The endings are all the same, but for these teenagers, the beginnings were different. This is football at Model Secondary School for the Deaf, where they face more challenges but feel the same passing of time.
“This is it,” Waddell signs via an interpreter as he watches his team practice in silence. “After this, for the rest of my life, I’m never going to play football again. I need to seize the opportunity, and that’s the reason why I played football this year.”
Sustaining a winning program at Model, the high school on Gallaudet University’s campus, is always a battle. Players, sometimes feeling left behind from experiences at traditional schools, often decide not to come out for the team. As recently as 2016, Model won five games. From then until the start of 2019, Model changed coaches three times and went 1-16.
Finally, on Sept. 6, Model snapped a 16-game losing streak with a 36-28 win against Central Maryland Christian, its first win over a hearing school since 2016, and the players who put their faith in this year hope that’s just the beginning. The Eagles (1-3) play FCA Bucks on Saturday in Georgetown, Del.
“It’s like a campfire that’s just starting,” senior captain Joshua Kinner signed. “We’re trying to add more wood to that fire and get it roaring up.”
Fielding a competitive team here is no given. The Eagles played last season with 18 players and 2017 with roughly 20. Instant-impact, plug-and-play transfers are not an option. Low participation makes practice seem like a slog.
Hesitant to elaborate on the problems of 2018, first-year coach Angelo Leccese signed: “I just don’t think the kids really bought into the program yet.”
Waddell, who transferred to Model for his sophomore year in 2017, signed: “There was a lot of brotherhood — I thought, at least. But all of us were like strangers, and we just came in, and folks weren’t committed and not bringing their all to practice.” He decided not to play last season before returning this fall.
Model started another coaching search, and this time the players wanted Leccese, who had built relationships as the interim head coach in 2017. Leccese was reluctant. But during the offseason, Model brought in a new athletic director, Paul Wood from Indiana School for the Deaf, who recommitted the school to the football program. He initiated a weight-training program.
Leccese took the job. He had one main rule: Players were not allowed negative thoughts in practice.
Leccese signed up 10 freshmen who had never played competitive football before. He welcomed players from all over the country — North Carolina, Florida, California, Texas and Utah. He swayed the ones who had sat out 2018, convincing them to dedicate their final year to reviving the program.
“This year, it’s just different than last year, two or three years ago,” senior captain Jahiem McMillan signed. “In the past, there was no commitment. Now everyone is committed.”
On the coaching staff, Leccese added four men who had played football at schools for the deaf: Zane Pedersen from California, Corey Burton from Indiana, Vix Yamb from Model and Dmitry Rossoshansky from Illinois. Leccese played at a traditional school that drew 60 players every year. He sold this year’s team on a more intimate atmosphere. Now one of his players, senior captain Nicholas Barron, wants to go into coaching.
The insistence on a positive culture is all well and good, but winning helps achieve that, which made the team’s game in Sykesville, Md., on Sept. 6 so gratifying.
Running back Marquize Nash rushed 27 times for 179 yards and four touchdowns, quarterback Joshua Wojnar threw for 130 yards, and Model pulled off the win.
“Consistently they give you top effort,” Central Maryland Christian Coach Mark Zinnamosca said by phone this week. “They’re tenacious. They play hard, no matter what.”
Asked what the celebration protocol is for a team’s first win in two seasons, Wood grinned. He made the hand sign for pizza.
“Some of these kids actually cried and teared up after the game,” Leccese said, “because they never thought they’d win a game.”