Derrick Coleman has never been a quitter. The third deaf player in NFL history reminds us of that every time he touches the football. With each carry, moments after Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson mouths the audible to him, Coleman transfers his weight from heel to toe in fractions of a second. Beneath the jersey, he’s moving the jeers and 20 years worth of pejorative commentary to his shoulder pads, and he carries that weight like a feather into a brick wall of giants. When Derrick Coleman runs the football, he bites down, and explodes as if he’s trying to run into eternity.
Most were dealt trivial problems relative Coleman in adolescence. I fell off my bike, scraped my knees. He lost his hearing. At the age of three, a genetic and incurable hearing impairment created yet another legally deaf child, a $652 million industry that has the capacity to cripple a family. Cochlear vibrations and pressure replaced by endless stillness. But there is poetic beauty in the sound of silence; consider Coleman the next Shel Silverstein, a man who has created his own soundtrack for two decades.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Coleman was routinely picked on and ridiculed by classmates and coaches who told him he should just quit. He didn’t. They told him he’d never make it. He blocked them out. After his first day of football practice, when he realized he couldn’t hear the plays, Coleman learned how to expertly read lips – he still does today. When his hearing aids fell out during practice, his mother, May Hamlin, cut a pair of pantyhose and tied them together to keep them attached to his skull. Since college, he’s kept them in by wearing two skullcaps. This is who Coleman is, he doesn’t make excuses; he improvises.
Coleman played throughout high school and netted a scholarship offer from UCLA. In the next four years he would receive the Tommy Prothro Award for Outstanding Special Teams Player and the Paul I. Wellman Memorial Award for All Around-Excellence by the coaching staff – leading the team with 11 touchdowns his senior season. He developed the ability to run downhill regardless of situation, and he punished the defensive side of the ball routinely. Despite this, the 2012 NFL Draft came and went without his name being called.
Coleman worked out profusely after the draft and was signed as an undrafted free agent with the Minnesota Vikings in late April. They waived him less than four months later. In December, the Seattle Seahawks invited him to their practice squad and he made the team. He hasn’t left since. Next Sunday, he will become the first deaf player to play in the biggest event in North American sports.
It doesn’t matter that Derrick Coleman has two rushing attempts this year. The fact that he plays behind one of the best running backs in football, whose nickname is “Beast Mode,” couldn’t be any less important. He may not create any game-altering highlights on Sunday, who knows when he’ll touch the field. But Coleman has transcended the limits of football, a game cemented in high volume attendance and physicality; each play is engineered by sound. It’s only fitting that his home stadium packs the highest amount of decibels each Sunday and set the record for loudest outdoor sports stadium earlier this season. When you’re a poet, noise is just another element.
The inspiration of Derrick Coleman knows no bounds. After seeing Coleman’s Duracell commercial, hearing-impaired 9-year-old Riley Kovalcik decided to write the running back a letter. It didn’t take him long to write back. Of course it didn’t.
In a league bound by grit and brawn, Derrick Coleman’s narrative could melt an iceberg. His smile is infectious and every member of the Seahawks roster can speak volumes of his character. He refused to be the canary in a coal mine and shattered the preconceived walls those around him had built. He can still find him each day at practice filtering doubt into drive, still fashioning poetry.
“You can’t use your problem as an excuse,” Coleman said. “Because if you use an excuse, you’re not going to get to your dream.”