If any critics say a deaf athlete can’t play professional football, Joe Gavriloff isn’t listening.
The 11-year-old from Kent wants to follow in the footsteps of Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman, who is playing in the Super Bowl today as the National Football League’s first legally deaf offensive player.
Coleman has become a viral star after sharing his personal story in a Super Bowl commercial for Duracell.
“They told me it couldn’t be done, that I was a lost cause,” he says. “I was picked on and picked last. Coaches didn’t know how to talk to me. They gave up on me, told me I should quit.”
Coleman wasn’t drafted by any NFL teams in 2012 despite rushing for more than 1,700 yards and 19 touchdowns during his college career at UCLA.
But he didn’t give up on his dream to go pro. He eventually was picked up by the Seahawks.
“They didn’t call my name, told me it was over,” Coleman says in his commercial. “But I’ve been deaf since I was 3, so I didn’t listen. And now I’m here, with a lot of fans in the NFL cheering me on. And I can hear them all.”
Since being diagnosed with congenital hearing loss as a preschooler, Joe has relied on hearing aids in both ears to amplify sounds.
But Joe has never seen his hearing impairment as a barrier he needs to tackle to play sports at any level.
When he found out about Coleman’s struggles and learned others with hearing impairments might face similar challenges, Joe was surprised.
“Well, why shouldn’t they play?” he asked his mother.
Joe’s parents, Carrie and Todd, never treated him differently from his twin sister, Elizabeth; older brother, Chris, 13; and older sister, Mary, 15. All his siblings have normal hearing.
“We’ve never treated Joe as if he had a disability,” his mother said. “I always taught Joe that I wear glasses, people wear braces, you wear hearing aids. It doesn’t mean he’s any different than anyone else. He needs them to hear.”
Joe has excelled in athletics and academics. The sixth grader earns straight A’s at Stanton Middle School in Kent and plays football, basketball and baseball.
“He’s done really well,” said Dr. Anton Milo, his physician and director of Akron Children’s Hospital’s Ear, Nose and Throat Center. “He’s a great example of a success story.”
For the past two seasons, Joe has been a starting offensive tackle for Kent’s youth football team. He also plays on the defensive line.
He can’t wear his hearing aids when he plays football because of painful pressure from his helmet and the risk of the devices breaking. Instead, he’s learned to read lips and use special signals.
Joe’s teammates tap him to let him know the snap count or pull him aside in the huddle to tell him the play, said his football coach, Cecil Anderson. He also watches the feet of his teammates to determine when it’s OK to take off.
“That’s the great thing about Joe — he doesn’t think of himself as a disabled kid,” Anderson said. “He thinks he’s just normal, and all the kids treat him that way.”
When the coach needs to get Joe’s attention, he yells.
“I had a mother complain that I was being really mean to Joseph,” Anderson recalled with a laugh. “I said, ‘Sorry, Joe is deaf. I have to yell at him or he won’t acknowledge me.’ ”
Looking forward, Anderson has big expectations for Joe.
He already has a lineman’s build at 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds with size 14 shoes. Doctors suspect he’ll probably grow another foot.
“He’s in several sports. Football is by far his best sport,” Anderson said. “He’s going to be a nice player to watch up in high school.”
Joe plans to root for Coleman and the Seahawks today when they play the Broncos in the Super Bowl. But his goal is to someday play for his favorite team.
“I want to try to become a defensive tackle for the Steelers,” he said.
Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/CherylPowellABJ.