October 2011

Five Yards at a Time

For one standout UCLA running back, the challenge on the field goes far beyond keeping his hands on the ball and his eyes on the goal  by MIKE TRUDELL / photographs by HENRY LEUTWYLER

Train right fat!”

The play is called. Derrick Coleman Jr. knows he’s about to get the football and is mandated to slam his body into any number of 11 defenders. He lines up behind the quarterback and notices the defense shifting its formation, meaning his QB is likely to call an audible—change the play at the line of scrimmage—and initiate a new set of follow-throughs.

The QB screams out a passing play, the ears of his offensive line trained like those of a dog awaiting further command, while the legs of the receivers are set to burst off the line at the revised snap-count signal. Coleman, now required to block a pass rusher, knows exactly what to do, even though he can’t hear his QB’s words.

Derrick Coleman is deaf.

His parents, Derrick Coleman and May Manning, first realized their son couldn’t hear when he was around two. His speech hadn’t developed normally, and speaking to him continually failed to elicit a response.  Diagnostic visits ensued. But what didn’t take long was the emphatic decision that Derrick Jr.’s disability would never affect how he felt about himself. “We never saw it as an excuse,” says Manning, a registered nurse, of her son, who is virtually 100 percent deaf without hearing aids. “He’s just Derrick. We treated him as if there was no disability.”

Not everyone followed suit, however. Wearing a high-tech hearing aid at his Fullerton elementary school, Coleman could hear the other kids calling him stupid. And when he couldn’t hear the taunts, he could read the lips of the students who mocked the devices protruding from his ears. He came home once with tears in his eyes after an incident with a fellow third grader. His mother had a simple solution: Compare your report card—the one full of A’s—to that of the bully’s, and see who measures up and who doesn’t.

Chalk one up for the deaf kid. “At first it was a struggle,” says Coleman, 20, now a year away from his college degree. “I used to never want to talk to people. But my parents told me that if anyone couldn’t accept me for who I was, I didn’t need to be around them.” He began to realize that his needing aids to hear was no different from someone needing glasses to see. “We all have a disability of some sort,” he recalls his mother telling him. “Some are just more profound than others.”

Still, challengers continued to haunt Coleman as he made his way through Fullerton’s Troy High School, where his Spanish teacher didn’t believe he’d be able to complete the listening-heavy class. You can’t do it weren’t words Derrick was willing to accept. He worked even harder to prove the teacher wrong, earned a B in the course and kept his bitterness stashed in his locker. “There are always doubters for everybody,” he says with a shrug. “I can’t exactly have a normal life if I let a hearing disability take over. When I don’t hear you, my personality comes in. I’m not afraid to ask, ‘Okay, what did you say again?’ ”

Provided his success continue in the classroom, his parents insisted, Coleman could turn to his true love: sports. He was a strapping natural athlete with an affinity for basketball and, especially, football. But was the gridiron too risky? Would his hearing aids be able to pick up the sounds of a rapidly approaching opponent slashing in for a tackle? Could he communicate with other players in the clutch? He knew of no hearing-disabled football players from which to draw confidence.

Coleman’s parents had few such questions—they needed only assurance from medical specialists that playing football could do no further damage. And once they had that, their son got to put on a uniform like the other kids. “Derrick was always very, very, very active,” says Manning. “He needed a sport to play—trust me. He’s always had this muscle structure you just don’t see in little kids, and it was in football that he excelled.”

But how to protect young Derrick’s hearing aids? “I put a pair of my pantyhose over them to keep them secure in his helmet,” says his mom with a hearty laugh. “I’d cut the legs and tie up the loose ends, and it would sit like a skull cap does now. And it worked.”

Improvised headwear in place, Coleman went on to become a three-year starter at Troy, running for 5,214 yards and 58 touchdowns. There wasn’t much left for doubters to say as Derrick sprinted toward team MVP and first-team all-league honors as a senior. So good was he scholarship offers from both UCLA and USC came for the six-one, 240 pounder before that senior campaign.

