California high school team sets historic record – in total silence

A Quiet Place, a 2018 horror film where absolute silence spelled the difference between survival and extinction, readily projects the milieu of quiet in real life for a football team at the California School for the Deaf (CSDR), in Riverside, California, a desert community about 80 kilometers southeast of Los Angeles.

These student-athletes, 14 to 18 years old, don’t get to take in basic sensations like “normal” athletes like the screams of the fans or the triumphal notes from the school band after a score. Things that players in the hearing world take for granted in the grind of the game—grunts and groans of fellow players, the thuds of colliding pads, or the quarterback detecting foreboding footsteps of opposing linemen—are not options.

Amid such blatant adversity, nevertheless, silver linings emerge. What CSDR did on the football field this past season is unimaginable, nothing short of a miracle.

This 23-member squad, called the Cubs, which plays the 8-man gridiron variety, not just survived the past football season in spite of their auditory limitations but extinguished the opposition on their schedule, and did so by lopsided scores.  Coming out of nowhere after season after season of losing, the Cubs notched a pristine 12-0 win-loss season record where it averaged 66 points a game, outscoring the opposition 788-219. Clearly, this inspired band of youngsters, whose mode of communication is American Sign Language. demonstrated to the world that their disability did not hamper their ability on the gridiron. Indeed, the school’s achievement this year was historic. After seven straight losing seasons, the Cubs won the division championship and made it to the state championship game for the first time in CSDR’s 68-year history.

CSDR RB Felix Gonzales in CIF Southern Section Division 2 8-man football championship game Photo: Milka Soko, Contributing Photographer, Riverside Press-Enterprise

The team’s march into the history books did not go unnoticed.

As momentum mounted through this past season, which began in September, and word spread that this team of hearing-impaired youngsters was practically defying gravity, well-wishes poured in from celebrities and political leaders across the United States as well as thousands of tributes from mortal folks. Such goings testify to a well-worn cultural nuance of Americans, who embrace feel-good stories in a big way. The tale of the Cubs is no less than a Horatio Alger saga, where the meek and downtrodden overcome great misfortune to achieve glory.

“It feels overwhelming,” Cubs head coach Keith Adams told NBC News through a sign language interpreter. “It’s been nonstop, getting messages, you know, congratulations and well-wishes. My email is blowing up. I’ve had some NFL head coaches—the Tennessee Titans have sent me congratulations,” Adams said. “TV producers, movie producers reaching out to us. It definitely feels like we’ve reached celebrity status!”

The Cubs were indeed treated like celebrities one recent Sunday afternoon as guests of the NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers, who fêted them at a pre-game ceremony.

Janelle Green, an administrator at the school, is thrilled:

“It doesn’t matter if they win or lose, the heart they played with has been beautiful; that’s what inspired all of us, staff, parents, everyone. We are just thrilled.”

The key to the Cubs success? While “hearing” teams use runners to bring in plays, they are outgunned by the Cubs, whose hand movements between each down spare the need for players to run in and out with plays from the sidelines. Thus, ASL precludes the need to huddle, a concept which, ironically, was developed in the 1890s by Gallaudet University, a university for deaf students in Washington, DC, to prevent another team of deaf players from stealing play calls.

CSDR’s Kaden Adams in California’s CIF Southern 8-man football championship game Nov. 27, 2021 Photo: Milka Soko, Riverside Press-Enterprise

Adams notes that hand signals can be a plus by letting his players know what he wants as quickly as it can be spoken.

Typically, deaf players have heightened visual senses that make them more alert to movement, says Adams, whose son is a member of the Cubs. And this visual acumen tends to make deaf players more aware where their opponents are positioned on the field.

Adams adds that his message to student-athletes is that sports prepares his players to meet the challenges later in life and career. “My goal is that they believe in themselves. If you can succeed here, you can succeed outside of here. Right?”

“I never feel like I’m disabled,” says Christian Jimenez, in 11th grade, who plays many positions.  “I feel like I’m a normal player just like anyone else can do anything except hear.”

That sentiment is seconded, also through a sign language interpreter, by running back Enos Zornoza,“ Deaf people can do anything. We’re not this stereotype that’s out there.”

The Cubs put their unbeaten record on the line in the Southern Section CIF Championship, so-designated by the state of California governing body for interscholastic sports. And much like a scenario befitting a fairy tale, the bewitched hour of 12 tolled an end to their charmed season.  The Cubs, who lost their starting quarterback to injury in the first half, fell for the very first time this year to a team described as “burly” from Canoga Park.

CSDR QB Trevin Adams inconsolable after losing in California’s CIF Southern 8-man football championship game Nov. 27, 2021 Photo: Milka Soko, Riverside Press-Enterprise

Plainly, the players from CSDR were not in this only for a feel-good story about an underdog taking on insurmountable odds. Winning was its chief—if not only—goal.  Despite the loss, where the players, on their knees on the field, sobbing, there is no loss for inspiration.  What this team accomplished cannot be defined by their inability to win the championship. Their success showcased boundless possibility that comes with hard work and dedication.

That means the expectation is going to be greater for next year,” Cubs’ defensive coordinator Kaveh Angoorani signed to his anguished team after they received the runner-up trophy.  His message was clear: A disability like deafness is no excuse to not excel.

“No Excuses” happens to be the title of a 2015 memoir by Derrick Coleman, a deaf player who starred in the NFL and played in a Super Bowl. Says he, “If someone was yelling at me and told me I was “no good,‘ I never listened. You know what I mean?”

Timothy Wahl, from Los Angeles, California, unites his background in education and passion for football in his book “Footballogy: Elements of American Football for Non-Native Speakers of English.”