Football offers deaf teammates an opportunity to play and belong

The Albuquerque Tribune
Nov. 3, 2006

SANTA FE — To those who see but don’t hear, the roar was unmistakable.

To those who hear – but don’t always see – the solemn silence seemed out of place.

You’ve probably heard the following exchange a hundred times:

An athlete makes a play.

Fans go crazy.

With adrenaline to burn, the athlete acknowledges his supporters and controls them in one deft move. Palms up, he flaps his arms, hoping to wring one more surge of noise.

He always gets it.

So as Elias Montoya Jr. hopped down the sideline, flapping his arms on a recent October afternoon, you brace for the sound.

He didn’t get it.

Hadn’t his kick return touchdown been enough? Montoya danced. He jittered. He sped away. He . . .

Hey, turn around!

He did get it.

The entire section of New Mexico School for the Deaf fans stood, arms extended high, frantically wiggling their fingers.

It’s a standing ovation – signed instead of screamed.

Without looking, you’d never know it was there.

But this isn’t your world, it’s theirs, their family.

This is why they succeed.

This is why they play.

“There’s a big difference,” said NMSD lineman Christopher Barrett through an interpreter, comparing his sports experience with deaf and hearing teammates. “I wouldn’t have a chance to build relationships with everybody or have a relationship with the coach.”

Barrett, a junior who was recently named first team all-district, is one of six Albuquerque area teenagers contributing to the Roadrunners stellar season.

For the first time in NMSD history, the Roadrunners (9-1) will play for the six-man state championship at 1 p.m. Saturday at Menaul School.

Before this season, the deepest NMSD had advanced was the state semifinals 1991.

Coach Robert Huizar, a 1993 NMSD graduate, quarterbacked that Roadrunners history-making team.

Now he’s in charge of another.

“I knew when they came fired up during two-a-day practices,” Huizar said in a recent e-mail. “I saw how much they had grown mentally and physically. They had that want-to-win-it-all (look) on their faces and they just worked hard.”

The Roadrunners have also worked efficiently.

Six-man football’s mercy rule ends the game when one team mounts a 45-point, second-half lead. Seven NMSD wins ended early. So did the Roadrunners’ lone loss.

San Jon jumped to a 44-39 lead with seven minutes to play when darkness stopped the game. Initially, the schools agreed to finish the game Oct. 21, two days after the regular season finale at Roy/Wagon Mound. Later, Huizar and Co. decided not to conclude the game, saying rest would be more beneficial so close to the playoffs.

With a little extrapolation, all these blowouts could have been more lopsided.

The same rule applies to individual numbers, too.

Through nine mostly incomplete regular season games, NMSD junior Dustin Moulder, the team’s best natural athlete, amassed 1,630 all-purpose yards. When you add his time at defensive back, Moulder scored 29 touchdowns. That’s nearly one trip to the endzone every third time he touched the ball.

If not for his thick light brown curls, the first thing you would notice about Moulder when talking to him is how expressive his face is.

As he discusses football, with the help of an interpreter, his passion for the sport is clear.

Moulder’s eyes light up.

He unfurls a wide grin.

His hands are noisy, moving with quick powerful movements like a chef preparing pizza dough.

When asked to explain the Roadrunners’ success, Moulder pauses. He rubs his chin and rolls his eyes skyward.

“We’ve been together a long time as a team,” he said. “We’re good together as a group.”

Playing with hearing kids, that chemistry was missing.

“It was hard for him to make friends,” said Andrea Sillivent, Dustin’s mom. “Everybody always respected him. Dustin’s always been strong and very athletic. No one ever made fun of him. All the kids had buddies, and it was hard for him to make friends.”

The communication barrier was too great.

That all changed when Dustin started attending NMSD in eighth grade.

“He just blossomed,” Sillivent said. “He never sits.”

Unless of course he’s with his girlfriend or in his car listening to rap music – he likes feeling the vibrations of the bass sounds.

“For Christmas, he wanted a stereo for his car,” Sillivent said. “I couldn’t help but laugh. Here I am buying my deaf son a stereo and speakers.”

Sillivent also shows a serious side toward Dustin’s deafness. She has taken several classes and is fluent in American Sign Language.

“It’s hard,” she said. “You don’t ever stop wishing your kid could hear, no matter how well-adjusted they are.”

Guillermo and Faye Gonzales can relate.

Like his teammate Moulder, Fernando Gonzales was born deaf.

Gonzales was a toddler when his parents discovered he couldn’t hear.

“It was devastating,” Guillermo said. “We didn’t know what to do.”

Guillermo and Faye learned ASL. When Fernando, now a senior, was younger they talked to older deaf kids to learn how they could help their son.

They wanted to know what type of mistakes hearing parents had made in raising deaf children.

While watching NMSD play Oklahoma School for the Deaf, Guillermo recalled a conversation with one child, who remembered feeling isolated at dinner time because his hearing family often left him out of common conversation.

Guillermo kept the communication lines open by learning ASL and coaching Fernando in an Albuquerque soccer league.

Through an interpreter, Fernando said he “always was in the group” on his own team.

That status didn’t prevent opposing players from trying to take advantage of his deafness.

Knowing he was deaf, officials typically informed opposing players before games. Often, they instructed these players to stop and raise their hands when the whistle blew so Fernando would know play had ceased.

Guillermo said a couple players coaxed Fernando into stopping play by throwing their hands up, even though no official had blown a whistle.

“They got carded,” Guillermo said with a slight smile.

Sports have helped Fernando relate to others and his family. Playing football at NMSD has helped him learn about himself.

