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NEW YORK — Of all the players’ names that will be made, burnished or tarnished at Super Bowl XLVIII Sunday, none likely will resonate as deeply as Derrick Coleman’s.
He won’t start, will play a little and will linger long. Through perseverance and stagecraft, the NFL’s first deaf offensive player is a certifiable hero to millions.
A backup fullback for the Seattle Seahawks, who play the Denver Broncos in an intriguing match of the league’s best defense versus best offense, Coleman in his first full season is mostly a special-teams player. His second job is being a symbol.
That role was captured in a recently released TV commercial. It told his story of rejection and redemption, using his own, slightly impaired voice-over narration, as he became a big-time college player and a pro despite a limitation previously considered insurmountable. Produced by battery maker Duracell, the 60-second video has endeared Coleman, over three weeks via 13 million YouTube visits, to the world.
“It’s funny,” he said this week at the team’s New Jersey hotel, “I was looking on Twitter and I saw a lady from Australia. I said, ‘How did it get way over there?’”
On a team rich with stories of the overlooked and underappreciated, Coleman stands out because his hearing impairment is in his present and future, not something in the rear-view mirror. He wears two hearing aids and has to make sure in each huddle he fixes his gaze on Russell Wilson, the quarterback calling plays, so he can read lips in case his technology fails.
“I've always been in position in the huddle where the quarterback is either right in front of me or next to me, so I can hear him,” he said. “If I can't hear him, I can revert to my backup plan and read lips.
“If he ever breaks the huddle and I didn't understand a play, I’m not embarrassed. I’m not shy to go up to him and say, ‘Hey I didn’t hear it.’”
‘You can do anything’
Coleman describes what he can hear on a scale: If zero is nothing and 10 is perfect hearing, he is around two or three without aids; with them, a six, seven or eight “depending on the day … as long as I can read your lips, we’re good to go.”
It works well enough that Coleman, 23, has earned his roster spot on athletic merit independent of his story. He even opened the season as a regular. Due to a sudden, significant illness to veteran starter Michael Robinson, Coleman caught three passes for 30 yards in the opener at Carolina. He started the second game against San Francisco. After missing four midseason games because of a hamstring injury, he returned Dec. 2 on “Monday Night Football” and caught his first NFL touchdown pass.
Since the video went viral, he might be the most-discussed reserve player in Super Bowl history. He embraces the attention because he is a man with a cause.
“I want to reach out to the other hard-of-hearing and deaf community, to kids I can relate to, and who can relate to me,” he said. “Everybody has problems. I wear a hearing aid. Some people have glasses. Some people have depression. But as long as you don’t let that get in the way, you can do anything you want.”
He lost most of his hearing at age 3, from a cause that remains unclear. As a kid growing up in Fullerton, Calif., he was subject to the standard cruelties of childhood for anyone who’s a little different. But his athletic prowess offered a way to silence the taunts.
“I always wanted to do sports, even if I sucked,” he said. “I love team sports, mainly because after a day or two, people forget that I have a hearing problem.”
By the time he was done at Fullerton’s Troy High School, he had run for 5,000 yards and 86 touchdowns, was the team MVP and first-team all-league, and rated the No. 2 fullback in the country by ESPN. That’s when he first met Pete Carroll, now the Seahawks head coach but then running the most powerful college program in the country at USC. Carroll wanted Coleman to play fullback for the Trojans, but Coleman wanted to stay at running back.
“I was kind of a USC fan for awhile,” he said. “UCLA was a better fit for me. But I took my official (recruiting) visit to USC, and coach Carroll’s philosophy is the exact same as it is now. That’s why I love being part of this team. Everybody in this organization does the exact same thing, so it makes me feel just like them. I don’t feel any more superior or inferior.”
He played in college from the start, and by his senior year led the Bruins with 11 touchdowns, had 765 yards rushing, and was the best special-teams player. At 6-feet, 233 pounds, he had the size and skills for pro ball, but he went undrafted because the scouts were apprehensive.
"Many of the people were very unsure about what sort of way it would handicap the coaches," Rick Neuheisel, Coleman's coach at UCLA, told the New York Daily News. "I told them they weren't even going to notice, except that maybe the running backs coach was going to have to stand on the other side of the ball so he could read his lips.
"Derrick has overcome his disability in such a way that no one even notices that it's a disability. He is just determined."
Coleman signed as an undrafted free agent with the Minnesota Vikings in April 2012, but was cut in training camp. The Seahawks signed him to the practice squad in December. From five years earlier, Carroll remembered. This time, Coleman was delighted to be a fullback.
“He’s been a great contributor on this team,” Carroll said. “He’s a guy that does everything right. He does his job impeccably well in all areas, in everything that we ask of him. He’s a terrific effort guy. He’s tough. He’s fast.
“He's been really a cool story. Not because he has issues; because he’s made this team and he’s made a spot for himself and he’s playing well. The fact that he has a hearing issue is really not even something that we deal with."
Ambassador of inspiration
Pro football at the highest level is a ruthless, fleeting business. He could be a Super Bowl champion Sunday night, and out of work by March. At UCLA, he majored in political science and talks about law school. Right now, with the attention of the sports world on him and his team, he has an avocation to keep him occupied — ambassador of inspiration.
While in town, Coleman met two of his biggest fans: Hearing-impaired 9-year-old twins Riley and Erin Kovalcik of Roxbury, N.J. After learning of his story following the Seahawks’ win in the NFC Championship Game, Riley wrote a letter that her father, Jake, tweeted to Coleman. He tweeted back his own letter.