Derrick Coleman, NFL's first deaf offensive player, ready to start over with Falcons

Derrick Coleman won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks following the 2013 season. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

"Hey, my name is Derrick Coleman. I’m hard of hearing, but I wear hearing aids. I can't always hear you. But any time you might audible and I don’t hear you, all I’m going to do is come up and grab you on your arm and be like, 'Hey, what did you say? Can you repeat it?' You don’t even have to yell it. I’m just going to read your lips, and I’m good to go."

This was the message Derrick Coleman relayed to Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Matt Schaub shortly after he signed a one-year, $690,000 contract with the team back in March. Coleman would rather you not notice the $12,000 hearing aids protruding from his ears. He has spent 23 of his 26 years trying to proceed with a sense of normalcy. Yes, reading lips is part of his routine, he sometimes asks you to repeat yourself, and he never takes his hearing aids out unless he’s showering or swimming. But Coleman views himself as just another football player -- not the first legally deaf offensive player in NFL history.

"Every now and then, people forget," Coleman said. "I have friends back home that forget I have hearing aids because at the end of the day, I don’t change myself. Just because I have hearing loss doesn’t mean you have to do anything differently."

Coleman's story has been well-documented. He was featured in a Duracell batteries commercial titled "Trust the Power Within," which depicted his inspiring journey from losing his hearing at age 3 -- which was determined by doctors to be the result of a genetic disorder -- to becoming a contributor at fullback and on special teams for the Seattle Seahawks after he went undrafted and originally signed with the Minnesota Vikings. He co-authored a book with Marcus Brotherton titled "No Excuses: Growing Up Deaf and Achieving My Super Bowl Dream," after he won a title with the Seahawks after the 2013 season.

Now Coleman has a chance to start a new chapter of his life as the replacement for Pro Bowl fullback Patrick DiMarco, who signed a free agent contract with Buffalo. Coleman and undrafted rookie Tyler Renew enter this week’s mandatory minicamp as the only fullbacks on the Falcons’ roster.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator in Seattle when Coleman played for the Seahawks, has been impressed with Coleman as a Falcon.

"He’s going after it, man, this offseason," Quinn said. "Early morning in the film room, in the weight room. He’s earning the respect of the players and coaches by how hard he’s going for it. People who didn’t know him are saying, 'Man, this guy is freaking going for it.' "

However, Coleman’s encouraging tale hit an unexpected detour last year, one he fully regrets.

Off-the-field trouble

A legal situation kept Coleman from playing in the NFL for the entire 2016 season.

In October 2015, Coleman was arrested after a hit-and-run accident in suburban Seattle in which he crashed into the back of another vehicle while driving 20 mph over the speed limit, causing the other vehicle to flip over a hill. The driver of the other vehicle suffered a broken collarbone.

According to a police report, a shoeless Coleman fled the scene and was found by an officer three blocks away. He was arrested on charges of vehicular assault and felony hit-and-run and initially faced 12 to 14 months in jail. The police report indicated Coleman admitted to smoking some "spice" synthetic cannabis before the crash, though a blood analysis indicated no such drugs in his system. There were no alcohol-related charges filed, though Coleman went through field sobriety tests.

As a first-time offender, Coleman pleaded guilty a year after the incident and saw the charges reduced to gross-misdemeanor vehicular assault and hit-and-run. He was sentenced to 240 hours of community service and 12 months supervision and ordered to pay restitution to the victim.

"Anytime you get into an accident like that, where somebody else gets hurt, you feel regret," said Coleman, who suffered a concussion. "As far as how things went down in court, that was out of my hands. I had my lawyers take care of everything for me. I know what I did before, and I know what I did after and how cooperative I was.

"When you look at everything after it was said and done, it was disregard for the safety of others. That’s what you’ll see when you look at my record. There were no drugs or alcohol."

The NFL penalized Coleman in October 2016 with a four-game suspension. An NFL official said that although Coleman was a free agent all of last season, he received credit for serving the suspension regardless, as part of league policy.

Quinn said the Falcons had no issue giving Coleman another chance.

"We did our due diligence," Quinn said. "Plus, I knew the man that he was."

Learning to adjust

Coleman’s parents never used sign language after he lost his hearing at age 3. They never placed him in a special school, though he did attend speech therapy for an extended period of time.

"I had to do speech therapy to learn silent letters," he said. "I had to train my brain on when to say them and when not to say them."

While he was growing up in California, Coleman’s father, Derrick Sr., always preached the importance of adapting. There was one specific challenge his father posed during their drives down the freeway.

