Dwight Collins is a hard guy not to notice. Besides cutting a flinty 5'10", 240-pound figure in Central Florida's backfield, where the senior fullback is the Golden Knights' most fearless blocker, he's assistant coach Alan Gooch's most attentive pupil, a physical education major with a 3.8 GPA and, in conversation, a guy who can get so worked up that it's hard to get a word in edgewise. As it happens, Collins is also deaf.
His deafness has brought Collins more attention than most college running backs who have rushed for 332 yards on 53 carries over three-plus seasons receive. There was the award he received from President Clinton for exceptional student-athletes at the White House in the spring of 1998. An independent producer approached him in September about making a movie based on his life, a project Collins is considering. The attention Collins craves most these days is that of his coaches. Prior to his sophomore season they bumped him from tailback, the position in which he rushed for 2,587 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior at Barbe High in Lake Charles, La., to fullback. "The coaches said I wasn't fast enough to stay at tailback," says Collins through Chad Schuk, an interpreter. "It's tough to have to block when I get so fired up with the ball in my hands. But I accept what's good for the team and try my best to succeed."
Collins has spent most of his life doing the latter. After a near-fatal case of meningitis permanently damaged his auditory nerves when he was 11 months old, Dwight was encouraged by his parents, Annie and Clifford, to fend for himself in the hearing world. He attended public schools, ones with programs for the hearing impaired, and since age 16 he has held off-season jobs, from washing cars to stocking shelves. "Lessons always came first," says Clifford, a retired truck driver, who, like Annie, a bank teller, communicates with Dwight through hand signals they created themselves. "Now Dwight has an air about him that he can do anything he sets his mind to."
That goes for football, which Collins became enthralled by as a sixth-grader. When three schools—Central Florida, Gallaudet (the nation's first university for the deaf) and McNeese State, located in his hometown—extended athletic scholarship offers, Collins signed with the one with the best football program. While it took a couple of weeks for Central Florida's housing department to install such necessities as a vibrating alarm clock and a special doorbell that causes the lights to flicker in his dorm room, Gooch, the Golden Knights' running backs coach, arrived at the first preseason practice of Collins's freshman year nearly fluent in signing, thanks to a crash course. "I didn't realize how much work it was going to be," says Gooch, who spends much of practice trying to get into Collins's field of vision so that he can sign instructions. During games Collins picks up the play as it's being signaled from the sideline.
While Collins himself can't discuss strategy on the field, he can express joy or frustration with a trademark yelp that all the Golden Knights have come to recognize as his. "He's like any other guy on the team, except more emotional," says Gooch. "He'll often start sentences with, 'From my heart....' That's just the way he talks."
And according to his teammates, that's also the way he plays.