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'I have an easy life' says deaf football star

From: Atlanta Journal Constitution, GA
September 22, 2004

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

BUTLER — David Smith, who turns 19 today, is the talk of Taylor County High. A star football player who plays offense and defense, Smith reigns as a most unlikely symbol of perseverance and hope.

In this rural town 110 miles south of Atlanta, Smith hears none of the adulation. He has never heard the cheers on Friday nights, the endless expressions of respect and affection offered without provocation from anyone who knows him.

Smith is deaf. He has never heard a thing.

"The whole community has rallied behind this young man," assistant football coach Tommy Tucker said. "He's an inspiration — and as fine a young man as you can find anywhere."

David Smith is the oldest of seven children who live with his mother, Ernestine Miller, in a three-room trailer that sits on a pile of cinder blocks off a dirt and gravel road near the center of town.

It was not until he was 5 and started elementary school that a teacher detected he had a hearing disability. Turns out Smith was born totally deaf.

No one in his family has learned sign language, so Smith communicates by reading lips, informal hand signals and instincts.

"I have an easy life," Smith said through special education teacher Cheryl Gray.

It is this humble spirit in the face of so much tumult that astonishes the locals.

"If I could, I'd take him home to live with me right now," Taylor County coach Chris Kirksey said. "I've known him since elementary school, and he's never once been anything but positive and uplifting. I would think that most people who face what he faces every day would at least have mood swings. Never with David. He's always the same. Remarkable."

Smith not only plays football — a sport that requires much verbal communication between players and coaches — he flourishes at it. The 6-foot, 195-pound senior hardly comes off the field for the Vikings, playing both fullback and linebacker.

He has shown this season he is no ordinary talent. Smith had 205 yards rushing and 9 1/2 tackles against Terrell County and 158 yards and 11 1/2 tackles against Crawford County. "I wish I had 10 David Smiths," Kirksey said.

Smith's considerable strength and desire override less-than-blazing speed (4.7 in the 40-yard dash), and his cunning helps him find the open lanes in which to run. "It's all about power for David," Kirksey said. "He finds the right hole and then bursts through it. He just gives 100 percent every play."

Smith missed the third game of the season as a precaution with a hip injury, but he again showed his disability is not debilitating.

Kirksey assigned Smith to work in practice with a ninth-grader who would play in his place. Through hand movements and simulating running through holes, Smith gave the underclassman the kind of guidance that moved him to tell Kirksey: "Coach, you're my coach. But David is my coach, too."

"He's a great player," Kirksey said. "It seems like playing a team sport like this would be a challenge. But not with David."

The coaching staff, players and Smith devised their own special hand signals that allow them to communicate with each other. For instance, six fingers exposed in the huddle means the play "36 Veer."

"We give a number and a sign and he knows what hole to run through or what his assignment is," senior captain Tate Smith (no relation) said. "Once you tell him once, he knows what to do. We don't have any problems communicating."

To his teammates, Smith is more than the team's best player. He's their best leader, too.

"We all see that he works so hard," Tate Smith said. "He inspires us to work harder to keep up with him. I can just sit and watch him practice. I mean, it's amazing."

For senior tight end and defensive end Kenny Grover, seeing David Smith excel has been a significant difference in what he anticipated when they first met.

"I thought then it would be hard for him," Grover said. "But he just is not bothered by his situation. He just knows how to communicate. Not being able to hear is not a bother to him. He's just one of the boys."

Smith hardly receives preferential treatment, his teachers and friends say.

Taylor County Middle School is connected to the high school, and when Smith walks the halls, many of the younger kids vie for his attention. This week between classes, an eighth-grader came up behind Smith and called his name. Intuitively, Smith turned around, although he could not hear the youth, and engaged in banter with him as the kid gushed about how good Smith is as a football player.

"He messes around with us, has fun with us," Grover said. "And we have fun with him. . . . He just doesn't see where he has a handicap."

Said Smith: "I just enjoy life, meeting people, playing football. I don't know why people like me so much. Everyone around me has a positive attitude."

It is Smith's attitude about school that also has impressed. He is the most attentive student in the school, teachers say, as he focuses intently on getting the lessons and maintains a C-to-B average.

"He has the most positive attitude you can imagine," said Smith's horticultural teacher, Gus Ogelsby. "He exceeds the expectations when he should feel sorry for himself. He picks things up really well. He adapts.

"What's really pretty amazing is that he seems to understand when others need to hear in order to understand. He has a grasp with his extra senses, so to speak. He should be an A student; he has that type of aptitude. If he could hear, he would be an A student."

Smith's mom, Ernestine Miller, said she is "proud" of her son because "he has not let not hearing keep him down."

Smith wears hearing aids on both ears, but they offer little in terms of improving his ability to detect sounds. Miller said there was talk "a while back" about experimenting with implants in Smith's ears to bring about hearing.

But Smith said he did not want to try the implants. "I think he's just so used to his life as it is," said Gray, the interpreter, "that he's comfortable staying as he is. I think he wants to hear, but he's not expecting to, and it's OK. This is all he knows."

Want to get Smith to flash a broad smile? Mention University of Georgia football. Last year, he got to visit Athens and have lunch with coach Mark Richt, meet the Georgia Girls, attend a game and generally get a feel for what it is like to be a Bulldog.

Now, he wears UGA T-shirts and even writes "Georgia" on most everything he has. "I just like the Bulldogs," he said, grinning.

Whether he will be able to play for Georgia is unknown. He has to improve his grades and score well on the SAT..

Kirksey expects that Smith will land at a junior college for two years to improve as a player and academically and go from there.

"He has the talent to play good college football," the coach said. "He loves football and is a student of the game, so he knows the game. But the academic side of it can be challenging as a deaf student. The one thing I know, though, is that he has taught us that if he has the appropriate care and instruction, David Smith can do anything."

© 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution



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