“I learned how to improve my skills,” said Fernando, the Roadrunners top defensive player. “I learned how to be focused, and I learned how to apply knowledge to practice.”

Like his teammates and nearly every other kid who has ventured into athletics, Fernando endured problems. Some are personal, some are shared by the team.

Late in the season, a serious problem affected the Roadrunners.

According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, state police arrested Jorge Chavez, a senior from Hatch, saying he raped a 15-year-old student in late October.

Court documents obtained by the New Mexican said Chavez, 19, called the sex consensual. The same document also states Chavez knew the girl said, “no” but proceeded with the assault because he was “selfish.”

“What happened with Jorge Chavez was very unfortunate, and the boys know the school is handling it and cooperating with the authorities in every way,” Huizar said in an e-mail. “The school is taking this matter very seriously. The boys are past it . . .”

For NMSD, the season’s most persistent obstacle has been the travel.

Because of renovations at the Santa Fe campus, the Roadrunners have played seven road games, including five straight early in the season.

NMSD’s only two home games were played at a nearby middle school.

The Roadrunners practiced at a local park. While the field at Ashbaugh Park provided ample space and well-kept grass, it wasn’t lined for football, which can make it tough for certain drills to translate to game day.

“(So much traveling) has taken its toll, but I think the boys have adjusted to it well,” Huizar said in an e-mail. “On a positive note, the school has been very supportive of the team’s needs.”

The construction hasn’t been all bad. In February, NMSD completed a new weight room.

When asked to explain the increased success of his team this season, Huizar said: “We got experience, and the boys had the weight program during the offseason.”

NMSD quarterback A.J. Williams grew up around weight rooms and football fields.

Williams’ older brother, Shannon Kincaid, excelled in the sport for Del Norte, before playing linebacker for the University of New Mexico from 2000-03.

Growing up, Shannon had a friend whose parents were deaf so, when the family learned toddler A.J. was hard of hearing, it wasn’t difficult for him.

“I just wondered if other kids would pick on him,” Kincaid said. “I was real protective of him. If we were outside, I kept him by my side.”

Admiration for his older brother wasn’t the only force that drove Williams to strap on shoulder pads; the game surrounded him, by necessity.

“It was more of my mom being real supportive,” Kincaid said. “She was always at practice. Being young, he was always with her.”

Still, until his freshman year of high school, Williams was primarily a basketball player.

He joined the Del Norte football team in ninth grade and dreamt of quarterbacking the Knights.

The Del Norte coaches didn’t share his forecast.

“When he was a freshman, he still had a lot of baby fat,” Kincaid said. “(The coaches) didn’t want to give him a shot. They thought he would be better suited on the line.”

Even though his body wasn’t quite there, Williams’ heart was in the backfield.

After his sophomore year at Del Norte, Williams learned he could have a shot to play quarterback at NMSD.

“He went to visit (the campus),” said A.J.’s mother, Eugenia Kincaid. “I was kind of hesitant for him to go. He’s my baby. I thought he would just go for a couple days then come back (home).”

But Williams fit too well – on and off the field.

As starting quarterback, Williams’ efficiency has translated to an explosive offense.

He threw 25 touchdown passes in the regular season with two interceptions.

Williams’ accuracy and intelligence – Huizar calls him “probably our smartest kid” – has allowed him to deliver the ball to the Roadrunners primary playmakers when they are in prime position to gain big yards.

Williams has completed more than 60 percent of his passes for 1,036 yards. He is also NMSD’s second-leading rusher and caught two touchdown passes himself.

“I wanted to enjoy the game,” Williams said through an interpreter. “I wanted to play quarterback. I like to run and pass and six-man (football) is faster (than 11-man). I didn’t have the patience for it.”

More apparent off the field is Williams’ walk between the deaf and hearing worlds.

He has partial hearing and can conduct a conversation without signing. As a baby, Williams learned, in part, by feeling his mother’s mouth move as she spoke.

He is also fluent in American Sign Language.

“He’s seen the way both sides live,” said Shannon, who has seen a change in his younger brother since he attended NMSD. “I think at public school, they saw him as handicapped . . . (At NMSD), his confidence is higher. You can see it. He shines.”

While being interviewed for this story, Williams used a school interpreter, Bonnie Lyn Barker.

Later, Barker said she planned to leave Williams and the reporter alone, because of his bilingual skills – Williams has been known to serve as an interpreter for his teammates during media interviews.

Williams asked her to stay, but, from her perspective, the action wasn’t rooted in self-consciousness; he seems to identify himself more with the deaf community.

“I can see him doing that,” Shannon said when asked about the scenario.

It’s their world, but, really, it isn’t that much different than the hearing one.

Just watch.

Before the homecoming game against Oklahoma School for the Deaf, Moulder and Gonzales were named junior and senior prince, respectively.

Sillivent, Moulder’s mom, had a camera. Before the ceremony, as the homecoming court assembled, Sillivent walked around, snapping photos with a huge smile.

Moulder’s face revealed slight embarrassment.

Other pregame rituals were typical – just quieter.

One student hawked goodies. She walked slowly in front of the filling bleachers with a bright sheet of poster board. It read . . .

“Class of 2009 sells

Corn

Flavored water

Water

Roadrunners tattoos”

Teenagers socialized in a corner of the bleachers.

Even if you were fluent in sign language, you may not have understood them.

Barker said, when they are in groups, many of the NMSD kids sign like hearing teenagers speak: Sloppily with heavy doses of slang.

One signed term, however, was constant and clear.

The fingers dancing atop outstretched arms. The sign was as recognizable as the players’ response.

It’s their world.

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