“’I’ve known Richard since high school,” he said, noting they played against each other in the Los Angeles area, as well as college (Coleman at UCLA, Sherman at Stanford). “I’m used to him. It’s like when people make fun of me, I just turn and walk away. Or I turn my hearing aid off. That gets them even more mad. It’s like, ‘You can keep talking, but I can’t hear you.’”
He was born with a hearing problem that got progressively worse. He was considered legally deaf at 3 years old. Without a hearing aid, Coleman said his hearing level is at about a two on a scale of 10. With the device, he’s at “six or seven, depending on the day and how much noise there is.”
He studied sign language for one year at UCLA, but he rarely uses it because, “I have nobody to sign with.” So he reads lips. When Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is calling or changing a play, he’ll remove his mouth piece and looks at Coleman before speaking.
“It’s hard enough to make it to this league,” Seahawks center Max Unger said. “For someone to persevere with a disability — and I don’t even know if I can call it a disability — is pretty incredible. I mean, he’s reading lips!”
Coleman signed with Minnesota as an undrafted free agent in 2012, but was waived before the season. He spent most of season as a volunteer coach at his former high school, then was signed in December 2012 by Seattle coach Pete Carroll, who tried to recruit Coleman to USC several years earlier.
“I didn’t even know he was deaf,” Unger said. “He came in the middle of the season and popped a running play in a 9-on 7 drill the first day and I thought, ‘This guy’s pretty good.’ I didn’t hear he was deaf until later.”
Coleman made the Seahawks’ roster this season, but most weren’t aware of his story until he appeared on a Duracell commercial a few weeks ago. (Some of the audio: “They told me it couldn’t be done. That I was a lost cause. I was picked on. And picked last. They told me I should just quit. But I’ve been deaf since I was 3. So I didn’t listen.”)
The Super Bowl has provided a bigger platform for him. He also appeared on “Good Morning America,” and gave game tickets to 9-year-old twin deaf girls from New Jersey and after they wrote Coleman a letter, prompting an exchange on Twitter.
Coleman has been overwhelmed by the response to the commercial. His objective was to send a message to the deaf community that, “whatever accomplishments you want to achieve, regardless of whatever obstacles you have to overcome, you can always endure. Just trust the power within and do what you want to do.
“Everybody has problems. Nobody is perfect. I wear a hearing aid. Some people have glasses. Some people have depression. But as long as you don’t let that get in the way of what you want to do, you can do anything you want to do.”
Coleman also came to learn something along the way. One of football’s staples — the huddle — actually has its genesis in the deaf community. In 1894, Paul Hubbard, a quarterback at Gallaudet, a university for the deaf in Washington, D.C., realized that his hand signals could be read by opposing players. So he had his teammates form a circle so that the signs could not be seen by the other team.
“It was a good idea, and we just kept on doing it,” Coleman said.
His parents urged him to play sports as youth and ignore the inevitable teasing. “They just kept grinding and grinding me,” he said. “They said, ‘Just go out there and be you. Don’t worry about anybody else. If people start making fun of you, just walk away or tell me. You only want to surround yourself with people that want to see you succeed. The ones that don’t and want to pull you down to their level, walk away from them. Ignore them.’ It kind of stuck because now I’m really good at ignoring things.”
He has thought about going back to school after football to complete his degree in political science, then maybe go to law school. Maybe he’ll be a lawyer, maybe a politician. He’s probably already ahead of the curve there.