The elder Houston grew up using sign language. Emogene learned it when she followed him to the deaf school. They taught it to the boys. To this day the boys converse as easily among themselves with sign language as they sometimes do with Houston Sr., whose hearing has deteriorated. Many coaches use signs to call plays, but Houston Jr. and Dickey use sign language. At Arkansas State, for instance, two index fingers facing each other is man-to-man. For zone, Dickey's fingertips and thumbs touch to form a cup. "Some of the deaf people who watch games on TV get so excited when they see that," the elder Houston says. "They feel so good about that." At one of Dickey's first games as coach at Arkansas State, he looked up and saw his dad signing. The thought that he and his father could speak across an arena in the middle of a game warmed him. Then he read his dad's hands.
"Why is number 25 not in?" the father asked.
"Go get a Coke," the son signed back.
At the 1998 Final Four practices in San Antonio that were open to the public, Dennis struck up a conversation with a couple of guys he spotted signing to each other in the stands. One of them turned out to be Jim DeStefano, an associate athletic director at Gallaudet University, a Washington, D.C., school for the deaf. DeStefano ended up sending his hearing-impaired boys, Stephen and David, to the Arkansas State basketball camp last summer. "They learned enormously," DeStefano says. "It was very beneficial for my boys when either Dickey or Dennis signed basketball terms to them. As for interpreting, Dickey did a great job. He signed for the guest speakers if the boys needed him to sign. This was a wonderful opportunity. Not many deaf athletes have this advantage when they attend camps designed for hearing campers."
One day last November, about the time Arkansas's football team had arisen from nowhere to win its first eight games, Danny lost his hearing for three days. "I thought it was sinus trouble," he says. Around Thanksgiving, the left side of his face went numb. That lasted a week. In mid-December, he got dizzy and nauseated. That didn't go away. An MRI revealed the bleeding in his brain stem. A Swiss neurosurgeon named Gazi Yasargil pioneered the technique for the surgery needed to correct this condition. Yasargil lives in Little Rock, lured there by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences department of neurosurgery. On Dec. 30, two days before the Razorbacks played Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, Danny underwent surgery to have the bleeding vessels cauterized. To get to the brain stem, Yasargil had to lift a small part of Danny's brain. Says Houston Jr., "He told me, 'You don't want to know what I did to your brother's brain.' "
In many operations, the invaded part of the body swells. In brain surgery, no one can be sure whether the body's response to the swelling will be temporary or permanent. The left side of Danny's face remained paralyzed after the surgery. He couldn't blink his left eye. Doctors put a patch over it to protect it, but the patch, unbeknownst to anyone, only scratched the eye. Finally, Danny had the eye sewn shut so that it would stay moist. His right eye couldn't focus. "His father would shave him," Emogene says, "and Danny wouldn't feel the shaving cream running down his face. It was pitiful. He would smile, and one side of his face would droop."
Danny moved into his parents' house in Little Rock. His wife, Carla, and their four children moved to Little Rock, too, and stayed with her parents. His brothers called constantly. Houston Jr. stopped by on recruiting trips. Dickey and Dennis, in the midst of their basketball season, snuck in for an afternoon once or twice.
By February the hearing had returned to Danny's right ear. Then the nerves in the left side of his face began to awaken. Soon thereafter he started to try to walk. "That first step is amazing," Danny says. "You don't know if you're going to fall down. I pray every day that I can put two feet on the ground. I didn't know how fast the room would spin, whether I would throw up." His parents would spend all morning helping him sit up, stand and walk to the leather recliner in their den. Danny would spend the day there and then work his way back to bed.
On his first day back in the office, he was supposed to work half a day. He couldn't bear to leave after seeing the team take the field for practice and didn't go home until 6 p.m. The third day, March 24, the hearing in his left ear showed faint signs of returning. The left side of his face still drooped a little.
"The Citrus Bowl was my first game as a head coach that Danny wasn't with me," Houston Jr. says. "I looked for him on the field, and he wasn't there." The Razor-backs lost 45-31, and getting the right running backs on the field for the right plays, which had been Danny's responsibility, was a challenge. "I told the team at the Citrus Bowl," Houston Jr. says, " 'I can't guarantee you tomorrow. I have a brother who could run sprints with you two weeks ago. I don't have much tolerance for the guy who lies in bed and misses class. I don't have much tolerance for the guy whom we ask to run a 20-yard sprint and he runs 19.1 need your best effort. Every day is a gift.' I ask the players every day, 'Are you giving it?' "