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Wisconsin School for the Deaf

When you think football, you probably don't think of a quiet, soft breeze carrying subdued cracks of shoulder pads and a sporadic yet muffled clap from the bleachers. No, you think of fat, sweaty men dressed as female-pig hybrids screaming their tonsils red. Or a bald man painted black and silver with spikes coming out of his veiny neck, feeding off the spine-tingling crash of two football players colliding together.

But what happens when none (or at least the vast majority) of the players and fans can’t hear and many can’t produce noise? How do they communicate? How is football different when something so fundamental is out of the equation?

These are the questions I tried to answer with my latest story for the Janesville Gazette. I had the opportunity to spend a couple afternoons with the Wisconsin School for the Deaf football team, and it was really interesting and challenging at the same time.

Challenging because the absence of noise is hard to convey visually. The games are, for the most part, completely quiet except for the colliding of football pads and the occasional grunt or two. Unfortunately, my camera can’t capture sound waves. Instead, what I focused on is how the players and coaches communicate with each other. What I noticed immediately on the first day was the players and coaches use their facial expressions to make the noise for them. I don’t even need to know sign language to tell exactly the tone they are trying to convey.

I also tried to show that, despite what I would consider I huge obstacle, deaf football teams are still competitive and still play the game well. And in case you’re wondering, the Wisconsin School for the Deaf plays more than just other deaf football teams, they play other 8-man teams around Wisconsin…and win.

The process of working on this project was incredibly rewarding for a multitude of reasons. My main contact at the school, Maria, was absolutely amazing in providing me with information about the students and coaches, not to mention her flexibility with interpreting and dealing with me showing up out of the blue in-between my other assignments.

Each time I photographed the players, either at practice or games, I was stunned by their awareness of their surroundings. There were many times I would cover my ears during practice to get a sense of not being able to hear the players’ footsteps. Frankly, playing football in that type of environment would be terrifying (I think so at least). Their ability to go out on the field and give it their all was pretty inspiring.

From a professional standpoint, finishing this project was a great learning experience. To spend as much time as I did – from brainstorming the idea, making connections, committing the time, piecing the story together in my head and editing it all together – was exactly the experience I wanted to take away from my internship.

Most importantly, it solidified something I guess I already knew…I love doing these long-term projects. They are much more meaningful for everyone involved.