Derrick Coleman's story worth hearing

LOS ANGELES -- Over the years a football player gets used to noise. The best players are compelled by it. They take it in and let it stir them. Others try to block it out, focusing instead on things they can see.

Coaches come up with hand signals. Quarterbacks raise their foot to trigger the snap count. Offensive lineman breathe deeply and look for the ball to move.

Then there's UCLA Bruins senior running back Derrick Coleman.

In one particularly loud opposing stadium during his freshman year, he simply turned all the noise off.

That's right, off.

"My freshman year at Oregon, it got so loud that I literally turned off my hearing aids," Coleman said. "I didn't move until the ball was snapped, and then I just read our quarterback Kevin Craft's lips. The only thing I didn't hear was the whistle. But I guess that that makes you work even harder because you don't stop."

It was, as far as Coleman cares to admit, the only time he's done that in his time at UCLA.

"The hearing aids, they're like microphones that pick up everything," he explained. "I just had to get used to how loud the crowds are."

Without hearing aids, Coleman can only hear sounds and tones. With them, he can hear words, but usually needs to read lips to understand the meaning. That makes him hard of hearing, not deaf.

When he first came to UCLA in 2007, several stories were written about his disability. But in a testament to how far he's come, it's rarely mentioned much anymore.

"Derrick has overcome his disability in such a way that no one even notices it's a disability. It's really second nature," UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. "He comes and grabs you on the shoulder to make sure you look at him. He'll tell you what you said when you're on the sideline 35 yards away because he can read lips.

"He really has worked so hard and has such a great attitude about it, in terms of not being insecure about it, it's really phenomenal of how little it impacts anything."

Coleman has appeared in 44 games for UCLA over the last four seasons. He's rushed for 1,655 yards and 19 touchdowns. This season he's rushed for 639 yards and a team-high 11 touchdowns, including the winning score in UCLA's upset of Arizona State on Nov. 5.

UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince said he can think of only one time Coleman's hearing might have affected a play.

"Last year at Kansas State, he went the wrong way on a screen. But other than that, he's been perfect," Prince said. "It's incredible. It really is. To be able to not only understand what's going on but to play the way he does is incredible.

"When he's in, you just have to make sure you look him in the eye because he reads lips. If he doesn't hear you, he'll grab your facemask and make you say it again. When we change the play at the line of scrimmage, we always have to turn around and make sure he knows what it is."

That's the idea, anyway.

Coleman said most of the time Prince changes the play at the line of scrimmage, he's already made the same read.

"My dad always said: Keep your head on a swivel and be aware of your surroundings," Coleman said. "So that's how I am on the field. I always have to know what's happening everywhere. You should anyway. You're supposed to know what's happening."

That's an ideal all players shoot for. It's a necessity for Coleman. When you can't hear, you have to be better at other things. Watching, learning, anticipating, focusing.

Coleman seems to understand this intuitively. When I caught up with him Monday morning, he was watching a DVD of USC's defense on his iPad. He guessed he will watch it at least two dozen times before Saturday's game.

"I need to see what they're doing," he explained. "If I can see it now, I'll recognize it in the game."

It's that kind of preparation that earned him playing time as a true freshman, ahead of more highly recruited running backs like Milton Knox, Raymond Carter, Aundre Dean and Johnathan Franklin.

Coleman wasn't just bigger and more physically ready to play at the college level. He was more prepared and picked up the playbook faster.

"I have to pay attention like five times more than everybody else does," Coleman said. "When he says the play, I'm focused. I'll do whatever I got to do to do my job because if I don't hear him, we're all in trouble."

He also takes pride in never letting his disability become an excuse.

"I'm not the type of person who is ever going to blame it on my hearing if I mess up," he said. "Maybe I have too much pride because even if I don't hear it, I might just say I got it wrong, rather than blame it on my hearing, you know?"

He speaks of his disability as if it were the same thing as wearing glasses. Part of that is pride, of course. The rest of it is the reality he's created for himself by learning how to adapt so well.

Coleman began losing his hearing around age 3. His parents started noticing his speech was slow to develop or that he didn't always respond to them.

"We'd go to the barber and he would get his hair cut," his father, Derrick Coleman Sr., recalled. "The barber would be talking to him from behind and he just wouldn't respond.

"The first thing we did was call the doctor and I think I asked about speech therapy. They said, 'Let's check his hearing first.' That's kinda how we found out."

Doctors would later conclude that Coleman's hearing loss was genetic. Both his father and mother were missing hearing genes. The combination resulted in the absence of a key hearing gene for their son.

Over the next few years, Coleman's hearing degenerated until it leveled off in middle school.

"He really never fought it," his father said. "I don't remember him ever wanting to take the hearing aids out. I would just tell him, 'All you have are microphones to help you hear better.' That's the way he always approached it."

When Coleman took up football in the seventh grade, it caused just one major issue. Every time he'd get hit, the hearing aids would fall out. Worse, if sweat got into them it could affect their performance.

Over the years he's worked out the issue. He wears two skull caps. One to keep the sweat off the hearing aids. The other to keep them from falling out. The original solution was far more creative:

"At first my mom just cut up her pantyhose and I used 'em like a bandanna," he said, laughing at the memory. "Then we tried a weave cap. It's like a hair net. Finally we started using the skull caps."

Coleman laughs at those first few experiments now. He's got an easy sense of humor about his situation. Where is angry going to get him?

At home he and his roommate, cornerback Andrew Abbott, joke freely about his hearing loss.

"He hates when I just sit back in my room and yell out for him. He wants me to get up," Abbott said. "So sometimes, I call his name over and when he eventually does hear me, I'll be like, 'Nah, I wasn't calling you. What are you talking about?' "

Even his father has fun with it. When I asked if his son ever got teased by kids growing up, he joked: "If someone was saying something to him behind his back, he probably couldn't hear them anyway."

Says Coleman: "I've had it my whole life so I'm not the type to be embarrassed about it or shy about it."

He is, in other words, a young man entirely comfortable in his own skin. Neither defined by his disability, nor hindered by it.

Now his goal is to help others learn how to do the same.

"I try to talk to kids in elementary schools. I might be lazy or tired, I don't want to do it, but I always do. I know it's my responsibility," he said. "If they hear from somebody who has been down that shy, embarrassed road when they were young, the chances are likely they're going to listen more.

"Everybody has some sort of problem. Some people can't see. Some people can't hear right. It's up to you whether you're going to overcome that problem."

Coleman's overcome it and then some. He might actually be better for it.

He's set to graduate in the spring with a degree in political science, and if the NFL doesn't happen, he'll enter the police academy, with eyes on one day becoming a lawyer.

"He has been a joy," Neuheisel said. "He's not only become an accomplished running back. He's also on every special teams. He won't let you take him out.

"He's just one of those guys that you're going to be really really sorry to see him go."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.