UCLA's Coleman sidesteps hearing loss for NFL chance

Eric Edholm
UCLA's Coleman sidesteps hearing loss for NFL chance

Every college football player dreams of hearing his name called on draft weekend. For Derrick Coleman, that idea takes on an entirely different meaning altogether.

Derrick Lamont Coleman, Jr. was born with the ability to hear, but a little before his third birthday, his parents noticed that his speech had developed slowly and he didn’t always respond to people speaking to him.

A test revealed a genetic deficiency passed on from his parents, a recessive allele that made Coleman, by most definitions, deaf. He was fitted with hearing aids — quite large ones at first — and has worn them to this day.

Coleman’s parents, Derrick Coleman and May Hamlin, made sure that their son didn’t treat it as anything other than just a minor flaw — no different than the short kid or the one who has to wear glasses. It wasn’t a problem when Coleman first went to school, but as he got older some kids tried to tease him for his defect.

“You always had the handful of kids who would pick on you. They thought that because I couldn’t hear that something was wrong with me,” Coleman said. “But my Mom always made sure to keep me right. She’d say, ‘While they are over there messing with you, just compare your report card to their report card.’”

His card had nearly all A’s. Coleman, a running back from UCLA who is hoping to be drafted at the end of the month, has no idea where those kids are today. He ran past them long ago, like a would-be tackler whiffing in the wind.

“My hearing problem helped make me who I am today,” he said. “I had to work twice as hard as everyone else to get to where I am now. Not just in football — in every aspect of my life.”

Coleman realized early on that he was given the gift of rare athleticism. He played youth football, and though the hearing aids proved to be an early problem, being knocked off after a big hit or malfunctioning because of excess sweat, May had a solution: She had her son wear two skullcaps — one to keep the aids in place and the other to keep them dry. Problem solved.

His biggest challenge, though, was learning to read lips. It took a while to master, but Coleman got it down. Without his hearing aids, he only can hear dull tones. But along with the devices, he was able to finely tune the sounds he hears in conjunction with the lip reading. Together, he can function normally as almost any other person can.

For the most part. There are still daily reminders that he has it a little tougher than most of his friends.

“When you lose one of your senses, your other ones pick up,” he said. “My dad used to always say, ‘Keep your head on a swivel.’ I always had to be conscious of my surroundings. When I am driving, I might have the radio on and everyone else can hear the fire-truck sirens, but maybe I can’t. I don’t forget I am deaf because every now and then, it poses a challenge for me.”

But not one he couldn’t sidestep through hard work. After he rose through the youth football ranks, Coleman made a name for himself at Troy High School in Fullerton, Calif. and was rated as ESPN’s No. 2 fullback prospect as a senior. He capped off his prep career with career totals of 5,214 rushing yards and 86 TDs. He broke the school marks for touchdowns in a season (38), points scored in a season (232) and offensive yards in a season (2,456).

The Bruins came calling, but they were worried how Coleman would respond on offense to plays being changed at the line of scrimmage. Could he hear above the din of 70,000 or more rabid fans?

No problem again. The quarterbacks were just told to turn around and mouth the audibles so that Coleman could see their lips. On top of that, he learned all of the quarterbacks’ “check with me” calls and learned to anticipate any adjustments that they might make at the line. Coleman only can remember one play in his college career where he misheard a call and failed to carry out his assignment correctly.

Still, for someone regarded as being deaf, the noise sometimes can affect him.

“When we played at Tennessee, I think there were about 106,000 people in the stands,” Coleman said. “It was loud. What I heard was just like when you turn your TV up really loud and you hear is that crazy static sound. It doesn’t hurt my ears because my eardrums don’t really work like other people’s. That’s all I hear, but it’s not a problem.

“All the quarterback has to do is say the play, and we’re ready to go. I just read those lips.”

Coleman’s college statistics were fairly modest — 1,780 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns in four seasons — but his accomplishments have been grand. He won the team’s Tommy Prothro Award for Outstanding Special Teams Player and the Paul I. Wellman Memorial Award for All-Around Excellence by the UCLA coaching staff. But there were a few other stops on his personal journey to get to this point — including one he never thought was in his character.

