Playing fullback, the most physical position in the rough-and-tumble National Football League, Derrick Coleman does not lack bravery. He never has.
A 23-year-old native of Los Angeles whose hearing gradually declined starting at the age of 3, Coleman is the NFL’s first legally deaf offensive player.
With his hearing aids, Coleman is able to pick up about 60–80 percent of the sounds normal people register. Without the listening devices, that number drops to roughly 20 percent of normal hearing. To make up for the loss, Coleman taught himself how to read lips, using the technique to communicate with his teammates on the field while playing in some of the loudest venues in sports.
Doctors aren’t sure what caused Coleman’s deafness. He’s been told it could be genetic—both his mother and father are missing hearing genes. But Coleman credits his parents for helping change his outlook on his disability and helping him to gain confidence.
“The first couple years after I was diagnosed, it was very hard on me because I was different than everybody else,” says Coleman, who was embarrassed by his hearing aids as a youngster. “Everybody wants to feel normal so they can relate to everybody else. You don’t want to stand out in the crowd.”
The target of constant bullying in elementary school, Coleman was teased because he looked and spoke differently than his peers. He remembers kids who would try to yank out his hearing aids, fully knowing that without them he wouldn’t be able to hear his teachers in the classroom. But Coleman’s parents treated him the exact same way as his older brother and sister. They wouldn’t let him use his disability as an excuse. He wasn’t allowed to fall back on his impairment to justify bad behavior or lagging behind others in school.
“They put these quotes in my head,” Coleman says. “My mom used to always say, ‘If somebody makes fun of you, it’s either because they have insecurities about themselves, or they just don’t understand.’ My parents made me get rid of my shyness. They took me to a lot of different places with them and forced me into situations where I had to talk to people.
“Back then, I didn’t like talking to people. Now I can’t shut up.”
Shedding the bashfulness was especially valuable when it came to Coleman’s education. He learned to speak up in school if he missed something the instructor said, overcoming fears that he would be ridiculed. “Half the time somebody else didn’t understand it either,” Coleman says. “So you’re not only helping yourself; sometimes you’re helping the other kids, too.”
Coleman learned to use his disability to his advantage. Being hearing-impaired made him work twice as hard as everybody else in the classroom, a trait that translated well to the playing field or court. Coleman thanks his father, whom he calls a “sports junkie,” for pushing him to play football, basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis and track. Those activities represented avenues where Coleman could be judged based on his ability rather than his disability.
“Sports saved my life,” Coleman says. “The only thing that matters is if you can get the job done. You’re out there, and they’re trusting you to get the job done. It’s not about, ‘Oh, he’s kind of depressed’ or ‘He can’t hear.’ It’s the one place I can go where none of that stuff matters.
“There’s one common goal, and that’s it,” Coleman explains of his involvement in athletics. “That’s the feeling that I needed when I was younger.”
It’s a feeling Coleman carried with him to Troy High School in Fullerton, Calif., where he played three years as his team’s starting running back. He then went on to attend nearby UCLA, rushing for 1,840 yards and 19 touchdowns in four seasons. But when it came to the 2012 NFL Draft, Coleman’s name wasn’t called. It was a major disappointment.
But after everything he had endured and accomplished to reach the doorstep of a professional career, he wasn’t about to let it keep him down.
“There are so many opportunities you get in this lifetime, you can’t keep dwelling on the ones that you missed, or the ones right in front of you are not going to happen,” he says. Coleman capitalized on his next opportunity, landing with the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent. He was released from the team before the start of the regular season but again refused to dwell on being let down.
He signed on to the Seattle Seahawks practice squad later that year and was elevated to the team’s 53-man roster to open the 2013 season, earning a job as the starting fullback, asked to recklessly charge through running lanes as a lead blocker, clearing traffic for all-star runner Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks’ prolific ground attack. He did his job well, and the team indeed reached its common goal, winning Super Bowl XLVIII.
“He takes pride in doing a good job,” says Coleman’s position coach, Sherman Smith. “I think everyone recognizes that. He leads by example.”
A former NFL player himself, Smith is familiar with the bravery and attention to detail that goes with the ground-and-pound mentality of the fullback position. He says he’s constantly amazed by Coleman’s ability to excel given his lack of hearing, which speaks to a profound determination and work ethic that has rubbed off on his Seattle teammates.
“I treat him as if he has no handicap, and I think that’s the way he wants it,” Smith says, essentially echoing the attitude of Coleman’s parents. “Honestly, sometimes I forget that he has a hearing impairment. I really do…. He’s made it work. It’s not that big of a deal to him. And it’s not that big of a deal to us.”
Coleman recognizes the platform he has to help others turn negatives into positives. He’s worked with various foundations to raise awareness against bullying in schools and taken time to meet with hard-of-hearing children who face social stress similar to what he experienced growing up.
“My goal was to play in the NFL. I did that,” Coleman says of his time in the ultra-competitive league, where roster spots are always up for grabs. His amazing accomplishment notwithstanding, he must once again prove himself deserving of his job during this summer’s training camp. “Now I have another goal—to continue playing in the NFL. Knock on wood, I’m going to continue to do that.
“My thing is, as long as I’m still breathing, I’m good to go.”