Editor’s Note: Vital Signs is a monthly program bringing viewers health stories from around the world.
When you meet Derrick Coleman, Jr., the first word that comes to mind is “genuine.” The list does not stop there. Throw in “appreciative,” “funny,” “kind,” and “impressive.” And all of that is before you even realize Coleman is a rising star in the National Football League, who also happens to be deaf.
“On a scale of 0-10, normal people range from about a seven, eight, or nine,” Coleman said. “Without my hearing aids, I’m about a one or two.”
On the football field, you’d never know. Coleman likes it that way. One of his favorite memories is being on a boat with his friends on a lake. They pushed him in the lake, even though Coleman had his hearing aids in. But he wasn’t upset – in fact, it was just the opposite. In that moment, his friends had forgotten he was wearing hearing aids. They had forgotten he was deaf.
Coleman has other less pleasant childhood memories. He doesn’t remember ever having his hearing; he lost it when he was three because of genetic reasons. His parents both have normal hearing – but they are each missing a hearing gene. He does remember getting bulky hearing aids in elementary school, and he remembers the kids calling him “Four Ears.”
He also remembers what it was like to play football for the first time in middle school – when he finally found the place he belonged.
“Football, basically, it gave me a sense of understanding of where I stand in this world,” Coleman said. “And it made me understand the world a lot better. In between those white lines, that’s all that matters.”
Coleman let his performance on the field do the talking. Everyone started listening. By the time he was a freshman in high school, he was on the Varsity team.
“If you have a disability, and you’re letting that disability affect your performance, you make excuses,” Coleman said. “Football was the first thing [where] I didn’t want to make excuses for this. I just want to play.”
But football for Coleman almost never happened. His parents were worried the tough hits could do further damage to both his ears and his hearing aids.
“I played football, I know what a violent sport it was,” said Derrick’s father, Derrick Coleman, Sr. “I know what the helmet-to-helmet collisions feel like, the headaches, and the injuries. So now as a parent, the concerns of a child with a hearing disability, and wearing hearing aids – how would that work?”
Coleman begged his parents to let him play. An MRI showed the structure in his ears could withstand the hits, and he wore a cap under his helmet to keep his hearing aids in place. But there was one more critical obstacle he needed to figure out.
Football relies heavily on verbal communication. Coleman plays fullback and running back and to make sure he never missed a play call, he perfected lip-reading, even behind mouth guards and facemasks.
“The biggest challenge was making sure the quarterback knows that I’m there,” Coleman said. “I’m yelling at him letting him know I’m in. That means you take an extra quick peek at me, that’s all.”
After a childhood spent trying to fit in, Coleman was now standing out for all the right reasons. He played college football at UCLA, and graduated after four years with a degree in political science, and 11 touchdowns in his senior season. He caught the attention of the NFL, first with the Minnesota Vikings, and then with Coach Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks.
On September 8, 2013, Coleman Coleman, with his hearing aids and lip-reading skills, took the field for his first regular season game as a professional football player. He became only the third deaf player in NFL history, and the first to play offense in the league.
But it was an unexpected opportunity that propelled Coleman and his story even further. Later that season, as the Seahawks marched toward the Super Bowl, Duracell ran a commercial advertising its batteries, with Coleman as the star. It quickly went viral. Suddenly, he was known all over America.
“That commercial basically let me know that I’m not alone,” Coleman said. “Everybody has problems. But yet we still do what we love to do. And I was just like, I need to take this to another level.”
With his new platform, Coleman started the No Excuse Foundation to help kids dealing with disabilities.
“I need to make sure everybody knows they’re not alone,” he said. “I want to build a community where everybody’s picking each other up.”
At the center of it all, those two words Coleman has lived by his entire life – “no excuses.”
Coleman has just written a book by the same title. And at a football camp he held recently for kids in Tacoma, Washington, he made sure the kids with disabilities were treated just like everyone else.
Kids lined up for pictures and autographs. Parents called him an inspiration. His father smiled proudly. And Coleman took it all in with the humility he’s known for.
“People say, you’re an inspiration by the things you do,” Coleman said. “And I tell them you can be an inspiration, too, just by being yourself. You don’t need to be me, you don’t need to be anybody else. Just be who you are.”