When Bob Westerman came here to organize and coach the Model Secondary School for the Deaf football team three years ago, he was more concerned about learning how to say hello and goodbye than teaching Xs and Os.
"He was very awkward with his sign language," said fullback-linebacker Wilfred (Night Train) Overby. "He had problems telling us what to do." Now Westerman has become advanced enough in sign to interpret for his players during a reporter's interview.
Model struggled to a 3-6 record while Westerman was learning his alphabet and his players, the majority of whom were participating in organized football for the first time, were learning to block and tackle.
Last year, Model, located on the Gallaudet College campus in Northeast Washington, was a little bigger, quicker and eager to be recognized as a football team, not a group of kids looking for sympathy.
"Being deaf is no big handicap in playing football," said Pete Downey, a two-time deaf All-America at guard. "Playing a regular school bothers me at times but you adjust. Actually, I would prefer to play hearing schools."
The seven schools which have played Model this year were sorry by the fourth period.MSSD has been sensational, winning all seven games (five over deaf schools) by a combined score of 262-16. The school has posted five straight shutouts, including back-to-back 50-point victories over Virginia School for the Deaf and West Nottingham of Baltimore, a regular school.
"This year the deaf schools have been easy meat for us," said Overby, a 6-foot, 185-pound senior. "We would like the competition hearing schools would give us. Football is a tough game, whether you're deaf or not. I just like to hit people."
Model, with an enrollment of just over 300 students, is the experimental model for the other deaf schools in the United States. The multimillion-dollar, federally funded complex has all the most modern equipment in deaf communication and technology.
"Since we serve as the model school for the deaf, we get students from all over the country," said Westerman, who served as an assistant coach in Hackensack, N.J., before being selected from 200 applicants for the MSSD job. "The students live on campus and the atmosphere is like a college. It's a wonderful place to work."
With players like Overby, Downey, James Smith, Wilton Downs and Jesse Wade, who leads the metropolitan area in scoring with 100 points, Westerman has been able to upgrade his schedule each season. Next year he hopes to become a member of the Virginia-Maryland Independent Conference.
MSSD plays Montgomery County Class C school Poolesville Saturday and closes out its season against Miller High School in Charlottesville.
"We wanted to play bigger schools so I tried to get some schools about our size," Westerman said. "we wanted to maybe play the Interstate Athletic Conference champion but it was too late. Maybe next year."
MSSD's progress had been rapid. In 1977 and '78, the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, mythical national deaf champion, pounded MSSD, 41-0 and 38-6.
"This year, we beat them, 40-0," Westerman noted. "You can imagine how we felt. I guess we should be No. 1 now."
Despite Westerman's knowledge of sign language now, he has kept the offense simple. Wade left and Wade right behind a good offensive line averaging close to 190 pounds adds up to much of a team average of 37.4 points per game. Tight end Jeff Clark, tackles Terry Vicso and Ron Syzmanski, guards Steve Kotchen and Downey and center John Jakubowyc can block with anyone, according to Westerman.
Unlike the other deaf schools which use a silent signal to put the ball in play on offense, MSSD plays to the beat of a drummer.
"The drummer just hits the big bass drum and we move on a certain count. The players feel the vibrations," Westerman related. "It works well. We've had only three motion penalties all year and they were on the backs, not the linemen.
"The kids really concentrate. I love that drum."
The MSSD players feel the drum beats confuse the opposing teams.
"We always get off on the right count. The defense tries to change positions before the snap to confuse us but it doesn't work," Downey said. "They don't know what's coming."
On defense, the MSSD players watch the other teamhs quarterback's lips and move accordingly. Teams that use intimidation tactisc or verbal abuse don't succeed, either, because, as Wade says, "I'm deaf so it doesn't matter what someone says."
Westerman said several of his players have been contacted by colleges. Wade, a slashing 6-2, 185-pound runner, has the stregth, size and speed to be a good back in college. The D.C. native feels he could adjust to the hearing world in a university if he decided to go. Illinois and Trenton State are interested in him.
"I've never been to a hearing school. I've been deaf since I was 3 (a result of German measles)," said Wade. "I'd like to try it in college. I think I could make it."
Wade, who wears a small star-shaped earring for luck, and his teammates are as comfortable with football now as Westerman is with sign.
"I use it all the time now. My wife teases me about it," Westerman said. "The kids have are encouraged to try total communication -- speak while they use sign. So I do both all the time. I guess people think I'm crazy when I drive down the street and use sign and sing to the music on the radio."
Wide receiver Wilton Downs, who attended Annapolis High School last year, said he is much more comfrotable at MSSD.
"I played sports at Annapolis but people make fun of you because you're deaf or can't talk. I can communicate here," Downs communicated.
Communication on the field has been no problem for the MSSD players. "At the begining of the game teams used to think it would be easy because we were deaf," said Wade. "At the end of the game, they weren't saying anything."