that he makes the right selection of college and earns his degree. Then I will know that all the work and effort we put in was well worth it."