Scoggins: Vikings rookie hears he's an inspiration

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 1, 2012 - 11:19 PM

An undrafted Vikings rookie wears hearing aids under his helmet and reads lips in the huddle.

MANKATO

Derrick Coleman came to training camp as a long shot, an undrafted rookie at the same position as Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart and a few others ahead of him on the depth chart.

Coleman isn't afraid of challenges, though. He's kicked down barriers his whole life and never let his severe hearing disability become an excuse for failure. He refuses to let anything compromise his drive to reach whatever goal he sets for himself.

"I never let it hold me back," he said. "Not once."

Technically, Coleman is hard of hearing, a condition caused by a missing gene and diagnosed at age 3. He wears hearing aids and is an expert at reading lips.

Without hearing aids, Coleman hears only the bass in people's voices. His hearing aids amplify sounds, but any setting with background noise requires him to read lips. That obviously could be problematic in football, but like everything else in his life, Coleman has adapted to the situation. In the huddle, he reads his quarterback's lips to get the play call. If he's unsure, he grabs the quarterback to double check.

At UCLA, Coleman played in some of the loudest stadiums in college football, including the ones at Oregon and Tennessee. He remembers only three times in his entire football career -- two as a high school freshman in Southern California -- when he had a miscommunication with his quarterback.

"I always know what the play is going to be," he said. "I don't move until the ball moves so I shouldn't have a false-start incident."

Coleman's parents encouraged him as a child to never use his disability as a crutch. They gave him pep talks when kids at school teased him about his hearing aids or speech. His mother, May Hamlin, told her son to compare report cards with his bullies.

"He was an A student with a disability, and those kids that could hear were not," she said. "I said, 'Are you going to be what they are calling you or be what you want to be?'"

Coleman recalled a Spanish teacher telling his parents that he could never learn the language. He got a B in the class.

"I just have to work harder and pay attention twice as much as everybody else does," he said.

Coleman's hearing didn't hinder him in athletics, either. He played multiple sports but excelled in football. He had an MRI of his ear canals before starting football to make sure he wouldn't suffer any further damage.

Coleman wears two skull caps under his helmet to protect his hearing aids. The first one keeps them from getting wet -- "I sweat like Shaq sometimes," he joked -- and the other one keeps them from popping out when he gets hit.

On the field, he considers himself just another rookie fighting for a job. At 6-0 and 233 pounds, he's a self-described "bruiser" who also contributes on special teams.

"I go and get those tough yards," said.

Coleman's impact extends far beyond carrying a football. He serves as a role model for kids dealing with similar hearing impairments. He regularly speaks at schools and uses his platform as a way to mentor kids, share his own experiences and offer support to those struggling with acceptance. He tries to remove the stigma of hearing aids by pointing out that people with poor eyesight wear glasses.

"It really serves as an inspiration to those kids because what happens is those kids tend to go into their own shell," said Coleman's father, Derrick Sr. "They think, 'Well, I'm different. I'm not like the other kids.' Derrick helps dispel that."

A seventh-grade boy from his hometown endured a particularly rough school year as kids teased him mercilessly. Coleman's longtime audiologist, Nancy Adzovich, arranged a dinner with the boy and his mother before Coleman left for training camp.

Coleman counseled the boy for several hours. He gave him encouragement, offered advice for dealing with bullies and stressed to him that any goal is possible.

"Coming from somebody that they can look up to is huge," Adzovich said. "Derrick has really empowered a lot of these kids."

Coleman hopes his actions do likewise. He might not make the Vikings roster or any NFL team, but he won't use his hearing disability as an excuse. He refuses to let that be a roadblock to anything he wants in life.

Chip Scoggins ascoggins@startribune.com

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