Every coach in every sport always is looking for an edge and Coleman’s coach thought he might have discovered a secret defensive tool in his tailback’s uncanny talent.
“Derrick, come here,” he said to Coleman, pointing across the field at the opposing coach. “What is the coach saying right now?”
Eager to please, Coleman squinted at the other sideline and was able to make out, what he believed to be the next play call.
“That was a distance, looking all the way across the field, but I thought I’d give it a shot,” Coleman said, sitting in the auditorium at VMAC, the Seattle Seahawks’ headquarters. “I said, ‘Coach, I think they’re about to run a sweep play.’ He changed the defense and we stopped them. And I was like, ‘Wow!’ But that was the only time I got lucky. I tried to do it again. It didn’t work.”
In Coleman’s world, negatives are turned into positives, burdens become challenges and disabilities don’t exist.
Coleman’s hearing left him slowly beginning when he was three years old. Doctors still aren’t sure what caused his deafness. He didn’t suffer an illness or an injury. He’s been told they suspect it was a genetic issue. Both his mother and father, he said, are missing hearing genes.
“Growing up, for the first couple of years (after he became deaf), I wasn’t very talkative. I only talked to my parents,” he said. “I really didn’t want to associate myself with others. But over time, my personality is that I don’t want to use anything as an excuse. I just want to go out there and play.”
From that standpoint, Coleman is a prototypical Seahawk. “No excuses,” is one of the unambiguous rules of head coach Pete Carroll’s administration.
“The biggest thing is I know I have a hearing problem. I can’t hear well,” Coleman said. “A lot of people already doubted me, not just in football, but going back to high school.”
Coleman had a high school Spanish teacher who doubted whether he could pass her course. He admits he struggled initially with the class. He had trouble speaking the language, because he had problems hearing the words. The teacher told Coleman’s mother she was worried that he was failing the class.
Tell Coleman what he can’t do and he’ll find a way to do it. Just hint that he might fail and it’s practically a guarantee he’ll succeed. Failing Spanish wasn’t an option. He got the necessary tutoring help and he passed the class.
“My thing is never use it (deafness) as an excuse,” Coleman said. “That’s just another reason for people not to believe in me. This is just who I am. Everybody has problems. Nobody’s perfect. And when you use that problem as an excuse it becomes part of your character. People say, ‘That person uses excuses. He’s lazy. He doesn’t want to do things the right way. He’s trying to find short cuts.’ I don’t want to do that.
“If I make a mistake because of my hearing I think real hard about some other reason for the mistake. I’ll just say ‘My bad. It won’t happen again.’ You’ve got to be realistic. Nobody likes hearing excuses.”
In a sense, his deafness has become his strength. He’s become used to people telling him what he can’t do. He’s become accustomed to proving them wrong.
That’s another recurring theme among the Seahawks. Whether it’s the members of the Legion of Boom, or the starting quarterback who was told he was too small to start in the NFL, this roster is filled with guys who play with that I’ll-show-you-how-wrong-you-are chip on their shoulders.
Highly recruited out of Troy, Coleman gained 1,780 yards at tailback in four years at UCLA and made second team All-Pac-12 as a special teams player his senior season.
But he went undrafted in 2012 and eventually signed with the Minnesota Vikings, spending last season on their practice squad, before his release.
Seattle signed Coleman to its practice squad on December 5, 2012. He caught a six-yard touchdown pass in the opening preseason game at San Diego and made a team-high two tackles on special teams.
He not only made his first 53-man NFL roster, he became the Seahawks’ opening day starting fullback, replacing
Coleman, 23, taught himself to read lips. He said it came naturally. He also wears unobtrusive, state-of-the-art hearing aids, made by Starkey Hearing Aids, a company Coleman was first introduced to last year when he was with the Vikings. Starkey’s offices were next door to the Vikings’ training facility.
It takes fewer than five minutes into the conversation before you forget about his deafness. There is no communication problem just as there is no barrier between Coleman and his quarterback,
“All he has to do is turn around, say it and I’ve got it,” Coleman said.
Coleman plays in front of a home crowd at CenturyLink Field that is considered the loudest in the league. That irony isn’t lost on him. He doesn’t get to feel the full force of the wall of noise that crashes on opposing offenses. The noise he hears is muffled.
“I know it’s loud,” he said. “I probably don’t hear it like you guys, but my parents bring ear plugs to the game. When you guys hear everything to a 10, I probably hear it to a 6 or a 7. But I know what’s loud and what’s not.”
It would be easy for Coleman to look at this injury as another unfair roadblock life has thrown in his path. For every positive action in his career, he could lament that there appears to be a negative reaction.
He’s not wired to think like that.
“I’m all about opportunities,” Coleman said. “If somebody presents you with an opportunity you make the best of it. My dad used to tell me, ‘You only get so many opportunities in this life, don’t take any of them for granted. When you don’t get drafted like I didn’t, you still take advantage of your opportunity. And when I got an opportunity like this. . .”
He went from long shot free agent, to opening day starter. And although he was inactive for Monday night’s game and expected to miss this week’s game, Coleman is committed to returning, sooner rather than later.
“My No. 1 focus for everything I do is attention to detail,” he said. “That’s what I’m doing with my rehab now.”
You root for players like Derrick Coleman. You learn from them.