After about the fifth or sixth hour of a 450-mile slog of a bus ride to Castleton, Vt., last week, an NFL defensive line prospect did not curse his college-football fate or wonder why he couldn’t just get on an airplane for a game that far away. Nope. One student athlete’s horror story is Adham Talaat’s life experience.
“For me, those bus rides are time for my teammates and me to bond, have memories all our life,” he says, unfolding his 6-foot-6, 270-pound-plus frame on his coach’s office couch Wednesday afternoon at Gallaudet University in Northeast Washington. “Everything I have in life right now is because of football.”
Sam Atkinson, Gallaudet’s sports information director, asks Talaat a question: “If you could play just one Division I game, would you kill to do that?”
Talaat, who was born with severe to profound hearing loss, didn’t read Atkinson’s lips well enough to understand at first. Signed the question again, he finally shook his head emphatically.
“Yes,” he says. “I mean, that would be beyond special.”
Between Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney driving home NCAA no-pay-for-play hypocrisy, it’s easy to be disillusioned about college football today. At Grambling State last week, players boycotted practice and forfeited a game at Jackson State, unhappy with, among other things, what they said were poor facilities and the fact they had to make long bus rides to games in Indianapolis and Kansas City. Jackson State is now suing its rival for ruining its homecoming. Some Grambling State players actually sent photos to ESPN of moldy, mildewed weight rooms and shoulder pads to bolster support for their “cause.”
Here at Gallaudet during homecoming week, though, take heart.
Coach Chuck Goldstein’s budget is $131,000 for the year — about $6 million shy of what Grambling State spends on football, counting full-ride scholarships.
There are no athletic scholarships in Division III. Heck, there isn’t even extra money for homecoming jerseys — the Gallaudet kids had to take a vote before the season to see whether every player was willing to pony up $60 for a special gold jersey for this Saturday. “We voted yes,” Talaat says, smiling as Goldstein pulls out the jersey from behind his desk.
“Some of these kids leave here owing $20- and $30,000 on their student loans,” Goldstein says. “It’s not my place, because I know there’s more to the story at Grambling, but it’s hard to think about having a game taken away from you after all the work you put in.”
Dominating for a 6-0 Bison team that received votes in the Division III top 25 poll this week, Talaat has been seen by more than 20 pro scouts this season. If he is drafted or invited to an NFL camp, he will make Gallaudet history — much like his school.
The first and still only institution of higher learning specifically designed for deaf and hard of hearing students, Gallaudet turns 150 years old in April. It’s also the school where the football huddle originated.
Paul Hubbard, Gallaudet’s quarterback in 1894, realized his sign language could be read by the other team. So he pulled his players into a circle so no one could see.
Gallaudet’s offensive secrets are still well kept. The Bison average 366 yards per game out of their triple-option running attack this fall, No. 1 in the nation.
In all its years of moving between club and NCAA status, Gallaudet has never been to the postseason and never finished a season unbeaten in which it played a full NCAA schedule. Both thoughts border on fantasy, given that Talaat’s freshman year the Bison were 2-8, ranked 234th out of 238 Division III teams.
“To think of how far we’ve come, it’s just incredible,” he says.
Bearded, shaggy-haired and physically imposing at 23 years old, Talaat is usually double- and triple-teamed by opposing offensive lines and plays with the menacing countenance of his idol, Houston Texans’ defensive end J.J. Watt. Born to Egyptian parents, he is also the school’s first academic all-American since 1993.
He had just one scholarship offer graduating from West Springfield High in Fairfax. But when the coach who recruited him, UMass’s Don Brown, left to be Ralph Friedgen’s defensive coordinator at Maryland, Talaat went back home to Northern Virginia Community College for school — until a friend sent him a Facebook message about Gallaudet needing players.
“The funny thing is, we tried to get him in high school, but the coach kept telling us he’s D-I; he wouldn’t let us in the door,” says Goldstein, who hears perfectly but had to learn sign language to get the job.
Talaat has no regrets about not playing at a big-time school. Like most Gallaudet student athletes, he’s bilingual — fluent in English and American sign language. Because all his teammates sign, he doesn’t play with his hearing aids (about half the roster is legally deaf, the other half hard of hearing.)
“I tell the officials if the kid on the other team keeps running after a screen pass that was whistled dead, they’re probably going to get hit,” Goldstein says. “But we really haven’t had any problems this season.”
The Bison have 54 players. Their starting offense serves as the scout team for the defense. Their farthest league game is in Bangor, Maine — a 13-hour bus trip, one way. Their closest league game is five hours’ north — in the Bronx.
Last weekend they bussed to Vermont. When Goldstein got near Albany, he asked Siri on his iPhone for the closest food run and then ordered about 75 sandwiches from Panera.
Occasionally, they do it up big at Gallaudet. Because homecoming is such a scene, Goldstein got a fancy, schmancy hotel the night before the big game against Husson on Saturday.
“The 4-H Conference Center off Connecticut Avenue,” the coach says. “It’s the best-kept secret in D.C. — $110 a night for two bunk beds, four to a room.”
“I really need a bottom bunk this year,” Talaat says. “I can’t curl up on the top one anymore.”
Under Armour sponsors the Bison but, Goldstein says, “not 10 alternate jerseys or anything like at Maryland.”
Maybe next year the sneaker and apparel giant can come up with a special jersey for homecoming so the kids don’t have to fork over their own cash.
Either way, they won’t complain. That’s not who they are or why they play.
“We represent every deaf person in the world every time we step on the field,” Goldstein says. “Look, even if Adham gets a tryout or makes a team, I know I can’t sell the NFL dream here. But these kids love the game. A good football team is a good football team. And they’re never going to do anything to embarrass themselves or the school.”
It’s too bad other teams can’t hear that as loud and clear as the kids do at Gallaudet.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.