Jersey City, N.J. – As Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch was begrudgingly answering questions for six and a half minutes on Super Bowl Media Day Tuesday, teammate Derrick Coleman stood a few feet away, politely and respectfully answering questions for nearly an hour.
What’s the big deal about that?
It’s that Coleman is deaf.
By now you might have heard of Coleman’s story. Diagnosed genetically deaf when he was 3, Coleman starred at UCLA and become the first deaf offensive player in the NFL. His story was featured on a Duracell commercial and his letter exchange with a 9-year-old deaf girl has gone viral.
“I retweeted it when I first saw it on Twitter,” Coleman said. “I think the biggest thing was that it was one of those things where she’s not asking for anything, not an autograph or something. She’s just saying, ‘I have faith in you. You’re my inspiration, and I hope you do well in everything you do.’ That kind of just touched my heart a little bit. It made me feel warm.
“So I just thought I would take five or 10 minutes before practice and reply to her. Every now and then that makes a big difference, and that’s kind of what I wanted to do. I’m pretty sure that letter probably helped them take the next step or whatever they have to do.”
Coleman is able to communicate verbally with help of hearing aids and lip reading. He explained that on a scale of 0 to 10, anything eight and above is considered normal hearing. Without the hearing aid, he said he was 2 or 3. With it, he’s between 6 and 8.
Even in the din of Media Day, he said he could hear the questions fine.
“It’s not that loud right now,” he said. “Also I can read lips. Playing in loud stadiums or talking to the quarterback or anything, as long as you’re looking at me I can read your lips and we’re good to go.”
When Coleman, a fullback, is in the game, quarterback Russell Wilson will take out his mouth guard to call out the signals. That’s about the only concession the Seahawks have had to make to Coleman’s disability.
“Derrick is an extraordinary kid and regardless of what his issues are, he’s an extraordinary person,” coach Pete Carroll said. “He has demonstrated to others that have that kind of issue, how far you can take it and what you can do and how there are no boundaries. He’s done a marvelous job of that. Meanwhile, being a great kid and a great football player, too.”
Coleman knows he will be representing a greater entity than just his family and the Seahawks on Sunday. He completely embraces his ambassadorial role for the deaf community.
“The hardest thing about being in the deaf community is getting over wall one,” he said. “Everything I do is going to affect them in terms of perception. Everything they do is going to affect me. What I’m doing now, getting the opportunity to play for the Seattle Seahawks and getting the chance to play in the Super Bowl, that’s basically saying that when people are hard of hearing now, you can do it, too.
“They’re not going to be saying you can’t do it because you’re hard of hearing. I’m making that step. That’s why I go and talk to a lot of kids, because when they start making excuses and being lazy and people start getting that perception, they’re going to come to me thinking I’m the same way. Everything I do affects them and everything they do affects us.”
Coleman had no deaf role models growing up. But he had two strong and loving parents who refused to let him use the disability as a crutch or an excuse.
“They always just kept grinding and grinding me,” he said. “They’d say, ‘Just go out there and be you. Don’t worry about anybody else. If people start making fun of you, just walk away or tell me.’ You only want to surround yourself with people that want to see you succeed. The ones that don’t and want to pull you down to their level, walk away from them. Ignore them.
“It kind of stuck, because now I’m really good at ignoring things.”
Carroll’s interest in Coleman pre-dates Seattle. He tried to recruit him when he was at USC.
“I saw him at school way back when,” Carroll said. “It was Troy High School (Los Angeles). It didn’t work out. We wanted him to play fullback and he didn’t want to play fullback at the time so he’s playing fullback for us now.”
'He's done a fantastic job'
Coleman wound up playing tailback at UCLA and gained 1,700 yards his senior season. He went undrafted and was first cut by the Vikings before catching on with the Seahawks. He initially won the starting fullback job when veteran Michael Robinson was cut.
Robinson has since gotten healthy, rejoined the team and regained the starting spot. Coleman backs him up.
“He’s done a fantastic job,” Carroll said. “He’s been an all-around football player. He’s been an excellent special teams player. He’s done everything we’ve asked of him at fullback as a runner and a catcher.
“We put him in the game with no hesitation at any time, and the fact that he’s been a core special teams guy – and not just that but that he’s done so well at it – he’s been a great accent to our football team.”
Coleman, while glad he can be an inspiration for other similarly handicapped people, doesn’t think he’s in any way special.
“Now, hearing impairment, I don’t ever consider it a disability or anything like that,” he said. “Everybody in the world has problems. Nobody’s perfect. It’s just one of those things that you have to pay more attention to. And that’s where the hard work comes in. That’s what made me who I am and got me to where I am now.”
Still, that his story has hit on a global level blows him away.
“I just became aware of it a couple of days ago,” he said. “My agent’s always telling me how many views I have on YouTube. It’s funny, because I was looking on Twitter and I saw a lady from Australia and I said, ‘How did it get way over there?’
“Like I said, I’m really just targeting one group of kids and the fact that it went all over is a blessing. I’m doing something right. I’m helping.”