When nearly 70,000 Seahawk fans flood into CenturyLink Field on game days, the sound of their cheers echoes through the skyscrapers in downtown Seattle and out over the rippling Puget Sound. It’s a roar so loud it shakes the Earth. But when Seahawk fullback Derrick Coleman Jr. steps out on the field, he barely can hear a thing.
As the first deaf offensive player in the NFL, Coleman is used to being different. When he was a toddler growing up in Orange County, he was diagnosed with a genetic hearing impairment. By elementary school he was deaf. With hearing aids wrapped around both ears, other kids taunted him. “Hey, four ears,” they’d say. But Coleman learned to tune them out and put his mother’s wise words on repeat and rise above it all to reach his fullest potential. Today he still lives by the motto “no excuses,” something his parents instilled in him. When Coleman’s off the field, he likes to be that voice of encouragement to kids struggling with their own obstacles and bullying. Because anything is possible when you can find a way to listen to the people who believe in you.
What were you like as a kid? As a kid, I was very hyper and always had to keep busy doing something. My parents kept me in some type of activity to help decrease all the energy I had.
Why did you have your dreams set on football? I did not set my goal on football; my goal was just to be good at what I was doing at the time. It just so happened football was the sport that God allowed me to excel in.
You’ve been open about being bullied and teased as a kid and how angry it made you. Did that anger fuel you in sports? If so, does it still motivate you? The drive to prove people wrong is what fueled me. When people look down on you because you lack what society calls “normal,” it does one of two things: It either makes you stronger, or it will break you down and make you feel as if you are not good enough. For me, I had and still have a strong support system, so there was no way the bullying and teasing was going to break my spirit.
How did your mom influence your self-esteem and career? My mom and her hard work and dedication to her children influenced me a lot. My mom was, and is, no pushover and will advocate for us regardless of what people tried to do or say to make her think or do differently. My mom let me know at a very early age that I was not to allow anyone to break me down, and she would say, “Don’t allow their words to penetrate the inside.” Which means allow people to talk and say all the negative comments, but just don’t internalize them and don’t stand there and listen; walk away.
In your book No Excuses, you talk about how your family had ups and downs but always love. What’s been more powerful for you — the love or the anger you had growing up? Without a doubt the love. Because with the love, it allows us to get through the bad times.
I read that you would actually turn your hearing aids off when you were being teased; is that true? I would turn them off whenever someone was saying something I did not want to internalize.
Your motto is “no excuses.” Is that something someone used to say to you or something you’ve always said to yourself? My mom would not allow me to make excuses. When I would come home and say I could not hear the teacher so I did not know what the homework was, my mom would say, “There is no excuse; sit your butt in the front of the class.” So I would say no excuses (to myself). I better get it done, and my dad would say you can make excuses, but no one is listening.
Do you have a message for kids out there getting bullied today? To the children that are being bullied, you must not allow anyone to break your spirit. Stay strong, believe in what God has placed inside of you and know that the child that is bullying you may have been bullied at some point. Just know that you have the power to stop the bullying. It is simple: Talk to your parents and teachers; let them know what is going on. Keep your head high and move to achieve your dream.
What about a message for kids doing the bullying? For the children that are doing the bullying, I would like to challenge you to ask yourself why you feel the need to bully other children. Ask yourself these questions: What do you get out of bullying others? What could you achieve if you replaced that negative energy with positive energy and helped the child you are bullying? What if I told you that when you bully or tease other children you make them want to bully others? You have the power to turn this around and be a peacemaker. I challenge you to go up to someone you have been mean to and say, “I am sorry” and watch the smile that comes across your face.
Your parents are such a huge part of your story. What do you have to say to all the moms and dads out there who have to be strong for their kids? Keep doing it. They will appreciate it in the long run. Don’t get overwhelmed; stay strong and know you are making a difference.
You say that on the field you can “feel” the fans cheering you on. What do you mean by that? I can feel the vibration from all the cheering because you know our 12s are the loudest fans around.
How do you communicate on the field? I read lips, so when Russell (Wilson, the Seahawks’ quarterback) calls a play, he knows to look at me so I can see his lips.
Have you ever felt like your hearing impairment was a burden for the team? Absolutely not. We are a team, and as a team we all make adjustments for each other. It’s a brotherhood and you want your brothers to be successful, so we adjust regardless.
So many people identify with your story, far more than just people with hearing impairments. Why do you think that is? Because no one on this Earth is perfect, and we have all had to come through something in life.
What’s been your biggest personal accomplishment as a professional athlete off the field? My biggest personal accomplishment off the field is that I can use what God blessed me with: to make a difference by encouraging others to go for their dreams regardless of the odds that may be against them.
What do you like to do with your free time? What’s a perfect day off in the life of Derrick Coleman? Relaxing with my dogs.
Do you have a pregame snack you always eat? In the morning, I have my bowl of cereal and drink plenty of water.
Where do you want to be in five years? In five years, I would like to still be playing in the NFL and have my Derrick L. Coleman Jr. No Excuse Foundation thriving so that we can help others who are not able to buy hearing aids, as well as educating the youth on the effects of bullying.