I always have extra batteries on me. In my backpack, in my car, in my locker — the team trainers even have some in case I need them. I never know when my batteries are going to run out. Sometimes it’s only a couple of days. But when I hear that beeping sound, I know I only have about five minutes before they go. When that warning goes off, my eyes light up, and anyone who knows me knows that when I get that look, it means I need new batteries.
Otherwise, I can’t hear a thing.
Even with the hearing aids, my hearing still isn’t perfect. But without them, everything goes silent. I wouldn’t even be able to hear my fingers hitting the keyboard to type this sentence.
I’ve been deaf since I was three years old and I’ve been wearing hearing aids for as long as I can remember. Off the field, I’m used to it. I’ve made adjustments.
On the field, I’ve also made some adjustments.
Instead of learning sign language, I taught myself how to read lips at a young age. It was simple, really. I didn’t take a class or anything. I just started looking at people’s lips because I couldn’t hear them, and the next thing you know, I started to comprehend what they were saying. It’s just a skill I developed over time.
So when I first joined the Seahawks backfield in 2013, I didn’t have a sitdown meeting with Russell Wilson to figure out a strategy for how we were going to communicate. I just told him, Hey, I’m going to ask you to repeat stuff sometimes and I’m always going to be looking at your lips, but don’t be alarmed. I just have a hard time hearing sometimes. I’ll just read your lips and we’ll go on our way.
That was the first and last time we ever talked about it. It was no big deal. Everyone has different obstacles they have to overcome to do their job. This was mine.
Preparation in football is about repetition. We run the same plays over and over until they’re committed to memory. We study the same plays and the same schemes over and over until we can anticipate what the defense is going to do. And in practice, Russell makes sure he looks in my direction in the huddle so I can read his lips. When he calls an audible at the line of scrimmage, he makes sure he turns back and looks at me so I can read his lips and understand the adjustment. So on gameday, it’s second nature because it’s a part of our routine, just like handing the ball off or pitching the ball on a sweep.
And if I don’t get the audible or I don’t catch the play call, I just ask. I’m not shy.
Anytime you have a “disadvantage,” you need to find a way to compensate and level the playing field. If a running back doesn’t have the same speed as other backs, he can compensate by taking great angles and having great field vision, the same way some guys who don’t have great field vision can compensate with their speed to outrun the defense.
They say that when someone loses one of their five senses, the other senses are heightened to compensate. I don’t really get much of that. I’m always the first person in the room to smell a fart, and that’s about it.
But what I have done is compensate by paying more attention to detail, especially at the line of scrimmage.
I can’t hear the snap count. I move when the ball moves. So when we break the huddle, I immediately lock in on the defenders as they move into position. I have to study a lot more so I can identify defensive formations quicker because I have to process what I see and turn my focus to the ball as soon as possible so I don’t miss the snap. It’s all about timing. If I’m late on the snap, it can throw off the entire rhythm of the play.
It’s all a part of my overcompensation. Ever since I started playing football, I knew I had to work harder than everyone else. I had to be stronger. I had to be faster. I never wanted my hearing loss to be an excuse for me not succeeding.
That’s what I love about sports. I’m judged by my talent. Off the field, I’m judged because of my disability. On the field, it all comes down to one thing: Can you get the job done? That’s my motivation. This is something I can control. I don’t have any control over my hearing. What I can control is my work ethic and my attitude toward the game that I love.
I won’t let my hearing (or lack thereof) define me. I’m different, but I like being different. I don’t want to be the same as everybody else. I wake up every morning and do my own thing. Sure, I have things to overcome, but I embrace them. You’ll never hear me say, I can’t do this because I have hearing loss. It’s all in your attitude and how you approach life. I’ve been bullied and made fun of and told that I couldn’t do certain things because of my hearing loss. But instead of believing those people, I’ve used it as motivation. I wanted to prove them wrong, and I believe I have. And I’ll keep on proving them wrong.
When I was young and people were picking on me or making fun of me, my dad always said, “Just focus on football and school and everything else will take care of itself. Don’t spend too much time stressing on stuff you don’t need to be stressed on.” And when I meet kids today who have hearing loss, that’s the message I share with them. People are going to pick on you because they think you’re different. It’s just a fact of life. You have to deal with it. Stop worrying so much about what other people think. Take care of what really matters. If someone’s picking on you, choose not to be around them. Find somebody else to hang out with. There are seven billion people in this world, and you’re going to be worried about what one person said about you?
I’m not going to lie — it’s going to hurt, and that’s okay. Let it hurt. Grieve. Cry it out. Do whatever you’ve got to do. And tomorrow, make the decision to not be around that person.
It’s going to be tough. But trust me, it can be done. I’ve been there.
That’s the mentality I’ve used to help shake the haters and focus my life and my mindset on the positive things and the positive people around me. I use the negativity as motivation. I always have a chip on my shoulder. And going into the 2015 season, that chip is even bigger. Missing most of last season with a broken foot was tough. Not playing in the Super Bowl was even tougher. Watching helplessly as my brothers came one play shy of winning a second straight Super Bowl just flat-out hurts. But we’re not going to dwell on it. We’ll definitely remember it, and we’ll use it as fuel. We’ll go back to the drawing board and get better so it doesn’t happen again.
I’ve put the same work ethic I used to overcome my hearing loss and make it to the NFL into rehabbing from my foot injury to make sure I come back better than ever, and the rest of the team is doing the same to make sure we come back to find ourselves in the same position we’ve been in the last two seasons: With a chance to win the Super Bowl. A foot injury and a last-second loss are tough obstacles to overcome, but I’m up for the challenge.
It’s not the first time I’ve had to overcome adversity.
I may have missed last year’s Super Bowl, but I still have my Super Bowl ring from 2013. And every time I look at it, I think of all the people who told me the things I would never be able to do because of my hearing loss. I wear that ring on my middle finger for two reasons: First, it’s my biggest finger, and I wanted to get the biggest ring possible. And second…
Well, use your imagination.
Derrick Coleman is the first deaf player ever to play offense in the NFL. His book, No Excuses: Growing Up Deaf and Achieving My Super Bowl Dreams, is in stores now.
Photos by Rod Mar/Seattle Seahawks