Against the Odds, Deaf Players Have Made an Impact on American Football

Robert Traynor
January 7, 2014

NFL2No matter where in the world we live, most of us are fans of the sports that we grew up playing.  In most of the world, “football” refers to what Americans call soccer.  Although it’s not quite the World Cup, in the UNFL8S, the run to the Super Bowl is a major sporting event.

American Football, or Gridiron Football,as it is known in some countries, is primarily an American sport.  While my international colleagues tell me that the equipment unique to the gridiron such as helmets and pads, take people out of the game, the greatest misunderstanding seems to over the rules and the officiating.  Why does a play not count when someone was “off sides”? What is “pass interference”?  Why do you need both feet in bounds for a pass completion?  These issues are confusing to those who have never played the game.  While soccer and the World Cup are of growing interest to Americans, each January in America all eyes are on the National Football League (NFL) playoffs.  Teams in cities across the country are vying for a chance at the Big Show, the opportunity to play in Super Bowl XLVIII, in New York, February 2, 2014.

Deafness and American Football

NFL NFL1American Football is physically extremely challenging. However, that has not precluded people with hearing loss from taking part.  The first was Bonnie Sloan (1948- ) who was drafted in the 10th round (the 242nd overall pick) of the 1973 NFL Draft by the then Saint Louis Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals). The first NFL player known to be hearing-impaired, Sloan played 4 games during the 1973 season at defensive tackle for the Cardinals until he was injured. He was released the next year, not due his deafness but rather to a significant knee injury.

Kenny Walker (1967- ) was a football star at the University of Nebraska, and was named to play in the Senior Bowl in January 1991.  At his final home game at Nebraska, the capacity crowd showed their appreciation for Walker by signing “applause” to him in unison. The Denver Broncos selected him in the eighth round (200th overall) of the 1991 NFL Draft and he was a regular starter for the Broncos in 1991, playing in all 16 games. The following year, he started all but one of the team’s games. Later, he also played with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League (CFL), where he was the first known deaf player in that league.  He also coached for the Gallaudet Bisons for a time, offering his expertise and inspiration to deaf players.   Another NFL player that is with the Washington Redskins, Safety Reed Doughty (1982NFL11– ), an eight-year NFL veteran, was finally able to wear a hearing aid while playing.  Doughty says he has a family history of hearing loss.  Doughty said, “My grandmother was deaf, my three aunts are severely hearing impaired and my father has a severe hearing loss and I found out at 6 years old that I also had hearing loss.”  Like the hearing impaired players that have gone before him, Doughty didn’t let that slow him down.  Reed was drafted in the sixth round in 2006, he fought his way into the starting lineup and was recently named Redskins special teams captain.  For a long time, Doughty coped with his hearing loss by reading lips but sometimes found himself simply withdrawing from conversations until as he says, “My hearing issues started to impact my relationships with family and friends as NFL12I was missing so much and I started to realize I really needed hearing aids.”  In the past, Doughty didn’t wear hearing aids on the field because sweating could make the units short out.  He said that, “This year we were in training camp in high humidity and I was sweating. Normally, I wouldn’t wear hearing aids under such conditions, but the new waterproof, dustproof, shock-resistant aids have made a real difference both on and off the field….and wouldn’t you know it Reed is from my alma mater, Northern Colorado, congratulations Reed, not many UNC Bears make it to the NFL!

Enter Derrick Coleman……..

NFL3While it is a significant feat to for anyone  to play at the NFL level, especially someone with a substantial hearing impairment, Derrick Coleman (1990- ) faces even a greater challenge than Sloan and Walker, who played defensive positions.  Playing an offensive positi0n, Coleman needs to recognize slight differences in plays, for which communication is keyNFL4.   Coleman, a fullback for the Seattle Seahawks, has embraced the challenge of deafness. He has mastered the art of lipreading to facilitate communication with the quarterback and his teammates, which is no easy task since he has to read their lips while they are wearing football helmets.

The former UCLA tailback has been severely hearing impaired since the age of 3 and without his hearing instruments he can only hear sounds and tones, not NFL5 speech).  Yet, that has never slowed him down on the football field, where he relies primarily on lipreading and hand signals.  When he first began playing, sometimes his hearing aids would pop out.  So he now wears two skull caps to ensure they stay in his ears.  He also makes sure to replace the batteries in the instruments shortly before kickoff so they don’t run out during the game. Widely recruited out of Troy High in Fullerton, California, Coleman played four years at UCLA where he gained 1,780 yards and earned second team All-Pac-12 honors as a senior as a special teams performer. His official UCLA bio made no mention of his hearing issues other than the simple notation near the bottom indicating that he “can read lips.’’  His mother has some interesting comments about his early days in football and how they accommodated his hearing instruments.


(Click on the picture of Derrick’s mom to start it). 

According to the recruiting website Coleman was the fifth-ranked high school fullback in the class of 2008 and during his four years at UCLA he rushed for over 1700 yards and 19 touchdowns. Despite his success at UCLA, he went undrafted in 2012.  That may have been a blessing in disguise since it freed him NFL9 to choose which team try out for. In the end, he picked the Minnesota Vikings because he felt they gave him the best chance to make the final roster. Derrick played three preseason games for the Vikings, rushing 19 times for 50 yards before being released during training camp.  Coleman was then signed to the practice squad of the Seattle Seahawks as a rookie free agent in December 2012. Now he is the number two fullback, behind the starter Michael Robinson.  Derrick also works with hearing-impaired children in the Seattle area.

In his work with the children, he offers a valuable role model.  Coleman tells the kids that being hard-of-hearing made him work harder than everyone else. But he doesn’t think that’s a drawback as “how hard you work will NFL7determine how far you go.”   “If you have a dream, go for it. If you want to be a policeman, or a firefighter, go for it. If you want to play sports, go for it. If you want to be president of the United States, go for it.”  One eighth grader said that Coleman’s message was  “to be proud of yourself, work hard, and don’t use your hearing loss as an excuse.”

Hearing Impaired Kids’ Questions to  Derrick Coleman
Q: Can you run fast?    A: I think I do. I’m 240 pounds, so I think I run fast for my size.
Q: Has being deaf affected you as a pro athlete?    A: To me, it’s more of a motivation. Being deaf has made me who I am.
Q: What is your favorite sport? A: My favorite sport is basketball. But I like football, too.
Q: Do you wear hearing aids when you play football? A: I do. I have something, a skull cap. It’s like a wrap you put around your head. I put one underneath my hearing aids, so sweat doesn’t get in there. I also put one over (the hearing aids), so when I get hit, it doesn’t pop out.
Q: If you didn’t make it in the NFL, what else would you do? A: I wanted to be a lawyer, or in some sort of business. We’ll see how it goes.

And one final question that sums up ….

Q: What is your favorite game with the Seahawks? A: We’ve still got a lot of games to go. Hopefully, the Super Bowl will be my favorite game.

Congratulations to Sloan, Kenny, Reed and Derrick Coleman and the other players that have made an impact on the NFL, they are an inspiration to us all!



Sports Fitness Advisor (2017). Football Training.  Retrieved November 27, 2017.


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