In December 1990, Kenny Walker was playing his final home game as part of the University of Nebraska’s storied college football team. Walker, who legendary Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne once called “the greatest pass rusher in college football today,” was greeted with what was described as “the biggest ovation you never heard.” Some 70,000 Nebraska fans would raise their arms as if they were signaling for a touchdown, with their wrists rotating counterclockwise. They were, in fact, applauding Walker, who is deaf.
Walker, who has been deaf since he suffered a bout of spinal meningitis when he was 2, would overcome his disability to become just the second deaf player in NFL history. In his two NFL seasons, both with the Denver Broncos, the 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive end was something of an inspiration for the deaf community, becoming the first deaf player to complete a full season in the league.
Twenty years later, Derrick Coleman became the third deaf player to play in the NFL. Coleman, the backup fullback for the Seattle Seahawks, and his story came to light in a recent Duracell commercial that went viral. To date, the ad has been viewed more than 15 million times on YouTube.
Now, Walker, who still lives in Denver and works as a paraeducator for deaf and hard-of-hearing children, is hoping Coleman can take the next step for deaf football players and become a Super Bowl champion.
“I’m rooting for the best team in the Super Bowl,” Walker said through an American Sign Language interpreter. “And for Derrick to be the first deaf player in the history of the Super Bowl, that’s who I’m rooting for.”
Before Coleman tries to become the first deaf NFL player to win a Super Bowl, “America Tonight” spoke with Walker about Coleman, his own experience as a deaf player and whether NFL coaches are more accepting today of deaf players. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity. Walker’s answers were given through an ASL interpreter.
America Tonight: It had been almost 20 years from when you played until Coleman came into the league. Do you think his early success could influence other deaf athletes to pursue their NFL dreams?
Kenny Walker: I appreciate the need for access and more access, in the future, for deaf and hard-of-hearing players. It’s time. The door is now open. Look at Derrick. There’s nothing wrong with him. He can play on par with hearing players; he has the ability and the talent. For the deaf community, the access to play in the NFL is there now. You can get to the professional level. I think he got into the right program at UCLA, and that helped him to get into the professional ranks. The Seahawks gave him a chance and he has been very successful in his second year. He has done an amazing job.
AT: Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has said that if a player works hard, he has a spot on the team, and that was the case with Coleman. Do you get a sense that other coaches are taking on this same approach or is there still hesitance in taking on deaf or hard-of-hearing players?
KW: I want to see a whole new school of coaching. It is hard to deal with the old-school coaches. If you have new coaches who are coming into the pros who are open-minded about bringing on deaf players, I think that would be great. The old-school coaches have a certain way and that way wasn’t working. With the right chemistry and right coaches, that’s the key to deaf players succeeding at this level. That was true for me. If you get the right person to coach that program, they don’t consider communication problems as a challenge. It can work.
AT: What’s the most difficult thing for deaf players to overcome in regard to connecting with and getting on the same page with their teammates?
KW: Well, it’s the same for all of us, whether you’re deaf or not. When you get in, you need the knowledge, you need to be a social player and you need to support each other. You need to believe in the game and get the support of the team. I feel like the Seahawks are doing that. Derrick knows the chemistry is there, and he’s able to communicate with the quarterback. You have to work on that. But as long as you know the playbook, it’s the same thing for everyone. It’s not difficult to do.
AT: What’s the biggest difference in being an average NFL player compared to that of an NFL player who is deaf or hard-of-hearing? What are some of the communication barriers that you faced when you were playing?