RENTON, Wash. - If you meet Seattle Seahawks running back Derrick Coleman and he doesn’t initially look you in the eye, take no offense.
Coleman, you see, is essentially deaf, having been able to hear only sounds and tones since age three. That’s when his hearing mysteriously began to disappear
“It just kind of went away,” Coleman said. “We don’t really know why.”
But hearing aids and an uncanny ability to read lips - he’s trained himself to look there first - have allowed Coleman to adapt to the point that many who know him forget he’s deaf, and many who meet him don’t realize it unless they are told.
“He finds a way and he’s very resourceful,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “It has not been an issue at all.”
Coleman, in fact, has been one of the team’s steadiest players throughout training camp, scoring a touchdown on a 6-yard pass in Seattle’s 31-10 win over the Chargers last Thursday and also leading the team with two tackles on special teams.
“He’s already shown us he’s one of the most dependable special teams guys,” Carroll said. “He’s shown us that he can play for us.”
That’s no guarantee of making the final 53-man roster for what is regarded as being one of the most talent-laden teams in the NFL, of course.
But if Coleman doesn’t make it, it won’t be because of his hearing issues.
“I don’t ever use it as an excuse,” he said.
Coleman even says he thinks it gives him an edge when stadiums get especially raucous and players have to rely on hand signals and other non-verbal methods of communication.
“When it gets loud I feel like I have the advantage,” he said. “I can tune that out.”
Coleman said the most reasonable explanation for his loss of hearing is that it was a genetic defect that didn’t show up immediately - both his father and mother were found to be missing hearing genes. “I was never sick or anything like that,” he said.
Coleman, though, says his hearing never created problems playing sports - he began playing football in seventh grade and also played basketball.
Coleman says he makes sure to ask quarterbacks or teammates a second time to make sure he understands the play if it’s unclear. And he simply has to keep his eye on the center snap to know when the play begins.
“Quarterbacks know to look at me and I will read your lips and I’m good to go,” he said.
When he first began playing, sometimes the hearing aids would pop out. So he knows to wear two skull caps to assure they stay put. He also says he makes sure to replace the batteries in his hearing aids shortly before kickoff so they don’t run out during the game.
Widely recruited out of Troy High in Fullerton, Calif., he played four years at UCLA where he gained 1,780 yards and also earned second team All-Pac-12 honors as a senior as a special teams performer. “Sometimes I forget (about Coleman’s hearing issues),” said Seattle running backs coach Sherman Smith. “I don’t adjust anything I do. A lot of times in our meeting rooms I have to make sure I am speaking louder so he can hear me when I’m sitting behind him. When I stand in front of him, I just talk.”
Carroll said the team’s quarterbacks make sure that Coleman has the right play, and look back to make sure he catches any audibles at the line of scrimmage. Otherwise, he said, “you would never know.”
Whatever happens, his hearing, Coleman said, won’t be a factor.
“It’s never held me back,” he says. “And it’s not going to start now.”