Is it possible that being deaf actually helped Coleman? “Right when you see him, you get the understanding that Derrick is a pure athlete,” says close friend and Troy High offensive lineman Derek McConnell, 21. “But when you get to know him, you realize his athleticism only got him so far. The reason that he was so good and continues to play at a high level is because of his hearing—because he had to work three times as hard as anybody else on the field.”

Coleman lifts weights like a man possessed. He runs extra sprints when others give in, volunteers for special-teams units. He refuses to relent. “He knew the disability would take him down with the slightest slip, so it’s all been about him constantly overcoming obstacles,” McConnell says. “If he weren’t deaf, I don’t think he’d be nearly as powerful—emotionally or physically.”

Coleman lifts weights like a man possessed. He runs sprints when others give in, volunteers for special-teams units...“If he weren’t deaf, I don’t think he’d be nearly as powerful, emotionally or physically.”

Coleman’s freshman year at UCLA brought a new group of people to win over. “The first day of training camp, I was [skeptical],” says running-backs coach Wayne Moses. “But I was wrong. This is my fourth year with Derrick, and we have never had a communication problem.”

“I assumed it’d be so hard for Derrick to know the snap count and get the audibles,” says Brett Downey, a Bruins offensive line-man and Coleman’s former roommate. “But once I saw him play, I saw it wasn’t a problem.”

Because football teams use hand signals for every play, hearing is actually rarely an issue, particularly since it can’t be taken for granted in many deafening stadiums. Audibles, however, require a bit of extra attention. “If we’re talking with our backs to him, our QB needs to turn around and visually communicate with Derrick so he can get to the right place,” says UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel. “You’d imagine it would be an arduous task, but Derrick is very bright. He knows his assignments cold, which makes it easy for us.”

In fact, Neuheisel and Moses can’t remember a single time during the 34 games Coleman played in his first three years in which he failed to pick up an audible. As of press time, his career stats include 1,214 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, with 199 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the first three games of this season.

“When we’re making huddle calls with crowd noise, Derrick reads our lips, and if he misses that, he’ll grab our face mask and make us tell him,” says QB Kevin Prince. “When you get grabbed from behind, you know he’s not going out there without his assignment.”

Coleman’s goal is the same whenever he touches the ball: five yards at a time, a phrase he has displayed prominently in his locker and his car. Anything less in “unacceptable.” It is how he’s pushed through his life. “I’ve never seen Derrick get remotely emotional or upset about his hearing,” says McConnell. “It all just pushes him more and more.”

“It’s one of those things you really admire,” says Coach Neuheisel. “You see a kid that could easily have used this as a reason why not, but instead he finds reasons why. That’s really what life is about. By him working the way he does and accomplishing so much, he’s a ready-made role model.”

Coleman has been known by his buddies to feign not hearing if you are making fun of him, but in actuality, he’s the guy everyone likes. “He has a little prankster in him. He’s the comedian in the room, and once he gets started, sometimes I have to reel him in a little,” says Moses. “But players are crazy about him. He’s a great kid.”

No matter how busy things get during football season, it’s paramount to Coleman that he speak to kids all over L.A., particularly those with a hearing impairment. His message: There are no boundaries, no walls you can’t break through. He’s become just as comfortable talking to young people as he is to his friends.

In July, Coleman, McConnell and two former Troy High players—center Josh Lee and tight end Brian Tucker—went for their annual rite of summer, a week-long trip to Lake Arrowhead. It’s a boys’ week designed to ensure the old friends have quality time together before Coleman leaves for training camp, to tell stories of football and girls, to reflect on favorite memories and make new ones.

At one point, the young men gathered in front of the lake. Coleman’s mouth was, as usual, moving a mile a minute, prompting the threat that he would be tossed into the drink. Still, when Tucker delivered the critical shove, Coleman was shocked. “I’m not supposed to have my hearing aids in the water, but they just forgot that I wear them!” recalls Coleman, grinning from ear to ear.

“When you know him, you do just forget,” says McConnell. “But when he realized the reason we pushed him in, he was really happy.”

MIKE TRUDELL has been covering sports since graduating from Northwestern University in 2004. He is currently the beat writer at lakers.com.