In some high schools, the head football coach is happy to see enough bodies to put both an offense and defense to the field. But there is no such worry at Model Secondary School for the Deaf, which is fielding its first football team.
More than 45 students, or approximately 50 percent of the male enrollment reported for practice the first week, much to the surprise of athletic director Paul Smiley and coach Bob Westerman.
"Most of the kids have never played or put on a football uniform before in their lives," said Smiley. "You can't believe their excitement over this team. They think they'll win all their games."
For the past five years, classes have been held throughout the city for students with hearing and speaking difficulties. But last year, a multi-million dollar complex, complete with dormitory, was completed on the Gallaudet College campus in Northeast Washington. The school is considered the best deaf laboratory and demonstration center in the United States.
Right now the eager MSSD players are sharing Gallaudet's playing field, but Smiley, also the college's head football coach, doesn't foresee problems.
"Next year, Model will have its own field. For now, it's fine," Smiley said. "No problems have come up at all yet."
In fact, the only person who has run into any dilemma has been Westerman.
"I've worked with blind and deaf people before but I didn't know sign language," said Westerman. "The kids understand me but it's a little rough right now understanding them."
Selected over 100 other applicants, Westerman, 26, earned his master's degree in Adaptive Education at Ohio State and taught and coached at Hackensack, N.J., High School for three years.
"I knew it would be a challenge. But the kids are in fine physical condition and are eager to learn," he said. "There's no discipline problems at all. For some reason, deaf person are very athletically inclined."
The practice sessions go slowly but no one seems to mind.Especially the players, who grinned broadly when Westermann or his assistant, Richard Smrz or Ricky Suter (Gallaudet quarterback for four years), offered encouragement.
"Sometimes you forget the kids can't hear and you start yelling and giving instructions," said Smiley, who taught and coached in the D.C. school system before going MSSD.
"But the kids always turn aroung and look directly at you to get your reaction. These kids pay attention."
The three-point stance, blocking and tackling positions, ball-handling and learning the no-nos of football [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the priorities of the first week's practice.
Like Gallaudet, the offense is set in motion by the booming sound of a bass drum. The players feel the vibrations of the sound and take off on the first, or second beat, or sometimes in between.
"The quarterback, center and the drummer have to practice together every day to get that rhythm down," said Smiley. "The cadence has to be the same the entire game. I alternate three students for the Gallaudet games. One person can't keep that pounding up four quarters."
The MSSD players would be happy to play their first game today if possible.
"I'm ready to hit somebody.I did play football when I was 10 and I loved it," said senior linebacker Marcus Taylor. "I was very happy when they said we would have a team."
Ira Hendon, a senior, also is eager to get into his uniform.
"I never played football before but I enjoy it already," said Hendon. "When I first put on that helmet, I felt like I had a big head. But I'm used to it now. I know I feel very safe with it on."
Westerman is keeping everything as simple as possible. A play book of 10 offensive plays in each direction and a standard 5-3 defense will be all the patient coach will ask his players to master.
"I'm teaching each player a position on offense and defense. Some may get a chance to play both ways," said Westerman. "But everybody who sticks out the practices will get a chance to play. It doesn't matter how small you are."
Chris Schott is very happy Westerman has that attitude. Only 5-1 1/2, 94 pounds, Schott is vying for the slot-back position and is "just happy to be out here.
"I'm having fun, I know that," said Scott, a ninth grader. "I'm small and I'll just do my best."
MSSD will play eight games, opening at home against the Maryland School for the Deaf Sept. 23. Other opponents include the Georgia and Pennsylvania Schools for the Deaf, the Pallotti. Friends and St. Stephen's junior varsities and Maret and Riverdale Baptist, both also fielding varsity teams for the first season.
"Sure, we want to win them all," said Taylor, a self-proclaimed team leader. "But hopefully we can win four. We're going to try our best in all of them."
MSSD expects its total enrollment to catapult from the present 170 to more than 500 in the next few years.
"There will be a lot of talent coming here from all over the country," said Smiley. "But just think, if these kids could win a couple of games this season, people would be dancing in the streets.