"Let’s say I was grounded. His way of training me would be like, 'If you can tell me what city we’re in right now, you can go out and play today,'" Coleman said. "So my eyes would start looking around. I would be like, 'Oh, we’re in L.A.,' because I saw it 10 minutes ago. He was training my eyes because he knew I couldn’t hear certain stuff."

Such training of his senses is another reason Coleman is confident in his ability to communicate on the football field without issue. He has accomplished it at every level, including as a running back and linebacker in high school and as a tailback at UCLA.

"People say, 'So how do you hear the snap count?' I move when the ball moves," Coleman said. "So as soon as we break the huddle, and let’s say we have a protection going on, I’m looking, I’m looking, I’m looking, so by the time I’m in my stance, I already know where everybody is. I already know what I’ve got to do. And I’m looking at the ball. When the ball is snapped, I’m able to go. And I adjust.

"I've jumped a couple of times, all because I’ve been excited or because my mind has been going crazy. It’s never because of my hearing loss. When that ball moves, that’s when I move, plain and simple. If the ball doesn’t move, I don’t move."

Coleman has no issues letting a quarterback know if he didn’t immediately get the playcall. However, he typically positions himself in the huddle close to the quarterback so he has a direct view of the quarterback’s lips, which significantly decreases the chance that he misses a call. Coleman obviously knows how to time things correctly when he's asked to go out and catch a pass.

Falcons running back B.J. Daniels, who was a quarterback with the Seahawks, used to line up in practice with Coleman behind him.

"It wasn’t very hard at all, to be honest with you," Daniels said. "DC is a very, very smart guy. He’s one of those guys that picks up on things quickly, as far as scheme and how things are run. He’s also good at picking up on mannerisms.

"Even if we were to change a play at the line of scrimmage and you turned around and looked at DC, he already kind of knew what was coming next because he was so intelligent. But he could also focus on our lips and read, so he knew exactly what we were saying."

First-year Falcons running backs coach Keith Carter explained communicating with Coleman from his vantage point.

"I think what I found is he hears well enough, so to me it’s eye contact," Carter said. "I know he gets it when he looks back at me. So whenever I have anything to say to him, I’m just constantly looking at him when I speak to him. Besides that, he hears well enough to know when you call his name and all that stuff. It’s when it gets a little loud when he reads lips.

"One thing that was specific for him: He asked to move in the huddle. We had our fullbacks far away from the quarterback, and he has to get closer. He needs to read Matt’s lips when it's super loud. But other than that, it’s actually no big deal."

Coleman keeps his hearing aids secure from jarring hits by wearing a wave cap under his helmet. Crowd noise on the road doesn’t faze him.

"I played in Seattle, so we had the loudest fans in the world," Coleman said. "People are like, 'You’ve got all these people yelling. How are you hearing that?’ One, I can read lips. That was like my way of adapting when I lost my hearing."

Nothing guaranteed

Coleman has a chance to play in what is sure to be another loud venue when the Falcons open their $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but he has to make the 53-man roster first. He should have an edge over the rookie Renew based on experience, with 272 career offensive snaps and a successful background on special teams.

"Here in Atlanta, we run more wide zone, so that will be different than some of the offense that he ran in Seattle," Quinn said. "But he can catch. I’ve asked him also to play two positions here: fullback and halfback. And then there’s his connection with [special-teams coordinator] Keith Armstrong. Derrick is somebody that’s like, 'Tell me exactly what you want me to do, and I’ll go do it.' "

Coleman knows he isn't guaranteed anything. Most of his life, he has been fighting for respect.

"My first year in Seattle, I had to battle with Michael Robinson, and two years after that, they drafted a fullback," Coleman said. "At the end of the day, [competition] is what makes me better. If I get beat out, then let the best man win. Competition is what drives me. I’m just going to go out there and do what I do best. If they like it, great. If they don’t, then you move on."

Even if things don’t pan out in Atlanta, Coleman has a plan. He started the Derrick L. Coleman Jr. No Excuse Foundation in 2013 to educate about and help others overcome hearing impairments. One part of his initiative involves raising money for hearing-impaired students because hearing aids are rather expensive. The other part is to promote anti-bullying efforts; Coleman was called "Four Ears" as a child and often encountered children teasing him by covering their lips so he couldn’t read them.

"Everybody, at the end of the day, we all have something in common," Coleman said. "We all just want to have fun. We all just want to be treated equally. People say, 'Oh, you’re a football player.’ No, I’m myself, who happens to play football and who happens to be hard of hearing. I know my entire life I just wanted to be treated like everybody else."

Coleman’s message is one to be heard, loud and clear.