Coleman admits that he got a bit “big-headed” before his sophomore season after playing well as a freshman (ahead of some higher-profile recruits) and didn’t work as hard as he needed to. RB Kahlil Bell (now with the Bears) had just graduated, and Coleman took it for granted that he would be Bell’s successor in the Bruins’ backfield. His first touch of the season was a 29-yard touchdown against San Diego State that would end up being the game-winning score, and Coleman just assumed that the job would be his. But after that game, he would run the ball only 50 more times that season, including one carry for three yards in the team’s bowl win over Temple.

“I said to myself, ‘This is going to be my year.’ I let it all get to my head too much early on. I didn’t work as hard as I should have,” he said. “That was my biggest regret in college. After that season, I realized after talking to my coaches how hard I really needed to work. I got to where I needed to be before my junior year and I got better as a football player because of it.”

Coleman’s best rushing game came as a junior, when he ran for 185 yards and three touchdowns (one from 73 yards) against Washington State. But he said if scouts only could watch one game tape of his, it would be the Texas contest the week earlier that season. Coleman rushed for a solid 94 yards and a score, but it was his all-around play that helped the Bruins clobber the Longhorns in Austin that day.

“My best game overall in terms of blocking, running and special teams was definitely that Texas game,” he said. “If you want to sum it all up in what I bring to a game, that was the best one.”

He describes himself as “just an average 21-year-old guy,” so it’s no shock that Coleman’s favorite plays in the UCLA playbook were the most basic ones they ran — two power run plays named simply “12” and “13.”

“The most basic plays there are,” he said. “When I have my line blocking for me and everyone does their job, they are unstoppable. If we ran it 20 times and we did it right every time, it would work every time.”

Even with some nice carries to his name, Coleman takes as much pride laying the wood against a blitzing linebacker or slamming a returner on special teams. He figures that, in addition to his running, is what could be his ticket to the NFL.

“I missed a game my junior year with a concussion, and when I came back I realized there is so much more (to football) than just running the ball,” he said. “A good block, going down on special teams and making that big tackle, those can win games just as much as scoring a touchdown can.”

Coleman played tailback predominantly at UCLA, but he also is being looked at as a pro fullback because of his good size at 5-foot-11 and more than 230 pounds. He tested better than expected at his Pro Day, running 40-yard dashes of 4.48 and 4.56 seconds at 230 pounds. Coleman also performed in the other drills with numbers that would have put him among the best at his position at the Combine — had he been invited.

“I was extremely happy with my results,” Coleman said. “The only thing I was not happy about was my bench press (20 reps). I was hoping for 28 or 30; my previous best was 26. But I actually shocked myself with some of my (workout numbers). I just hope I shocked some of the scouts, too.”

Coleman is busy meeting with NFL teams intrigued with his potential. He spoke with PFW late Monday night from Seattle, where he was set to meet with Seahawks coaches on Tuesday, and he has meetings set up later this week with the Raiders and Lions. He’s trying to fit in workouts five days a week, and he has put in time at the same facility as Packers OLB Casey Matthews, Eagles LB Casey Matthews, Panthers QB Jimmy Clausen, Bengals S Taylor Mays and Jets CB Antonio Cromartie. Coleman’s favorite NFL athlete is Cromartie, and yet he has been a little shy about approaching him.

“When I saw him, I was like, ‘Oh man, I am working out with him,’” Coleman said. “And then you have Clay Matthews, who is abnormally big for a linebacker. Every time I see him, it’s a motivating factor. If I have guys like him coming after me, when I get my opportunity, I have to get as big and strong as I can to take that hit from guys like him.”

Coleman has loved being able to talk to coaches and scouts throughout the process. Sure, they all, to a man, have asked him about his hearing. But Coleman is more than happy to talk about it — he sees it not as a shortcoming but rather a hurdle he has overcome to get where he is today.

“When people talk to me, they figure out I am just a normal guy,” he said. “My good friends, some of them forget I wear hearing aids and they’ll push me in a pool, forgetting that they can’t really get wet. But I like the fact that they treat me just like any other person."

In a few weeks, he’ll find out his NFL fate. If football doesn’t work out, the political science major is passionate about a potential career in law enforcement, something he always has admired from afar, and he also has thought about law school and possibly sports law, maybe one day representing other athletes as an agent.

But football is his calling for now, and he’s all in. He’ll watch the draft with his family and some friends, and he’ll be waiting for what he hopes could be the sweetest sound of them all: hearing his name called by an NFL team. If Coleman goes undrafted — a reality he’s prepared for — then he’ll do what he always has done. Plan to prove people wrong, one of them at a time.

And really, who would put it past him?