"I went to deaf schools all my life," he says. "When I was a junior or senior in high school, I was thinking about going to a hearing school, but then I started thinking about my future. I thought, How will I be able to handle it? The people around me wouldn't be able to understand me. I wouldn't really be able to be myself. At Gallaudet I don't feel any handicap, any oppression. I feel Gallaudet is a special place for us, where we can be ourselves, like being part of a family."
Murray still holds his high school's rushing record (287 yards on 42 carries), a mark that seems unlikely to be broken any time soon unless there should happen to be another epidemic of rubella. Deaf schools had a baby boom of their own in the early '60s following a nationwide outbreak of German measles that caused thousands of children to be born without hearing. Murray's old high school had some 150 students when he was there in the late '80s, but last year there were only 41 boys in the high school, 25 of whom play on the football team. This development, needless to say, has not been particularly helpful to the Bison recruiters.
Pelletier locates most of his prospects not by way of any traditional scouting services but from letters and newspaper clippings sent to him by Gallaudet alumni and other members of the deaf community. Though it is a Division III school, Gallaudet occasionally goes after deaf players good enough to play at bigger schools. Bob Westermann, the Bison football coach from 1985 to '89, found himself going head-to-head with Nebraska in 1986 for Kenny Walker, an all-state defensive end from Crane (Texas) High. Cornhusker coach Tom Osborne promised Walker he could have interpreters on call and TDD phone service, which allows users to type messages back and forth to each other, and talked glowingly of Nebraska's deaf studies program. It was left to Westermann to point out that the deaf studies facilities were not at the main campus in Lincoln but 50 miles away in Omaha. Walker wound up at Nebraska anyway—where he became an All-America—and last April was made the eighth-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos.
Each spring, Pelletier draws up a list of recruits he thinks might actually show up at Gallaudet and of upperclassmen he hopes will come back. Last season they lost one key player to a religious organization, financial difficulties waylaid another, and some simply lost interest in football. Pelletier is never sure what he will have to work with until the middle of August. "In the past I would get very excited in the spring, and then every August I'd get depressed," he says. "I'd have to change everything around in the fall, because guys just didn't come back."
In 1980 the Bison started practice with only a few players, and the school decided to cancel its season. "The program was really a shambles," says Klees. "The feeling had always been that it was enough for the deaf boys just to be out there trying, and because of that the school had gone more than 50 years without a winning record."
But, just as it is with universities in South Bend or Miami, Gallaudet wanted a winning football team to make the school feel better about itself. "There's nothing magical about deafness to me," says athletic director Joe Fritsch, who has been at Gallaudet for 19 years. "We're like any other small school. When a coach who's just kicked your butt 69-0 comes up and tells you how hard the kids worked and what a meaningful experience it was, I just want to say, 'Save it, pal.' "
That sentiment finally led to the hiring of Westermann, who had become the coach of the high school team on campus after answering an ad in The New York Times and had gone on to win four national high school deaf championships. Westermann got permission from the school's administration to upgrade the off-season weight-training program and to recruit aggressively. He promised his players they could shave his head if they won five games; the Bison went 5-5 in 1985, his first season. "The emotion in the locker room after we won that [fifth] game was something I'll never forget," Westermann says. "It still brings chills."
Gallaudet was 7-4 the next season and 9-1 in 1987. "The biggest difference is that we went from playing just to play to playing to win," Westermann says. "When we started winning, it wiped out any stigma attached to this program. If you talk to those guys, you realize that they're as confident as anybody."
But when Jordan became president in the spring of 1988, it became clear to Westermann that the football program would not get the same level of priority, and after leading the Bison to a 6-3 record that fall, he decided to leave. "When Jordan came in, I didn't detect the same ardent interest," Klees says. "I think he feels it's just nice to have a program—good if we win, O.K. if we don't."
"I would love to have a football team that finished 11-0," says Jordan, "but it's more important to me that the student-athletes are students first. I don't want to see it deemphasized, I want balance. I like to win, and not just for the guys on the football team but for the whole deaf community."