Eavesdropping & Gridiron Football

Something changes as the days grow a little shorter — there’s a tiny hint of coolness to fo6the morning walk and the flowers aren’t quite as happy.  The sinking feeling of reality that fall will pay a visit is tempered with the joy that gridiron football season will be our guest. Best of all, for perhaps the last time this season, our favorite team has a perfect unbeaten record.  At Hearing International we welcome the new gridiron football season that begins this week on Sunday, September 7, 2015. This week we have a guest author to present a unique, season-starting story of how deafness influenced the game.

Eavesdropping and Gridiron Football

by Al Musser

Attempting to secretly listen to what another person is saying dates back to the late 1400’s in Germany and maybe even earlier. Its origin relates to a person standing under the eaves of a house where the rain drips while intercepting a private conversation, hence, the term “eavesdropping”. Evidently, there was a lot of interest in finding out what Frau Mueller was putting into her meat pie or white sausage.

Much later, during World War II, everyone was trying to eavesdrop on everyone else to get a leg up on what the battle plans were for the next week or where the next invasion was going to take place. In order to thwart these clandestine invasions of privacy, everyone came up with their own exotic version of some mathematical or mechanical jumblefo5 of a private code.

The Germans were perhaps the most clever with their very sophisticated Enigma machine. This electro-mechanical rotor cipher generator used five different rotors, each with 29 different characters (not the 26 in the alphabet) to produce a code based on random daily changes in key characters. The Enigma code remained undecipherable until early in 1940 when a German submarine was captured before sinking and its Enigma processor was rescued.  According to the wildly popular but historically inaccurate 2014 movie, The Imitation Game, the recovery of the Enigma enabled Alan Turing to break the code at Bletchley Park in England.

It is true that the allies were able to eavesdrop on the Germans and upset a lot of secret war plans.  Almost all codes were broken by someone in World War II, except in the South Pacific were the Japanese were eavesdropping on the U.S. Army. In perhaps one of the simplest forms of solution ever devised by our military, the U.S. Army  discovered that (surprise!) the only people on earth who could understand fo9the Navajo language,were Navajos! And because their language was not based on an alphabet,  it was not possible to translate.

In the Navajo language, each of the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet would be represented by an Indian term. For example, the South Pacific island of Tarawa would be transmitted as “turkey-ant-rabbit-ant-weasel-ant.” In Navajo, the words would be pronounced “Than-zie, wol-la-chee, gah, wol-lo-chee, gloe-ih, wol-la-chee“.  To avoid repetition, which would make the code penetrable, letters carried multiple terms and were changed on a random schedule.   Imagine the surprise and frustration when, for the first time, the Japanese were eavesdropping on a U.S. marine speaking in Navajo. The Navajo code was never broken.

So What Does All That Have To Do With The Game?


Although you might be mildly interested in the history of eavesdropping, you might be wondering what the real connection of eavesdropping and coding is with Gridiron Football.

fo10In 1856, Amos Kendall became concerned about the lack of care and education for the hard of hearing, deaf and blind children of Washington, DC. He generously gave up 2 acres of his own real estate and using his own funds, started a small school that would attend to the special needs of those with hearing and seeing needs.

By 1857 the school at Kendall School was growing and the demands for care outstripped his resources, so he was able to convince the 34th Congress to fund a much grander version of his early efforts. Congress in their inimitable wisdom agreed to fund the effort and named the school the “Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf, the Dumb and the Blind”.  Kendall, recognizing that the school was now demanding more time and effort than he was willing to give, hired thefo12 first superintendent, Edward Minor Gallaudet.

Edward Miner Gallaudet was the son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who founded the first school for deaf students in the United States.fo13  Congress authorized the institution to confer college degrees in 1864, and President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law. EM Gallaudet was made president of the institution, including the college, which that year had eight students enrolled. He presided over the first commencement in June 1869 when three young men received diplomas.

In 1954, congress recognizing that they may have created the most politically incorrect faux paus in the history of the country, changed the name of the school to “Gallaudet College” and later to “Gallaudet University”.  In 1892, the fo14quarterback for the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf, the Dumb and the Blind, Paul D. Hubbard realized he had a major problem. Every time he got his teammates together to explain–in sign language— the next play, the opposing team was “evesreading” what he said. The results were disastrous.

On the ensuing plays Hubbard instructed his team to gather around him, forming a very tight circle with Paul’s back to the opposing team, and he described in private, the details of the next play. The following excerpt from a 1946 issue of Football News said “The recent death of Paul D. Hubbard, for 43 years an instructor in the Kansas State School for the Deaf, removed from the sports world the originator of the huddle system used nowadays in football. Back in the 1890s while a student at Gallaudet college, Hubbard was an outstanding athlete and played quarterback on its first football teamfo15 Since all players on the Gallaudet team were deaf, Hubbard had to devise a system for calling plays, thus giving birth to the huddle system.

“At Gallaudet his team threw much scare among big college teams as it won great victories over the Navy, Georgetown, the University of Virginia and other big teams. At one time Princeton challenged Gallaudet to a game, but the faculty of Gallaudet turned it down. Upon his graduation from Gallaudet in 1899, Hubbard returned to teach at the Kansas State School for the Deaf. He organized the first football team at the school, and was its coach for fifteen years.”

Today, and for the last 123 years, we’ve called it the “huddle”. To the best of my knowledge, no one uses sign language, except those wonderful players at Gallaudet!

As Paul Harvey used to say on his ever popular radio program, “now here is the rest of the story!”


Biography (2015).  Alan Turing.  Retrieved September 7, 2015.

Central Intelligence Agency (2015).  Navaho code talkers and the unbreakable code.  Retrieved September7, 2015.

Dade, L. (2015).  How enigma machines work.  Retrieved September 7, 2015.

Musser, A.  (2015). Huddleup! How the hard of hearing changed football.  Its Vanish Blog.  Retrieved September 7, 2015.

Sports Library (1996). The Huddle debate continues.  Retrieved September7, 2015.


Citizen Bianca (2015).  Pleasure Eavesdropping. CitizenMag. Retrieved September 7,2015.

Gallaudet University Archives. (2013).  Museum Newsletter Homecoming Edition.  Retrieved Sepember7, 2015.

foAl Musser is the co-inventor of the hearing aid product VANISH (www.itsvanish.com). There is no truth to the rumor that hiding his hearing aids improved his eavesdropping.




About Robert Traynor

Robert M. Traynor is a board certified audiologist with 45 years of clinical practice in audiology. He is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager, and author. He has 45 years experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in various university audiology programs.