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CSD Eagles work the field without words

on November 22, 2009

Jacy Dike-Pederson, fullback and middle linebacker for the Eagles, after CSD's defeat to Salesian. (Photo by Leah Bartos)

Jacy Dike-Pederson, fullback and middle linebacker for the Eagles, after CSD's defeat to Salesian. (Photo by Leah Bartos)

While Richmond Confidential’s loyalties would ordinarily land us on the home team’s sidelines during this football season, we decided to breach that tradition and pursue another question — how does a deaf football team play a hearing team?

So, last Friday, before our colleague Ryan Phillips covered the Salesian Varsity home game, we spent some time with the opponents.

During the junior varsity match between the Salesian Mustangs and the Fremont-based California School for the Deaf (CSD) Eagles, we hit the visitors’ stands and sidelines to snap some photos and grab some stories from CSD players, parents and siblings.

The first—and perhaps most obvious—distinction we noticed was that the ordinary shouts and screams of coaches and players on the bench were nowhere to be heard. Instead, with every play came a frenetic burst of signing and signaling as the small confab of sideliners communicated with players on the field, silently scuttling up and down the white line to follow the action.

“There’s a lot of visual communication during the game,” varsity coach Kevin Bella wrote in an email. “All players must read their opponents’ formations first before making the calls.”

In fact, for the uninitiated, half the fun of watching the game was trying to follow this combination of American Sign Language and football signaling. We were so fascinated we barely noticed the Eagles lost 34-0.

After the game, we talked to 14-year-old freshman Jacy Dike-Pederson. He’s #30, a fullback and middle linebacker for the Eagles. The fresh-faced Newark native said he’s been at CSD since he was 18 months old and has been playing football since the third grade.

While hearing impaired, he is an excellent lip reader and a clear verbal communicator. Despite the Eagles’ loss, Jacy was all smiles. When asked about being a deaf football player, he had a lot to say.

CSD coaches say deaf football players are just as competitive as anyone. (Photo by Leah Bartos)

CSD coaches say deaf players are just as competitive. (Photo by Leah Bartos)

“We’re all deaf, but it makes no difference,” Jacy said. “We play the same, we hit the same, except we can’t hear. The deaf mind can play any sport.”

There are, of course, some modifications.

We wondered, how do deaf players call an audible in the line of scrimmage?

Jacy replied that it’s just a matter of being attuned to the quarterback’s hand signaling.

This night, playing Salesian, Jacy and his teammates were free to sign indiscreetly, assuming their opponents wouldn’t comprehend the signals.

But, he continued, the biggest difficulty comes in playing against other deaf teams. It requires some additional strategy, lower-key, less-obvious signing and closer huddles.

And here’s where it all comes full-circle, so to speak; the modern, in-the-round football huddle was in fact devised back in the early 1890s by a deaf quarterback at Gallaudet University named Paul Hubbard, according to Coach Bella. With the circular huddle, it was easier to keep the plays secret during games against other deaf teams.

When we headed toward the crowd in the bleachers, we found a group of folks for whom football with signing was nothing new. A small collection of talkative, blanket-clad fans watched their loved ones battle it out on a chilly fall night. We learned from talking to parents that CSD pulls students from all around the Bay Area and boards them during the school week. And, if the parents’ observations are any indication, CSD creates some strong bonds both on and off the field.

Mark Conti of San Francisco was there with his mother, Avelina (who spelled out her name for us, saying for the second letter, “V as in victory”). They were there to see Bryant, a junior offensive and defensive lineman who is Mark’s younger brother and Avelina’s son. In between hits and cheers—and Avelina’s excited frets over each of Bryant’s takedowns—Mark said he didn’t think Bryant’s being deaf made much of a difference. In fact, Mark said, Bryant has thrived as a CSD Eagle.

From the CSD sidelines. (Photo by Leah Bartos)

From the sidelines. (Photo by Leah Bartos)

“He actually embraces it, I think,” Mark said. “From the outside looking in, they seem very close-knit. For [CSD students] there’s not a culture barrier, like there was at my high school.”

Tonisha Cudjo of Oakland said she notices the same phenomenon among the Eagles—a culture of camaraderie that cuts across ethnic and racial lines and transcends simple team spirit. Her son, Gregory Spriggs-Cudjo, is the team’s quarterback.

“He loves his school. You couldn’t take him away from his school,” Tonisha said. “They’re all in unity—kind of like their own culture. They take care of each other.”

While she said she appreciates her son’s football skills and the popularity that often accompanies the enviable position of high school quarterback, she said she wishes he would focus more on his academics.

“I wish I would hear about how smart he is rather than how cute he is,” she said.

As it turns out, other than the fact that these guys use their hands to both play the game and communicate the necessary on-field strategies, they’re really not much different from any other high school’s JV team.

“We want to win and play hard,” Jacy said. “Mostly the game is about respect.”

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