MARTINSVILLE, N.J. – On the surface, Adham Talaat is a typical Division III player trying to pursue his NFL dreams.
Talaat is a 6-6, 292-pound defensive end who is generating some serious buzz from scouts. The interest is well-founded after a senior season in which the defensive end registered 46 tackles and five sacks despite facing double- and triple-teams from offensive linemen. Teams are intrigued by his size and strength and the rawness of his game, despite the fact that he has never heard the crowd cheer after one of his tackles.
As a toddler, Talaat was diagnosed with profound to severe hearing loss and fitted for hearing aids after his grandmother noticed one day that he wasn't responsive to her calls. He attended and played at Gallaudet University, the only college in the world dedicated to deaf and hard of hearing students.
Talaat is an unusual case among NFL draft prospects, but that hasn't stopped him before.
At a young age he recognized that he was the only student in class or his school who wore hearing aids but he never felt out of place. He was a very good student and he enjoyed playing sports even with the hearing aids always present in his ears.
At no point, he says, did he feel different than the rest of his classmates, even when none of them wore a hearing aid. He communicated by reading lips and he started speech therapy at a very young age. He didn't learn sign language until high school and that was in order to fulfill his foreign language requirement. And playing high school football was a way for him to continue fitting in.
In short, Talaat didn't let his hearing loss hold him back. He felt like everyone else and he wanted to be treated as such.
“I never really felt different. I knew I had hearing aids and no one else did – maybe one other student in my high school of 2,200 kids did. In school I used to have an FM system where I'd give the teacher a microphone and it'd amplify their voices. I'd put the attachment on behind my hearing aid,” Talaat told Shutdown Corner. “In terms of feeling normal, I always felt normal. I think the FM system helped me in class – I wasn't held back at all because of this. I never wanted to be treated differently.”
Talaat points to his ears and says again, “I wasn't held back at all. The FM system amplified the voice so much that I couldn't hear background noise. It helped me concentrate. No way I could daydream or fall asleep if that was the case!”
His senior year of high school, he sprouted up six inches and became a regular starter at West Springfield High School in Northern Virginia. He was lightly recruited because he was a bit of a late bloomer and accepted an offer to grayshirt at UMass Amherst. He stayed at home for the fall semester and worked out to be ready for the spring semester.
But when he arrived in Massachusetts in the spring, there was a coaching change and the program didn't seem the same any more.
“It was nothing like what I signed up for," Talaat said. "Nothing like my visit.”
It didn't feel right and Talaat decided to leave after his spring semester to not burn any of his eligibility. But UMass put restrictions on his transfer, excluding the programs in their conference. This meant that Talaat was unable to look at schools such as Richmond and Towson, places that had shown some interest in him as a possible walk-on when he was in high school.
So he came home - “I had very, very limited options” - and enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College, a school that didn't have a football program. He took classes and worked at a T.J. Maxx in the stock room. There were times he'd flirt with the idea that he might never play football again, but he chose not to believe those doubts. Just like he didn't let his hearing loss hold him back, he wouldn't let the circumstances surrounding his college football dreams derail him.
Then one day, Talaat got a Facebook message from a former teammate in high school who was being recruited at Gallaudet. He said that the football team's head coach had heard about him and that there was some interest in recruiting him. So after a couple emails he headed to Washington, D.C. to visit the campus.
That next day, after meeting with the coaching staff, he went back for a football game.
“It was always close to me, 30 minutes away but I had never been on the campus before. I never visited it once,” Talaat said. “I went to campus, visited the coaches. I liked it. I was offered after the game.”
When he got back to his car he had “an overwhelming sense that this is where I should be. I never felt that anywhere else before.”
It was a transition for Talaat. He didn't have many deaf classmates in high school, and he graduated with a 3.5 G.P.A. and an advanced degree. Even at UMass Amherst and again in community college, he never sought special accommodations. He was always a mainstream student.
But at Gallaudet he thrown onto a campus of over 2,000 students and the overwhelming majority were deaf or hard of hearing. He went from mainstream to a very tiny niche, a community that in many ways he had never been a part of despite his own story and background. His hearing aids were never something that held him back. Here at Gallaudet, everyone around him had the same struggles.
“I never really felt that I was into the deaf world, the hard of hearing world until Gallaudet. I always felt normal,” Talaat said. “I feel like I really grew into a man there. Go to school, work out, study at the library. I didn't even hang out that much on the weekends on campus, I went home. I was never into the party scene. I learned how to make smart decisions. I really feel like I became a man here.”
A physical education major with an emphasis in personal training, he graduated with a 3.91 grade-point average this past fall. He was twice an Academic All-American as well as being a finalist for The Gagliardi Trophy, the top honor for Division III football players. He may be just weeks removed from his senior season but he is arguably the best player to ever put on the “Blue & Buff.”
He also was the hardest working member of the football team in addition to being arguably the most talented.
“I have never coached a player that has as much awareness about his body and how well he takes care of it," said Charles Goldstein, the head football coach at Gallaudet. "He has never had any serious injuries because he does a lot of preventative maintenance. He has always conducted himself like a professional athlete because he put the time in. During the summer while other guys were playing video games after a workout he would lift, get himself stretched, swim a few miles in the pool and then get ice to prevent inflammation. His Pro Day numbers are going to shock a lot of people but not us here - he is ready for the next level.”
If he signs a contract in the NFL, he will become the first player from his college to do so. Tony Tatum, a teammate of Talaat last year, signed with the Cleveland Gladiators in the Arena Football League. His exposure helped open the door for future Bison players to pursue NFL contracts.
Talaat also admires greatly Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman, who was the first deaf offensive player in the NFL.
Talaat met Coleman during the week leading up to the Super Bowl. Talaat trains for the NFL draft at TEST Sports Clubs, a high-level facility that has sent several dozen players to the NFL including Joe Flacco, Patrick Peterson and Demario Davis among others. It is about a 30-minute drive from MetLife Stadium, which hosted the Super Bowl. Through contact with Coleman's agent, the two were able to meet and talk just days before the Seahawks played in the Super Bowl.
Now after a lifetime of working through his deafness and never accepting excuses, Talaat hopes to be a role model to young people who also might be deaf or hard of hearing. And again, being deaf won't hold him back.
Despite crowd noise and all the confusion prior to the snap, Talaat says that he never had an issue on the field with communicating with his teammates; not in high school and not in college. And he doesn't plan on there being any in the NFL either.
“I think it will be an advantage. Crowd noise, trash talk won't affect me," Talaat said. “At Gallaudet, I didn't wear my hearing aids. Our specialty is non-verbal communication. We have great peripheral vision; we pick up little, subtle movements. I'm skilled at lip reading, even if I turn my hearing aids off, I can understand what you're saying. I've been doing this my whole life. I don't think there will be any communication issues on the field.”
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Kristian R. Dyer covers the Jets for Metro New York and also contributes to Yahoo Sports. He can be followed for news and random tweetings on Twitter @KristianRDyer