Silence dominated the air Monday morning at Deaf-Senior High School in Merced, California.
The play: 4-year-old, undersized children carrying portable trunks of drums, drums attached to ropes attached to a chain they stretched through the open air and trailed.
Behind each drummer, seated atop his helmet and wielding his cane, was Deaf-Senior coach Darrell Grady. With a smile radiating from his face, Grady, a certified trainer in ASL who speaks American Sign Language fluently, stood as his drum corps hurled commands over the wall and within earshot of the rowdy fans who chanted, “USA! USA!” during an exhibition of their deaf athletes.
“Listen!” Grady, hands on drumsticks and holding a microphone, yelled to the band. “Start marching!”
Grady is deaf. His children – six of whom are deaf – could only imagine the support he received growing up in his largely non-deaf community. He can understand perfectly what the players are going through, feeling the same struggles and, he said, the same respect for others from a culture completely opposite.
“Society has an attitude that deaf kids can’t play football. Well, you’ve had deaf guys play football for a long time,” Grady said. “There is talent in the deaf community and there is beauty in our deaf culture.”
Grady encourages deaf and hard-of-hearing students to play football because of their team-building power and developmental disabilities, he said.
“I think we can make deaf youth excel in other areas beyond deafness,” he said. “That’s why I started this program in high school. It’s where I was successful and able to try other things.”
The Deaf-Senior football team has participated in youth competitions since Grady joined the program in 1978 and there are close to 150 deaf athletes who receive instruction, allow a deaf coach to work with them, and play on the team for free, according to the Deaf-Senior football team’s website. Grady coaches with no special skills that are essential to coaching any kind of deaf sports team.
“All I want to do is give them what I feel is best,” he said. “Whether they can play football or not is irrelevant to me. If they can sign or hold a drum or sing, I teach them the kind of behavior I want to see. It’s important that their hearts and minds are fine with not playing football.”
Grady started his own ASL dictionary during the offseason so that Deaf-Senior players can teach all their friends and the rest of the community how to sign and sing. He also said there are deaf kids who have been through life-threatening diseases whose parents believe deafness will ruin their children’s lives.
“They don’t understand that our culture is under siege and there is no way out,” Grady said. “You’re going to lose things, but you’re going to have a career.”
Grady said Deaf-Senior players are seniors who can matriculate into the top schools in Merced County. The culture has broken through the perception that deafness prohibits any kind of athletic achievements.
“I was very impressed by how proud of their culture we were at the games,” Grady said. “The chanting, the background sounds with cheers, the microphone, I never heard anything like it. They’re loud. They are very proud of their culture.”
No deaf person is not gifted in sports, Grady said. He lost contact with several of his students in the years he coached that he helped. He is now in regular communication with all of them.
“My kids know they are worthy of anything they do,” Grady said. “They are not really deaf. They just have problems that everybody else has, too.”