The Bison are just another Division III level college football team, except for one major thing: the players are Deaf or Hard of Hearing and Shelby, one of their coaches, is too.
The team doesn’t get the same respect as the other teams in their league, which are all hearing. At an away game in Greensboro, N.C., the announcer didn’t call them by the right name—he referred to them as the Cougars. In a pre-game huddle, Shelby calls it out to his players, who can’t hear the announcer, as a way to fire them up for the game.
At home games, there are a few major differences. Before every home game, the Bison cheerleaders perform the National Anthem entirely in American Sign Language (2), just like all of their cheers. There’s also no announcer, which makes it feel like an element of the football experience is missing.
These differences make them perpetual underdogs, but it also strengthens them. Their brotherhood is important because it unites them, and it sometimes even pays off on the field. In 2013, for the first time in their league’s existence, Gallaudet won their championship and went to the playoffs.
The Bison cheerleaders perform the National Anthem in American Sign Language at the homecoming game on October 24th, 2015 at Gallaudet University.
The singular most important thing to know about Deaf culture is their pride.
They’re not a large population but they identify strongly as a community. According to reports from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 15 percent of American adults have some form of hearing loss and for every 1,000 births, two to three babies are born with detectable levels of hearing loss (3). This means that of more than 300 million American citizens (4), 26 million are either hard of hearing or deaf (5).
The Deaf are commonly stigmatized as being ‘different’ or as having a disability, an impediment excluding them from the “norm” (6). Most of the players come from hearing households with minimal Deaf culture experience. As Shelby says, Gallaudet’s campus becomes a Deaf mecca, because this is often the first place these kids have access to others like them.
Athletics are a bonding experience to begin with, but for a Deaf football team, camaraderie is an absolute requirement. They all have the shared experience of overcoming unique obstacles, either in their previous home or school lives.
Gallaudet has a unique recruiting process, mostly because the coaches have to find players from a very small pool. Defensive Coordinator Stephon Healey says that they have to find high school males with some form of hearing loss, or an interest in Deaf culture, who also show potential on the football field. This last part can be a real challenge, as many potential players don’t often have the opportunity to play in many games before Gallaudet. Because their coaches often see their hard of hearing or deaf status as a disability and don’t take the time to learn how to communicate with them (7).
It’s a risk coming to Gallaudet and wanting to play football, because learning and understanding ASL is the key to success, and the language is very challenging. ASL is commonly misunderstood as a manual representation of English (8); however it utilizes a different syntax, meaning it’s not directly translatable to English. ASL uses what is called ‘subject + predicate’ structure (9), which does not translate directly to correct spoken English grammar. Gallaudet student athletes, especially football players, have to overcome this hurdle in order to continue with the team and to connect with the rest of campus. When he was a player, Shelby recognized that he could earn more playing time in games by developing his skills in ASL, because their plays are always communicated through sign (10).
Linebacker Sean Fenton, 22, has his shoulder pads adjusted during the homecoming game on Saturday, October 24th, 2015 at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
Gallaudet maintains a bilingual communication focus split between ASL and English (11). This does not mean, however, that students and staff are allowed to rely on their English skills. One of Shelby’s linebackers and a current team captain, Sean Fenton, 22, says there are two types of classes you take as a freshman, “There is one for new signers only and that’s going to teach you ASL, and there is just a normal class taught through ASL; the professor signs, everyone in the class signs and you have voice interpreters there so you have the support for keeping up with everyone.” Fenton, who is known as “Reds” on campus, both for his rust-colored hair and fiery temper on the field, speaks and signs slowly; he’s a senior this year and understands the struggle to communicate, “I understand with all the new signers how difficult it is to come into Gallaudet not knowing any sign and trying to adjust from an oral environment and into a full signing experience; it’s one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life.”
