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Dancing all the way

The team begins its postgame dancing ritual after a last-second victory against Becker. Courtesy Gallaudet University/Matthew Kohashi

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- With four seconds left, an undefeated season and hope for the first NCAA football playoff berth in his school's 149-year-old history hung in the balance last Saturday. And so, well, look -- you'll just have to forgive Chuck Goldstein, coach at Gallaudet University, the nation's only college for the deaf and hard of hearing, for not even trying to explain his way out of this as we sit in his office, rewinding the game video.

That is definitely him at the bottom of the screen running full speed down the sideline as if he'd lost his fool head.

And all because running back Ryan Bonheyo had just picked up a blocked field-goal attempt on a perfect hop that settled right in his belly and was now sprinting 79 yards to score a touchdown with no time left on the clock and give Gallaudet an astonishing 40-34 win over Becker (Mass.) College.

"When we blocked it I said, 'Are you kidding me?' " Goldstein says with a laugh.

"It happened so fast, I was asking, 'Is this real?' " Gallaudet athletic director Michael Weinstock recalled this week.

Adham Talaat, Gallaudet's soft-spoken 6-foot-6, 292-pound defensive end, who already has been visited this season by 20 NFL scouts, says, "I was one of the jumpers on the block attempt. I just remember I didn't see the ball go through the uprights. Then I saw everyone running the other way."

Wait ---

Gallaudet has its first potential NFL draft pick on campus now, too?

The rise of Gallaudet's program is an amazing story. Better yet, it's peopled by a cast of characters who leave you happily reminded that college football isn't just about the soul-wearying payola scandals, galling excesses and petty nonsense that siphon off so much attention at the very top of the sport.

College football is also about places like this tiny school of 1,117 undergrads that sits just off Florida Avenue in the District of Columbia, and the sense of excitement and community that sports can create. When Goldstein talks at times about the "Gallaudet Way," it seems what he's really referring to is refusing to let making do with less become a reason for settling for too little. Or, worse, not demanding the most of yourself.

Football at Gallaudet returned to NCAA status in 2007 after 12 years as a club team. Overall, the 118-year-old program's winning percentage is a dispiriting .337; before now, its main claim to fame was that one of its early coaches invented the on-field huddle. Yet the Bison are now 8-0 and could clinch their first Eastern Collegiate Football Conference title, as well as that first-ever Division III playoff berth, if they can beat 2-6 Anna Maria (Mass.) College at home Saturday, or SUNY-Maritime on the road Nov. 16.

If the Bison can finish the job, they'll also gather as a team next Sunday to watch the NCAA playoff selection show on ESPNU to see who in the 32-team Division III field would be their first opponent.

Already, the campus is alive with anticipation. "Students come up to us all the time now and ask, 'Are you ready?' " Talaat says, and Goldstein jokes, "We're actually good enough to have pep rallies now." Pictures of the postgame celebration ritual that Goldstein started two seasons ago -- "We win, we dance" -- can be found on Instagram and Facebook. And yet, when asked if last week's magical win sparked talk that this is a team of "destiny," Gallaudet senior fullback Mike Hantge, a team co-captain, says, "I do think there is a bigger force [this season]. But I think it's just all the hard work we've put in."

Nobody can say it's been easy for Gallaudet.

Even now, the program's budget is only $131,000 (excluding coaches' salaries), and Goldstein's nine-member staff includes two graduate assistants and three part-time coaches -- a firefighter who handles the defensive line, a census bureau worker who coaches the wide receivers, and a city government human resources staff assistant who directs the defensive backs. Gallaudet's roster has only 54 players, though some of the Bison's opponents carry 120 or more.

But Hantge insists even that shortfall creates a strength.

"Here, it's not like you approach a teammate and go, 'High-five. You just scored a touchdown, and I, um…really don't know a thing about you,' " Hantge says with a laugh. "This team is very close-knit. And we all realize when you play for Gallaudet, you're playing for the deaf community across the country."

As is the case with all NCAA Division III schools, Gallaudet does not hand out athletic scholarships; players pay the $20,000 to $30,000 in annual tuition, books and fees.

The Bison also travel to all of their road games by bus, sometimes departing campus at midnight Friday and driving all night, then holding a pregame walkthrough in their hotel parking lot Saturday before catching a pregame nap (well, try to, anyway). The longest trip they make is 13 hours or so to play in Maine.

Attracting and retaining players has been a problem for Gallaudet because of rigors like that, the program's losing record, and the fact the school's athletic facilities badly needed updating. But that was before Weinstock, Gallaudet's big-dreaming, loquacious AD, took the job six years ago with what he calls "my long list" -- his catchall phrase for his constantly evolving array of ambitious goals. Among the first things Weinstock did was gain administrative support to make his coaches' salaries competitive, and upgrade everything from the weight room to the locker rooms to playing fields.

