Four years ago, when Bob Westerman became head football coach at Model Secondary School for the Deaf, he didn't know the first word of sign language. The New Jersey native struggled to communicate with his players and his frustrated players struggled on the field, finishing 3-5 that year.
"Oh, how I remember," Westerman said. "But, it's just like going to France. If you stay around the people long enough, you learn to speak French in a hurry if you plan to stay there. I had every intention of staying here and I was in constant contact with the kids.
As Westerman's signing improved, so did MSSD, located on the Gallaudet College campus in Northeast Washington. In his second year, MSSD finished 6-3.In '79, it went 9-0 and was named conational champion among schools for the deaf, along with a Florida school. This season, the young Eagles have surprised even their hard-working coach, going undefeated in their first five games. They now have won 16 straight games over three years.
"I must say the kids have surprised me," Westerman said. "Last season, we had a power team, with tailback Jesse Wade. This year, we depend on finesse and speed. We have an explosive team and we've been able to keep teams off balance."
What MSSD does is bury teams in a hurry. The Eagles have run past their five opponents by a combined score of 162-24 and are the highest-scoring team in the metropolitan area. The defense, led by linebackers Tod Silvestri and Ron Sistare, tackle Ron Sistare, tackel Ron Symansky and end Glen Turner, has allowed fewer than 140 total yards per game. The defense has 15 sacks while forcing 15 turnovers.
The offense has been even better. Running backs Wilton Downs, James Smith and Silvestri have rushed for nearly 900 combined yards and accounted for 124 of MSSD's 162 points. Quarterback Mark Panella has completed 17 of 32 passes for 400 yards and five touchdowns, all to superb sophomore split end Joey Vincent.
"Our team is much quicker, smarter and we don't feel handicapped playing football," said MSSD's biggest and most aggressive lineman, 6-foot-4, 235-pound junior Symansky.
"It doesn't matter if you're deaf when you go on the football field," Symansky said, with his coach interpeting. "You can do anything you want it you try. We get even more emotional when we play a team that can hear because they think because we're deaf we can't play."
MSSD has beaten two "hearing" schools this year -- Quantico, 32-0, and Colonial Beach, 32-16. Saturday, the Eagles take on tough Riverdale Baptist in a game the team feels might be their most important of the year before they travel to Miami to play the Florida School for the Deaf for the national championship.
"playing a hearing team is a bigger challenge for us," said Panella, a 5-8, 160-pound senior. "I enjoy watching the faces of the other kids when we don't respond to their talk. It doesn't matter what they say to us if we can't hear. When we played Quantico, I could hear the fans yelling, 'Get that quarterback.' I heard that."
The MSSD players feel they have an advantage over the hearing teams they play for several raeasons. Model emphasizes disciplined play and is rarely penalized (very few offised or illegal-procedure penalties have been called against MSSD in the last four years). The players also feel they have a point to prove and play with reckless abandon.
All the plays are called by Westerman from the sidline. When playing a deaf school, the MSSD coaching staff forms a circle around a messenger and signs him the play, which he takes to the quarterback. If Model is playing a team that can hear, Westerman merely transmits the play from the sideline directly to his quarterback.
The ball is put in play by the vibrations from a bass drum struck by a team manager in the stands, a system developed by the Gallaudet team in the early '70s. The quarterback tells his team which beat to go on and the team responds to the beat. On defense, the team doesn't move until the ball is snapped. Thus, it is impossible for an opposing quarterback to draw MSSD players offsides by changing cadence or by a change in inflection.
Panella said there is more "talk" between the deaf schools than there is between a deaf team and one that can hear.
"We use sign at one another," Panella said, "insult or cuss one another out in sign language."
Westerman said the MSSD coaching situation is about as close to a college situation as possible. The majority of the players live on campus and have access to two fields, one used for practice and the other (Gallaudet's) for games.
"It's ideal. After a practice, we can eat together and have a quick meeting to discuss football or whatever," Westerman said. "You're with the kids all the time. If I decide to come back to school at night, I can call a team meeting. The past summer, I stayed on campus and we had our football camp right here for two weeks. Three practices a day. If was perfect."
The 6-year-old, million-dollar institution was built to serve as a model for all of the deaf schools across the country. The school, which houses nearly 400 students, is equipped with all of the modern, scientific materials to aid deaf students. And the students seem to take pride in being used as nationwide examples.
But even more pride centers on the football team.
"So far, everything is going well," Westerman said. "About the only problem we have is not being able to call audibles at the line of scrimmage. If a team jumps into a defense to stop our play, we get burned."
But right now, MSSD is too hot to notice.