Reds was born Deaf but received a cochlear implant when he was a small child, and like Shelby, his family was also unfamiliar with Deaf culture. He was recruited for football, and was apprehensive about transitioning from a Hearing school to a Deaf one, “[Gallaudet] is different from a mainstream college because so much of what we do here is visual learning,” he pauses between sentences, taking a moment to determine how to pair his signs with English, “If you look at a mainstream college you see so many students in the classroom taking notes or writing on their laptops, but here at Gallaudet you won’t see that because one hundred percent of the class is focusing on ASL, so you don’t have time to take notes because if you look down you miss everything the professor says.”
Shelby echoes the same sentiment, speaking and signing simultaneously with the confidence of someone who has been learning the culture for eight years instead of four, “It’s basically like coming to a new country, so it’d be like if you decided to go to school in Italy, and that school is taught in Italian, you’re not just going to arrive at school and do great because you’re learning a college level language at the same time as trying to do homework and playing football.”
Even Shelby recalls when he was a freshman he would commonly fall asleep in class because his eyes would become so tired from paying attention to the ASL. The team roster boasts players from all across the United States with varying degrees of knowledge and experience with ASL and Deaf culture, meaning working as a team can be a challenge. Shelby posits that the benefit of having Deaf people on the team is “they’re like mentors for ASL and they can really teach the new kids about the proper way to handle things in Deaf culture.”
Coach Phil Endicott swings at the team's drum during a home game against Anna Maria College on November 14, 2015 at Gallaudet University. The drum is used because everyone can feel the emanating vibrations and it's used during practices and games to signify important moments.
Summer in Washington, D.C. is known for it’s miserable humidity, especially in August. It’s a swamp at all hours, especially during the day when the sun beats down relentlessly. It averages in the high nineties, but on an Astroturf field surrounded by asphalt, it’s about ten degrees hotter. This hot and humid time of year also coincides directly with the beginning of football camp at Gallaudet: a two-week intensive training for both returning players and hopeful novices.
Nine coaches with all different backgrounds lead the team. Some, like the Head Coach Chuck Goldstein and his offensive and defensive coordinators are hearing. The other coaches tend to be former members of the team, like Shelby Bean, the coach with the odd photoshop request. He is in charge of the linebackers and helps coordinate special teams, 2016 is his third year coaching here. Because they are former Gallaudet students and have a greater understanding of ASL and Deaf culture, these coaches are invaluable in assisting the lead coaches communicate through both languages and cultural barriers. Anyone who wants to coach here must learn ASL, but it's a challenging language to get a handle on(12).
On the first day of camp the coaches are setting up tables inside the athletic complex; they have stations full of paperwork, money collections, team gear and rows and rows of empty green Gatorade water bottles. The 2016 roster boasts 30 new freshmen and 25 returning players, a conglomerate of mixed abilities. Some of the new players grew up in Deaf Culture, but the majority did not and are new to both sign language and to learning to use their hands instead of their voices.
“You’ve got two different languages operating at the same time,” says Coach Healey, who runs the Defense, “and then you have a hard of hearing kid that can’t hear one language anyway.” This is Healey’s sixth season as a coach here, but the differences between ‘normal’ football and the Bison way are still obvious to him, “There’s so much you take for granted from having a whistle, it’s safety of a play. If you want everyone to stop what they’re doing immediately, you blow a whistle. For us, everything needs to be tactile or visual.”
It’s a tough request for the team to learn these nuances, but every single player chooses to be here and their excitement is obvious from day one. Their decision to play for a team that represents them and can forge a tight brotherhood often gets them through the hardships and injuries of the season.
The players file into camp check-in slowly, reconnecting with their coaches and teammates as they fill out forms and gather new swag. Today’s agenda is easy, but tomorrow the real work begins with a brutal conditioning test in 97-degree heat to see who worked out over the summer.
Shelby takes the time to talk to all the players, not just his linebackers. He recognizes something in the new players that was once true for him: Gallaudet can feel pretty alienating if you’ve never experienced a culture like this.