Athletics going strong at TSD

AUSTIN, Texas -- A few visits to the athletic complex at Texas School of the Deaf (Austin, Texas) have revealed something that might not have been previously know about deaf athletes.

They like to trash talk. Or trash sign.

Nothing really over the top, mind you. But Krystal Johnson, a 2009 graduate who played on TSD's girls volleyball, basketball and softball teams, readily admitted to signing, "You're nothing!" or "Watch out!" to deaf opponents.

Which led to another revelation. While the TSD Rangers compete in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS), most of their athletes prefer non-district competition against other deaf schools from across the country.

"You have a communication barrier," Johnson said via sign language (and an interpreter) of playing opponents who can speak and hear. "The hearing teams are very distant. It's no one's fault."

Justin Perez, a TSD grad who was on the football and track teams, leaned in both directions.

"It's more exciting to play deaf teams," said Perez, a Houston resident now attending Austin Community College. "But my biggest thrill as a senior was making the [TAPPS] playoffs in football."

TSD has long fielded one of the premier athletic programs among deaf high schools nationwide and has also been competitive in many TAPPS sports. Rangers teams (their nickname was the Silents from 1921 to '53) have won 42 national deaf championships, topped by the football team with 13.

The boys track team has won three TAPPS state titles, all in the past 15 years. The football team has reached the semifinals of TAPPS Division III (the smallest classification) six times.

TSD's student body is split between commuters and residents, and the school can house about 500. School officials estimate TSD serves only a fraction of the deaf children across the state. TSD doesn't formally recruit students but makes its availability known through outreach programs and special functions that showcase its services.

Deaf athletes face varying communication challenges depending on the sport. For many years, TSD's football team had someone strike a bass drum on the sideline near the line of scrimmage to create a vibration snap count. Athletic director Chris Hamilton said that became somewhat unpopular; TSD football players now just look to the center and react to the snap. Football coaches mostly wave towels or clipboards to attract the attention of players on the field.

Hamilton said swimmers often are at a disadvantage in the starting blocks when competing against hearing kids because they must look up and away from the water to see the smoke from the starter's pistol instead of reacting to the sound.

Michelle Giterman, another '09 graduate, played basketball and volleyball and competed in multiple running and field events on the track team. She noted that a track starter, often at the other end of the track holding a pistol, will also flap his other hand.

"They will make sure we're watching and can feel it," said Giterman, an Austin resident. "We can see the smoke come out, too. The smoke comes out first, before the sound. We don't want to share that secret!"

A basketball player can signal a play with one hand just like a hearing player, but other communication must be limited to one hand of signing when a player has the ball. No problem, according to Keena Miller, TSD's communications director.

"All signs can be modified to one-hand signs," Miller said. "The other hand is implied.

"When a deaf person is holding a baby, carrying books, drinking coffee -- unless a conversation is going to be long and drawn out, then one hand will suffice. Granted, they have to be a very fluent sign language user."

Hamilton recently refurbished the football team's locker room and did so with communication in mind. He eliminated the standard rows of parallel lockers and benches. He put all of the lockers around the outside edge of the room. That way, all players can see the coaches give instructions.

One indirect advantage that hearing youngsters have in becoming good athletes, Hamilton said, is that they often can make better use of training and experiences like youth sports leagues. Deaf youngsters often struggle to get comfortable in such situations and are less likely to participate. That's one reason, for instance, that TSD currently doesn't field a baseball team. Not enough current students stuck with youth baseball.

Many TSD athletes go on to compete for Gallaudet University, the school in Washington, D.C., that bills itself as the world's only university in which all programs and services are designed for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Gallaudet offers eight men's sports and seven women's sports as well as cheerleading.

Cheering at TSD is also a little different. There are cheerleaders. Some cheers are done by signing, but fans will also yell as best they can and stomp their feet.

"A lot of fans know the dance routines, the chant routines," said Giterman, a cheerleader who will enroll at Gallaudet University in the fall. "We tell them, 'Come on! Get up!' And they do. They shout through sign language."

A handful of TSD football players have gone on to play in college, and one almost made it to the pros. Sammy Oates played for Hardin-Simmons in Abilene, Texas, and had an unsuccessful tryout with the Houston Oilers of the American Football League in 1962.

Carrie Camenisch was named to the TAPPS all-state volleyball team in 1996. A TSD running back gained special attention in 1999 when he set the TAPPS record for career rushing yards. Brandon Reese finished with 8,059 yards. As a 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior, he ran for 2,991 yards and scored 35 touchdowns as the Rangers went 9-4. Reese was selected that year by the USA Deaf Sports Federation as its male athlete of the year and by the Austin American Statesman as its All-Centex offensive player of the year.

"The record means a lot to me," Reese told the newspaper. "I wanted to show that deaf people can do anything anyone else can do."

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.