NFL's First Deaf Offensive Player Is Super Bowl–Bound

Seattle Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman proves his doubters wrong. Just how concerned were NFL coaches with his disability? And how does Coleman hear audibles during the game?

By Chris Hoenig


Derrick Coleman is Super Bowl–bound, where he'll play fullback for the Seattle Seahawks at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.  Oh, yeah, and he's deaf.

Coleman is the first deaf offensive player in NFL history—only the third deaf player ever—and the first to make it to the Super Bowl at any position. He's not the best-known player in Seattle's backfield—his primary jobs are to block for leading rusher Marshawn Lynch and protect quarterback Russell Wilson—but he has been a key cog in the NFC champions' success. Appearing in 12 games, Coleman only rushed the ball twice (picking up just three yards), but he caught 8 passes for 62 yards, including a heads-up touchdown catch in an important Week 13 win against the New Orleans Saints. On that play, Coleman caught the ball along the sideline after it deflected off his teammate's hands, diving into the end zone for the score.

 

Getting to the NFL wasn't easy for the Los Angeles native. Despite scoring 16 touchdowns and rushing for more than 1,200 yards in his final two seasons at UCLA, all 32 NFL teams passed on him in the draft. Teams were concerned about Coleman's hearing, but Rick Neuheisel,  his head coach at UCLA, tried to explain to scouts and personnel that Coleman's disability was not an issue. "Never one time," Neuheisel told FOXSports.com. "And I was in shock. I told him it was up to him to let us know when he needed special assistance and never one time did he ever come to me. He became so self-sufficient at making sure he knew what he needed to know and he was so conscientious of getting all that accomplished.

"The guys without any hearing impairment didn't hear what he heard. I mean, it was truly sensational at how he turned what others would consider a disability into anything but."

"It was a doubt in people's minds," Coleman told FOX Sports. "I understood what they were saying, so I needed to go out there and show them that you shouldn't be holding this against me."

Coleman joined the Minnesota Vikings for training camp in 2012, but was cut before the regular season. A few months later, in December 2012, he signed was added to the Seahawks' practice squad, still a step shy of making the active roster. After an impressive training camp and preseason, Seattle promoted Coleman to its 53-player roster this year, initially cutting veteran Michael Robinson to make room for Coleman. (The Seahawks re-signed Robinson in October, though Coleman continued to see the majority of the action the rest of the way.)

Throughout the season, Coleman has shined despite a disability that many would think makes it difficult to play football, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterbacks commonly change plays at the line of scrimmage, shouting code words for an "audible" to teammates. So how does Coleman receive the new play? Wilson turns to Coleman and mouths the play so the 6-foot, 233-pounder can read his lips. "It's my way of adapting," Coleman said. "When one of your senses goes down, your others kind of help out. You pick up different habits to help and I think lip reading just came to me. When people started talking, I just look at their lips and start to read them.

"Next thing you know that's what I do all the time."

Overcoming adversity is something Coleman has done most of his life. Diagnosed with his disability at age 3, he has relied on hearing aids and lip reading to understand what people are saying. "Let's say I don't have my hearing aids in and someone is talking to me—I know they're talking but I can't clarify what they're saying," Coleman said. "Basically, that's what the hearing aids do, they enhance or amplify it so I can truly understand it. All I hear is like a bunch of mumbling and humming. That's what I hear."

Now, his hearing aids have made Coleman the star of a Duracell commercial (Duracell is owned by Procter & Gamble, No. 7 on the 2013 DiversityInc Top 50):

More than 40 years after Bonnie Sloan became the first deaf player in the NFL (Sloan played four games at defensive tackle for the 1973 St. Louis Cardinals), and more than a decade after Denver Broncos defensive lineman Kenny Walker became the first deaf player to play in the playoffs and in a conference championship game, Coleman will become the first deaf player in a Super Bowl. He also hopes to be the first deaf player to win a Super Bowl.

"Every day I wake up and I get a chance," Coleman said. "I always say that God blessed me this morning and I can do what I do. Our time in this world is very limited. It can be gone now or it can be gone later so I take advantage of every opportunity I have whether it's playing football, working or whatever. I'm just a happy guy. There's no reason for me to ever get mad."

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