Column: The universal language of football



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Sat. August 25, 2012 | John C. Cotey | Email

Column: The universal language of football

PINELLAS PARK — He couldn't hear his teammates buzzing about the looming kickoff as they strapped on their battle gear Friday night.

He couldn't hear his cleats clickety-clacking on the walk from the locker room to the field, or those wonderful sounds of football that filled the stadium air: the cheerleaders cheering, the whistle blowing, the fans hollering, the commotion at the concession stand.

As he and his Pinellas Park teammates gathered in front of a giant, inflatable Patriots helmet, ready to rush out onto the field for their first live action of the fall, 6-foot-5, 255-pound defensive tackle Tyler Cook couldn't hear anything.

But he could see it. And he could feel it.

"It was electric,'' his father Erik said. "Just electric."

• • •

Tyler, who was born profoundly deaf, did not play Friday night. He was there, though, suited up, watching his teammates, nestled among 50 or so Patriots. 

This is why he went out for football. 

“To be with my friends, to be a part of a team,” he said through his interpreter, Cindy Baldwin. 

Deaf athletes are not rare at Pinellas Park. In fact, it is a place they often flourish. It is Pinellas County’s primary high school for the deaf and hard of hearing, as it offers American Sign Language classes and has an active American Sign Language club, whose members were out in full force Friday night. 

Munir Muwwakkil was one of the best athletes to come out of Pinellas Park. The 2004 graduate was a state qualifier in track and field and a standout in football, playing collegiately at Western Kentucky. He was the first deaf Arena Football League player. 

Hiram Estramera, who also is deaf, was a former starter for Pinellas Park. His brother, Josh, who is not deaf, is currently the team’s starting defensive tackle. 

“I think it’s pretty cool,” said Josh, who can often be seen having conversations with Cook. “I’m always talking to Tyler. We all try to help him.” 

Baldwin is one of four interpreters, as well as teacher Elizabeth Hartman, who work with Tyler and other deaf athletes.

Baldwin, Pam Mayle, Debbie Connors and Nancy Day are all out on the football field during practices at one time or another, signing to Tyler and junior varsity player Neill Kovatch, not an easy task considering the complicated language of football play-calling. 

“We kind of break it down for him,” Baldwin said. “Sometimes, it’s just better to tell him to watch. We say, just watch.” 

The interpreters sweat through every practice and trudge across muddy fields to make sure their students can live out their dreams. 

“Yesterday, my shoes got mushy,” said Baldwin, chuckling. “Today, I brought my boots.” 

The interpreters, Baldwin said, are kept busy. They also help with a swimmer, and there are two deaf girls on the basketball team. 
One of them, Erika, is Tyler’s sister. His youngest sister, Christina, who can hear, plays as well. 

“You can play at other schools and they will provide an interpreter,” assistant football coach Neal Calip said. “But we have a great support network here.”

• • •

Being unable to hear is certainly a disadvantage, but not nearly as much as Tyler’s inexperience with football. 

When he turned 13, he stopped playing sports; he had mostly played baseball. He did not, however, stop growing. And in weightlifting class, he was getting stronger and stronger, and enjoying it. 

Tyler approached Calip, who teaches the class, late last school year and told him he wanted to play for him this fall. After years of watching the games — his sisters often sign the national anthem — he was ready to try. 

Tyler quickly learned that football takes more than just strength. There is technique to learn, plays to memorize, and the running … oh my, the running. 

“It was tough, the running and the heat, in the beginning. The first couple of days he wavered; he didn’t know if he wanted to stay,” Calip said. “But once he decided that he did, he does everything you ask with a smile on his face, and he works his butt off.” 

Football is not the kind of game you just pick up at 18 years old. With rare exception, it is too complicated, too hard and too physically demanding for someone who hasn’t played sports in five years. 

So, Calip says, they are taking things slowly. 

“There’s a long way to go,” he said. “We don’t want to get him hurt. So we’re teaching him stuff to protect himself. Will he get into a game? Maybe three to four weeks from now, that happens. I hope so. I would love to see his face light up.”

Tyler is excited to be on the team. He doesn’t describe it as exactly fun because of the work involved, but his goal is unchanged. 

“I’d like to play in a football game.”

• • •

Erik Cook sat with his family among the throngs Friday night, his eyes moving from the action on the field to his son, big No. 56, moving up and down the sideline. 

You can hear it in dad’s voice, he is overjoyed for his son. Too often, he says, kids retreat because of their differences and the obstacles they face. He feared that might happen with Tyler, but his son went the other direction, tackling the toughest sport he could. 

“God bless him, he’s been out at every workout and every practice and enjoys being part of something,” he said. “The team camaraderie and fellowship, the coaches; it’s just all been a blessing.” 

When Erik took Tyler to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers preseason game, he noticed his son pointing out mistakes he saw. It was an awful game, but he wanted to stay to the end. 
He is learning. 

Friday night, the Patriots played to a 6-6 tie against Dunedin.

Afterward, Tyler milled around outside the locker room with dozens of fans, smiling, signing. Muwwakkil was there too, and they had a conversation, Tyler watching intently.

On the way home to Palm Harbor, Erik took his family to Steak n Shake in Clearwater for a celebratory postgame meal. 

When they arrived, the place was filled with Clearwater Central Catholic fans.

Tyler looked around, then disappeared into the bathroom. 
He came out wearing his football jersey, big No. 56 parting a sea of Marauder scarlet and gold. 

“He was pretty proud of himself,” Erik said. “I think he wanted everyone to know he was a football player.”

John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected].


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