Long tired of seeing the grass football field turn brown by the Bisons' second home game every season, Weinstock says that one day, he walked into then-university president Robert Davila's office for a meeting, lugging a box. Weinstock opened it. "He said, 'Wow, what beautiful grass!' and I said, 'No, artificial turf,' " Weinstock recalls. "He said, 'How much?' I said a million dollars. He said, 'Install it.' "

Weinstock also worked hard to retain the 36-year-old Goldstein, whom everyone calls Coach Chuck, when his predecessor, Ed Hottle, left for another job.

Goldstein has full hearing and had to become fluent in American Sign Language to even get his previous post as Hottle's offensive coordinator. But that's not the only personal adjustment he's had to make. Goldstein confesses he used to be a yeller and "a whistle guy" at his other small-college coaching stops, and he tells some funny stories about himself and how he's had to change his style since arriving at Gallaudet.

He says early in his first season, he threw a chair at the wall in the locker room at halftime because he was angry at his offense for coughing up three first-half fumbles -- only to notice that just three players who happened to be looking at him even saw the gesture. Still hoping to get the message across, Goldstein tried to flip a large table. "But it wouldn't budge," he laughs.

He says he finally learned that if he wanted to make a heated point to the team, he could trust the sign-language interpreter he still relied on his first year to contort his face into an angry look -- then sweep the room with an index finger pointed at every offending player Goldstein was trying to reach.

"That got the message across," Goldstein says, laughing again.

One of the reasons Gallaudet is so hard to beat is because of its aggressive defense and a triple-option attack that ranks fourth in Division III rushing at 326.6 yards per game (versus only 51 passing). The Bison are also first among all levels of NCAA football schools in time of possession (36:40).

Talaat, the Bison's NFL prospect, is an example of how Gallaudet has to be resourceful when it comes to even finding recruits. Goldstein and his staff rely on Google Alerts with keywords such as "deaf" and "hard of hearing football players" to turn up names across the nation. He depends on alums and leans on supporters such as Barry Strassler, who runs a website called deafdigest.net, for other leads. But when he learned Talaat, who has profound hearing loss, was playing high school football in Springfield, Va., about a half-hour's drive away, Goldstein says: "We couldn't even get in the door. His high school coach told us he's a Division I prospect. Not a Division III player."

Which was true at the time. Talaat did have one Division I offer, from UMass. He even enrolled there for a bit. But he returned home by the end of his first semester when coach Don Brown left to become Maryland's defensive coordinator, and a meeting with the incoming staff left Talaat feeling UMass was "no longer the right fit for me."

That started an uncertain year in which Talaat was unsure he'd ever play again.

"I was taking classes at community college and I was working in the backroom at T.J. Maxx," he says. "I was opening boxes off the delivery truck, processing merchandise. It was a lot of long hours, spent by myself, just keeping the dream alive. I was working out on my own, working out after hours at my high school. The janitors would let me in because they remembered me. As I was working out, I was letting out all the emotions I had … I mean, I had no idea what to do really, or how to get in touch with schools. I was trying to mail my highlight reel to people. Nothing ever came of that."

Still, Talaat refused to give up.

"After I left UMass, people were saying, 'Oh, you made a big mistake. You're not going to make anything of yourself now.' And I had a lot of emotions that I let out during those workouts. I'd tell myself: 'It's not over. It's not over. It's not over.' "

Talaat's life changed again when a former high school teammate contacted him via Facebook and said that Goldstein remembered him and wanted to talk.

Now look.

Something Goldstein told him as he was recruiting him has come true.

"We were ranked 234th out of 238 football schools in Division III my freshman year," Talaat says, "so when we were talking about me coming here, one question I texted to coach Chuck was, 'I have a dream about playing at the next level. Can that happen here?' And he said, 'Yes. If you do the work, they will come. If you can play, they will come.'

Smiling now, Talaat adds, "I still have that message saved on my phone."

Today Talaat is an academic All-American with a 3.9 GPA, and Goldstein is trying to get him invited to one of the postseason all-star games so even more NFL scouts will get a look at him.

Both he and Hantge say all of the Gallaudet players have tried hard not to utter "the 'C' words" like "championship" or "clincher" this week. But it's difficult. Other students are stopping them on campus and asking, "Are we going to win?" A good crowd is expected. Washington Redskins safety Reed Doughty, who is also hearing impaired, is scheduled to be an honorary game captain.

And if the Bison win, you had better believe they will dance.

All except Weinstock, who wags a finger now to signal no, no. Not him.

"If we clinch, my long list would be one line shorter, but I am not a good dancer," he insists. Then he pauses. He smiles. His expression is mischievous.

"I'd prefer to be showered with Gatorade instead," he says.