Gallaudet once lost a football game, 91-0. That was in 1931. After that, Gallaudet football improved, but not by much. The Bison went on (with the exception of several years without a team and a 2-2 season in 1953) to 42 straight losing seasons.
The wonder was that Gallaudet kept playing.
"I think the administration has always held the belief that this university provides the only opportunity for a lot of hearing-impaired people in the nation to have an opportunity to compete," said Bob Westermann, football coach and athletic director. "If they were to drop football, where would a young deaf person ever get that educational experience of playing the game of college football?"
Now Gallaudet football is an "educational experience" -- and fun. In 1985, Gallaudet went 5-5. Last year, 7-4. This year, the Bison are 5-1. Among the victims was Georgetown. It was the first time Gallaudet had beaten Georgetown in football since 1901.
The responsible party is Westermann. He earned the chance to change the Gallaudet program; he had just finished his eighth highly successful season as coach of the Model Secondary School for the Deaf when Gallaudet's president, Jerry C. Lee, called him in and asked him if he would be interested in running a competitive Division III football program. Lee wanted the only liberal arts college for the hearing-impaired to have a representative team.
Lee believed it could be done; Westermann believed. Few others did.
"We had to overcome, I think, the most amazing challenge -- of turning around an attitude that the players of Gallaudet can't win," said Westermann, 36, in his office in the school's modern field house. He has dark hair with flecks of gray, blue eyes and the square shoulders of a former college football player. "The last winning team when I came here was 1930. Not even the modern era."
Westermann caught up with the times in his first season. After the fifth victory, the coach allowed his players to do as he had promised -- shave his head.
"I don't think there was a happier guy than I was," said Westermann.
His hair had grown back by the following January, when he received a Timmie Award from the Touchdown Club.
Westermann gave Gallaudet an equal opportunity for success in football by recruiting. (No athletic scholarships can be given in Division III.) Recruiting Gallaudet's way does not mean frequent trips. It means letter-writing to prospects, or Sunday evening calls to them from the coach's office -- the coach communicates with prospects on phones for the hearing-impaired. Occasionally, Westermann will take a trip. Last year, for instance, he made it to Gooding, Idaho.
He went after, and got, two athletes: a nose guard, Todd Kimmes, and a 6-foot-10 basketball player who's also a high jumper, Ken Anderson, who was completing junior college. "Phenomenal," said Westermann, "that you would have two deaf athletes in a tiny little town.
"This university never took the posture to go out and actively recruit people. It's always been such a desired place to be for the hearing-impaired population. However, in athletics it wasn't like that. Every coach is looking for good athletes, and the good hearing-impaired athletes knew there was not a viable program on this campus, something that they'd want to compete in. So the good athlete would look for other alternatives. Let me go to my local state college and give it a shot there."
Now, Westermann comes selling the advantages of Gallaudet. He never had any formal training with the hearing-impaired before he came to the campus and the high school, but he did have a background in work with the physically handicapped. In his senior year at Trenton State, where he played linebacker for two years and offensive guard for two years, he took an adaptive physical education course, working with the physically handicapped, as part of his program leading to a physical education degree. He then went on for his master's degree in adaptive physical education at Ohio State ("I went to every football game.").
Back at his New Jersey high school, Hackensack High, he worked as an assistant football coach for three years. In 1977, he answered a newspaper ad. Model wanted someone with a master's degree in physical education who would start a high school football program. "I read this and said, 'Wow.'
"I had never even thought a deaf person played football. I had no knowledge of it." But he got the job, and learned sign language -- quickly. He had 45 young men who wanted to learn how to play football, and he wanted to say hello.
He coached Model to seasons of 3-5, 6-3, 9-0, 9-1, 9-0, 5-4, 6-3 and 8-1. By then, he was thinking of going into business. But the Gallaudet job opened.
The Model job had been easier. "There were no preconceived notions of defeat," he said. "The kids at the high school said, 'Man, we're going to play football now.' But the people here had been pounded for so many years that there was a distinct difference in attitude."
Westermann began by getting a weight room put in. He got new equipment -- some helmets had been in use 10 years. He began recruiting. Recruiting picked up his second year.
"The better hearing-impaired athletes were more inclined to listen to me," he said. "This year, we got a couple more real good kids to come in here because they saw we were a success last year. I think as the program builds and we get more respect, the real good athletes will consider us even more."
Gallaudet has a balanced team: Karl White, a freshman running back from New Orleans with 790 yards rushing in six games; sophomore quarterback Jimmy Segala from South Deerfield, Mass., with 1,100 yards passing so far; freshman wide receiver Darnell Woods, from Coolidge, and senior captain Todd Silvestri, a 5-8 middle linebacker from Marcus Hook, Pa. The biggest player on the team is 6-4, 280-pound defensive tackle Shannon Simon, a junior from River Falls, Wis. There are 71 players -- no one who tries out is cut.
Some people tell him it must be hard to be coach of a hearing-impaired team, but Westermann disagrees. The Gallaudet offense comes off the ball to the sound of a bass drum, a system developed years ago at Gallaudet. The manager -- a sophomore named Dean Papalia -- beats the drum. The quarterback calls the play in the huddle with voice and sign language, and says which beat of the drum will start the play. The drummer stands on the sideline at the line of scrimmage and, as soon as the quarterback reaches under center, bangs the drum in cadence until the ball is snapped.
If there's any difficulty, Westermann said, it's bringing a diverse group of players together. "Our kids," he said, "come from so many parts of the country and have so many different sets of values . . .It's challenging when they all come together at the start of a football camp. You've got California kids playing with inner city kids from Philadelphia, kids from Detroit, farm boys from Idaho -- the whole American society is in one group of people."
It's one of the beauties of Gallaudet football.