Friday, December 4, 2009

Silence is golden

Pete Eckman uses sign language to communicate with his team on the field. (photos by Lon Horwedel)

Coach Pete Eckman walked up and down the aisle of his football team’s school bus. The bus was dead quiet – and why not, his team had just been shellacked in a 30-point beat down to the Eastern Washtenaw Mulitcultural Academy. It was their seventh and final loss in a winless season, but strangely, as coach Eckman walked through the bus, he couldn’t help but notice that every kid on the team had a huge smile on his face – in fact, they were downright giddy.

Despite being blown out – despite not winning a single game, the kids on coach Eckman’s team were ecstatic. They’d expected to be shutout by the undefeated EWMA team, but somehow they’d put 20 points on the board. That was victory enough for Eckman’s team in their first official season as an actual football team.

The team members exchanged high fives and bounced around in their seats without making a sound. It was a strange scene for Eckman. Not the silence; he was used to silence. After all, this was Eckman’s 12th week coaching football at the Michigan School for the Deaf in Flushing, and none of the kids on the team, nor his two assistant coaches, could hear or speak. It was the player’s happiness that caught Eckman off guard.

“They handled it (losing) so well.” Eckman said. “Better than I would have ever thought. I’ve never had a team, win or lose, who was just happy to play the game – to have the opportunity.”

Despite being blown out, MSD'a Tim Jenks was beaming as he came to the sidelines after a Tartars score.

Eckman, who resides in Fowlerville, knew it would be rough season for the MSD Tartars when he agreed to be their head coach just five weeks before the season began. The school hadn’t put a team on the field in 25-years, and if not for the fact Eckman’s daughter Kassie, 12, recently went deaf and enrolled in the school, they’d still be without a team.

Eckman was already coaching at the time, but when MSD’s Athletic Director Nikki Coleman approached him about possibly starting a team, he took the leap.

“They took a survey of the student body,” Eckman said, “and they unanimously voted to play football.”

Amazingly, every boy at the small school – all 18 of them – signed up to play.

Getting kids to sign up to play was the easy part. The actual task of putting a competitive team on the field with only five weeks to prepare for the season would prove to be more daunting for Eckman. Even more so, considering the players deafness.

“I didn’t have a clue when I went into this.” Eckman admitted.

Despite the fact his own daughter was deaf, Eckamn was far from fluent in sign language when the season began. To combat this communication problem, he enrolled in ASL (American Sign Language) courses every Friday, and enlisted the help of school instructors Tracie Inches and Jeff Courtney, who became his assistant coaches.

“I made a deal with Tracie,” Eckman said, “he could help teach me ASL, and I’d help him learn to coach.” As for Courtney, “He reads lips,” Eckman said, “so we communicate very well.”

Defensive coordinator Jeff Courtney, and interpreter Tracie Inches, left, helped Eckman, right, immensely in the Tartar's inaugural season.

Communication was the least of Eckman’s problems. His roster was filled with kids who’d never played organized football before in their lives. “Maybe some backyard stuff,” Eckman said, “but none of them knew the rules.”

Eckman also realized fairly quickly that his team would have to make some adjustments to play the game due to their lack of hearing.

“We have different logisitics - I’m not going to call it a problem, that a hearing team doesn’t have.” Eckman said. “For example, we always start from a two-point stance so the players can see the ball being snapped - we rely a lot on peripheral vision.”

The Tartars, who play 8-man ball on a slightly smaller field, had a seven-game schedule consisting of other small schools from around the state, as well as two deaf teams from out of state. Despite the fact they went winless, Eckman was encouraged with his team’s progress, and the communication hurdles he thought would be stumbling blocks, turned out to be nothing but small speed bumps along the way.

“Before the season, I would have said football is the hardest sport to play without being able to hear.” Eckman said. “But then I realized I’ve always used a lot of non-verbal communication to send in plays, so it really wasn’t that tough.”

The Tartars take the field for the last time as the harvest moon silently rises over them in the background.

What impressed Eckman more was the happiness his team displayed, even in defeat. “I learned a lot from these kids,” Eckman said. “It’s great for me as a coach, because with these boys, I don’t have to deal with attitude.”

But as the bus full of his happy players pulled out of the parking lot and headed silently back to Flushing, there was plenty of attitude – all positive.

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