For some of life’s uncomfortable moments, Derrick Coleman has devised a quick and convenient remedy. Just put his deafness to work for him.
As a child he regularly was the new kid in school since his family moved around a half-dozen times. Each place anew, he’d face the teases and taunts of another batch of classmates who seized upon his hearing loss and his bulky hearing aids. Four Ears, some would call him, for starters. He cried at first. Eventually, though, he said, “If you made fun of me, no big thing. I just turned off my hearing aid and walked away.”
As a UCLA ballcarrier, in a game against Arizona State’s Vontaze Burfict, Coleman met the linebacker head-on during a goal-line clash. He toppled into the end zone for a score, with Burfict aboard. The defender decided to favor Coleman with a few more choice words while atop him. As if the touchdown wasn’t enough to render any words moot, Coleman merely pretended not to be able to hear anything. So, get off me.
Personal relationships, too, can benefit from the technique, he’ll add with a smile. “The best thing about it is if your girl ever starts yelling at you, you look like you’re scratching your head. But you’re turning your hearing aid off,” Coleman said.
But what about when the problem is not the noise, but the silence? When the phone isn’t buzzing with offers to play for pay? When some of the same people who once regarded you as an inspirational role model don’t know what to make of you after a puzzling arrest, so they just shy away? When one big asterisk attaches itself to a career of praise.
Those issues require a far more studied approach. A rehabilitative approach, in the same way as any physical injury. And time. Lots of time. Like the entire 2016 season when a Super Bowl champion fullback still in his prime had nowhere to play.
Back in the NFL now, in Falcons camp, with the inside track to replace the departed Patrick DiMarco, Coleman has done his community service, seemingly paid his professional penance and is prepared to resume his life as the NFL’s only deaf player.
The Coleman story had been one covered in feel-good, from the time he latched on with Seattle in 2013, on the rebound as an undrafted free agent cut by Minnesota a season earlier. Overcoming the profound hearing loss that had been with him since he was a toddler – the result of a genetic disorder – was massively appealing. In two Super Bowls, his story gained the ultimate audience.
He wrote an inspirational book, “No Excuses: Growing up Deaf and Achieving My Super Bowl Dream,” and borrowed from that title to name his charitable foundation.
He represented Duracell batteries in a stirring and widely hailed TV commercial, titled, “Trust the Power Within.”
It all took a drastic turn Oct. 15, 2015. After leaving the Seahawks training facility, Coleman crashed his pickup truck into another car in the early evening. Reportedly traveling 65 in a 35-mph zone, Coleman caused the car to flip, the driver sustaining a concussion and a fractured collarbone. When police found him blocks away from the scene, barefoot and reportedly disoriented, Coleman told them he had been smoking synthetic marijuana – called “Spice” – before the crash.
His contract expired in March 2016, and he did not sign with another team that year. In October, 2016, Coleman pleaded guilty to felony vehicular assault and hit-and-run and was sentenced to 240 hours of community service and a year of unsupervised probation.
The judge had received letters supporting Coleman from several children in the community – many of them deaf. Even the victim in the case wrote the judge, asking that he spare Coleman jail time.
Before sentencing, Coleman’s father spoke to the court: “In life there are good people and bad people. If you look at a ledger, I think my son is on the good-people side. He’s a man of good character. Yes, he made a mistake. Yes, he intends to atone for that in the future.”
Five months later, the Falcons signed Coleman to a one-year deal reported to be for $690,000.
Being among the few teams in the market for a fullback, the Falcons turned out to be the perfect football lifeline for Coleman. From his Seattle days, Dan Quinn had a unique perspective on the player and trusted him to commit himself to a comeback.
“I know of the man that Derrick is after being on the team with him,” Quinn said.
“I knew he could handle the fullback job. He’s played the single back. So, he can double as a halfback. He really has value in special teams as well,” the Falcons coach added. “He’s an outstanding teammate. The effort and the strain that he plays with, I thought that’s why he’d fit in so well with the offense.”
One of Coleman’s strongest assets is a seemingly irrepressible personality. His is a smile and an enthusiasm that quickly disarms. As when asked at the outset of an interview last week, “Do you want the hard questions or the easy ones first?”
“They’re all easy to me,” he said, glint in eye.
So, how did the fall from the pedestal affect you?
“It affected me a little bit because it’s all about perception. Mostly the feedback I got was amazing. There were people who shied away, but at the end of the day they realize that nobody’s perfect. That’s what I told them. Every time I preach, I tell them nobody’s perfect, we’re all going to make mistakes in this world. It’s a matter of how you deal with them, how you respond to them,” he said.
“How I responded to that situation was to go out there and live my life. Ain’t nothing I can do. That past is already gone.”
Were there changes he had to make in his life?
“Everybody has to make changes. But at the same time, I don’t think I made many changes because the same way I was living before, that is how I’m living now. Meaning I’m happy,” Coleman said.
Happiness now means working to regain the form that made him such an effective compliment to Marshawn Lynch in Seattle.
Upon reporting to preseason workouts, Coleman’s first order of business was to introduce himself to quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Matt Schaub and to give them a head’s up. I’m deaf. Once in a while I might ask you to repeat a play. Just to be sure there wasn’t a word I missed. Info like that.
“After working with him the first couple of days, I don’t even think about it anymore,” Ryan said. “He’s amazing. He has been a pleasure to work with.”
The Falcons changed up their alignment in the huddle to give Coleman a better chance to both hear and see the play calls. Long ago he taught himself to read lips (a gift his high school coach once tried to exploit by getting Coleman to read opposing coaches’ lips).
As the Falcons’ new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said, the team can work out additional hand signals and relay methods to communicate play changes to Coleman.
As for the snap count: “I look at the ball. When the ball moves, I move,” Coleman said. “Half of the time when you see me jumping offside it’s because I’m too excited, or I’m thinking too much. My eyes are always on that ball.”
On a scale of 1 to 10, Coleman said that, uncorrected, he hears at about a two. With his hearing aids, that goes up to a seven. In the din of a road game, with the crowd in full throat trying to disrupt the offense’s execution, it goes back down to a three or so.
“When we go to Seattle (Nov. 20), I guarantee that will probably be a one or two,” he said, smiling at the thought.
Another challenge added to the pile. He tends to lump them all together, the trials of his own making and those thrust upon him.
“I’ve messed up,” he said. “I’ve been hard of hearing. I’ve had people make fun of me. I’ve had people bully me. I’ve had coaches look down on me telling me I wasn’t going to make the team. I’ve had teachers tell me I was going to fail their class. But at the end of the day I don’t care about any of that.”
Coleman hears just what he wants to hear. Too much noise just gets in the way of trying to get that feel-good back again.