On Saturday, Gallaudet University has a chance to make history and most of the country won't even notice.
The nation's premier university for deaf- and hard-of-hearing students is currently 8-0 and with a win against Anna Maria this weekend, will secure its first-ever Eastern Collegiate Football Conference title and the first postseason berth for any men's program at the university.
"We knew we were going to be pretty good this year," coach Chuck Goldstein said. "It's been an amazing journey along the way. You see some of the scores of the games and the fashion of how we win. Some of them aren't pretty, but we find a way and it's turned into almost an inspiring story. It's something special."
Don't feel bad if you're not familiar with this story or with Gallaudet. The Division III program in Washington D.C. has been mired in football mediocrity for quite some time and has sashayed between being a club sport and NCAA sanctioned.
But things started to change in 2009 when the Bison went 6-4 – the first winning record against a varsity schedule since 1930. That was under former coach Ed Hottle, who, following that season, left to start another Division III program and handed the keys to then-offensive coordinator Goldstein.
In 2010 and 2011, the Bison were 5-5, but competed in every game. Last year, they broke through and finished 7-3, the most wins since the Bison had returned to Division III status in 2007.
That season also laid the foundation for this year by providing Gallaudet with a measure of disappointment. The Bison were 5-2, championship-focused and facing Castleton State College, the other top team in the conference. A win would have given the Bison a leg-up in the race for the conference title and a possible postseason berth. But they lost 28-20, on their home field, on homecoming. It was as disappointing a result as Gallaudet had ever suffered simply because a goal that had previously only been a dream had slipped through the Bison's grasp.
As a result, Goldstein banned what he called the "C Word" – championship – from the Bison locker room. And players became more dedicated. Twenty-five of the team's 54 players stayed on campus in the summer to work out and bond – a tremendous sacrifice since D-III players don't receive athletic scholarships and many had to endure financial hardship and "live on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," according to senior fullback Michael Hantge.
But all of that paid off on Oct. 5 in a 7-6 win against Mount Ida. Mount Ida, the defending conference champion, lined up for a game-winning 33-yard field goal with 15 seconds remaining and missed it, giving the Bison its fourth consecutive win and confidence the team hadn't previously experienced.
"Usually that game doesn't go our way," Hantge said. "Usually they make that field goal and we're the ones walking off with our heads down. But we were able to pull that one out. So, that was a defining moment."
Since then, the Bison have pulled out a few nailbiters to remain undefeated, including on Nov. 2 against Becker, when freshman Chris Papacek blocked a game-winning field goal with no time remaining and teammate Ryan Bonheyo scooped up the ball and ran it back 79 yards to the end zone for the win.
"Like I said, it's inspiring," Goldstein said. "It's almost like this is meant to happen this year. It's just been this amazing story."
Five years ago, when Goldstein was brought on as the offensive coordinator, he brought a triple-option offense with him. Since Gallaudet is small on numbers and mostly small on size, it seemed like the perfect fit. This year, the team leads the nation – all NCAA divisions – in time of possession at 36:40 minutes and is fourth in Division III with 326.6 rushing yards per game.
The transition for Goldstein wasn't an easy one. As a hearing coach, he had to learn American Sign Language to be able to communicate with his players. It created a rocky transition, especially when he wanted to express anger. Goldstein tells an anecdote where being so angry one halftime that he went into the locker room and threw a chair against the wall in the back of the room. Only three of his 54 players turned around to see what happened. The rest didn't hear it.
"You have to learn a new language," Goldstein said. "It's hard not being able to communicate sometimes or not getting the words out sometimes that you want to communicate. My first year as coach, I had to use an interpreter for meetings and on the field I needed to relay information to my players as quickly as possible. I couldn't sign what I needed to say fast enough, so I needed to hire an interpreter.
"I'd try what I could and the guys and the staff here and the community were very patient with the learning process. And I'm still trying to improve my American Sign Language. And it takes time and everyone learns at a different pace."
But now, Goldstein almost exclusively uses sign language while on campus or with his team and encourages all of his coaches – which run the gamut of hearing, hard of hearing and deaf – to do the same. The only time Goldstein says he doesn't use sign language is if his office door is shut and he's in a meeting.
Otherwise, all of the plays called in from the sidelines are in sign language. Even the on-field audibles from quarterback Todd Bonheyo are in sign language. If the linemen are set, Todd Bonheyo steps up between the center and guard, signs and then rest of the line relays the new play. They use a silent snap count.
It's a far cry from how Gallaudet called plays in the past. The university, which had its charter signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1864, actually invented the huddle in the 1890s because opposing teams were reading the quarterback signs. The team also used to use a big drum to create a vibration for the snap count, but competitors got wise to that, too. So, Goldstein said the team just started using what it already knew how to do and if a team could steal those signs, Goldstein would applaud the effort.
"If someone wants to learn sign language and pick up what we're doing and spread it to the defense, then more power to them," Goldstein said. "Last time I checked, it's $90 an hour for an interpreter and if you can relay what we're gonna do and get that to everyone on the field that quickly, good luck."
As this week's game against Anna Maria approaches, Goldstein has finally given his team the green light to start talking about winning a championship. The Bison have two games remaining in the regular season and need just one win to lock up the conference title.
Neither of the Bison's final two opponents has a winning record, but Hantge, a senior leader, knows if the Bison don't stick with the approach they've had all season, they could lose and feel the heartbreak they felt a year ago.
Still, after four years of coming close, Hantge said he's ready to celebrate something historic with his teammates even if the rest of the country isn't watching.
"Every game we're competitive, every year we're competitive and honestly, we felt like this was a long time coming," Hantge said. "Last year, we thought we should have won it. The year before that, we thought we had a chance. Even my freshman year, I thought we had a chance. It's so surreal that we're finally on the cusp of being there."
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