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Clear Signals
Bruce Newman
August 26, 1991
For Gallaudet, a university for the deaf, the language may be different, but football is very much the same
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August 26, 1991

Clear Signals

For Gallaudet, a university for the deaf, the language may be different, but football is very much the same

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For 15 minutes, Brooklyn College assistant coach John Whitehead has prowled the visitor's end of Hotchkiss Field during the pregame warmup, stopping every few steps to shout "Bed-Stuy!" then "Bensonhurst!" in the direction of the home team. Calling out the names of these notoriously tough and troubled Brooklyn neighborhoods is intended as a message, a point Whitehead drives home by urging his players to "let those——know" the violence that is about to be done to them. The oddest insult in this calculated bit of effrontery comes from a Brooklyn player who suddenly cries out, "They were playing music in their locker room!" This fresh outrage is taken up in a round of profanity from the Kingsmen's end of the field.

Finally, Whitehead can contain himself no longer and strides to the 50-yard line, where he sticks his chest out at the opposing players warming up at the other end. "You're going down, baby!" he shrieks. Then in a final rhetorical flourish, he adds, "Lip-read this!"

No one at the other end of the field moves toward Whitehead, or even bothers to look up at him, and soon he seems to drift away on a passing current of warm air. "They're talking trash to us," says Gallaudet defensive coordinator Greg Klees, "and we can't even hear it."

This is prologue to the final home football game of what will be a 2-8 season at Gallaudet University (pronounced Gal-a-DET), in Washington, D.C., the only liberal arts college for the deaf in the world. Though many of the Gallaudet players retain at least partial hearing—only two million of the 24 million people in the U.S. who have hearing loss can hear nothing at all—the trash at Hotchkiss Field seems to fly past them without effect. The Bison of Gallaudet are intent upon sending their seniors off to the real world with a victory over Brooklyn College. During a team meeting before the game, coach Rich Pelletier gives a flurry of instructions in sign language, and in a high-pitched voice that even he cannot hear, declares, "Our field is ours."

Then it is the seniors' turn to speak. Joe Fresolo, a 250-pound offensive lineman, works his taped fingers, signing an emotional charge, ending with "Kill Brooklyn!" Linebacker Emil Jones talks and signs simultaneously, and when he is finished he asks, "Are we going to win today?" When his teammates, many of whom couldn't hear a word he was saying, respond weakly, Jones bellows, "I can't hear you!" The roar of voices that follows seems to swirl shapelessly around the room, a great mooing sound that is without a distinct pitch of its own, the timbre of a tree that falls in the forest without making a sound.

There is passion in this room. It is a football-Saturday afternoon like a hundred others in a hundred different places, but it is special, too. The sounds are primordial, but they are the unfiltered sounds of the heart and of the soul. "It's really a close-knit relationship," Pelletier says later. "We share the same feelings, emotions, the same thoughts." One player is so overcome by the locker room speeches that after the others leave, he stays in his seat and weeps.

"Here we're like family," says running back Ron Peck, a Bison freshman from Harrison, Ohio, who has run a 4.35 40-yard dash. "When we're getting ready for the game, we're thinking, They think we're deaf and that we probably don't know anything about football. At Gallaudet we're trying to tell everybody out in the hearing world we can do everything they can do except hear." Peck will later prove this point by carrying the ball for 190 yards—including touchdown runs of 79 and 66 yards—in Gallaudet's 47-7 rout of Brooklyn College.

Before putting on his shoulder pads, linebacker Toselli Silvestri admires a tattoo that colors his right shoulder like a bruise. It is of a scorpion with TOSELLI written around the pincers. He also has a tattoo on his left calf of Mickey Mouse saying "What's up?" Silvestri, a junior and the team's leading tackier last season (though he may miss this season due to injury), has spent his playing career trying to tattoo ballcarriers with his head.

"I always hit with the helmet," he says. "It feels good. I'm happy that I'm deaf, because there's more hitting. The referee blows the whistle, and I can go on hitting and there's no penalty. On the football field I'm crazy, I'm not afraid of anything."

A sign posted on the Gallaudet locker-room wall says: WE ARE ALL ALIKE; WE HAVE EYES, EARS, ARMS, LEGS, AND A HEAD. THE DIFFERENCE IS IN THE HEART. The hearts of Gallaudet's players beat in time to the music of a boom box that is playing with the volume turned up as loud as it will go. Because of the different levels of hearing loss in any group of deaf people, some of the players can hear this ear-splitting din through hearing aids, while others can only feel the vibrations. Gallaudet's students are regulars in the dance clubs of Washington's Georgetown neighborhood, many of them feeling the music in a way hearing people never will. Forty minutes before the kickoff of the Brooklyn College game the lights flash in the home team's locker room, telling the Bison it is time to take the field.

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