Florida School for the Deaf & Blind in St. Augustine offers an array of athletic pursuits as part of its many extracurricular activities. The hearing-impaired side is known by its Dragons mascot; the visually-impaired portion is the Cobras.
One of the 11 sports offered is football, which is now in its 102nd season. The current roster of 34 has players from all over the state: Tampa, Ocala, Gainesville, Bradenton, Miami and Orlando to name a few cities.
The football team competes FHSAA independent in the North Florida Football Conference against such local schools as Aucilla Christian Academy, Robert F. Munroe and John Paul II Catholic. The Dragons recently completed a 5-4 season and along the way played four games against deaf schools from other states — Alabama, Texas, California and Maryland.
Eric LeFors, who is deaf, just wrapped up his fourth year as head coach of the FSDB Dragons. After winning a Deaf National Championship in 2013 during the school’s 100th year of football, LeFors was named national coach of the year by Deaf Digest.
LeFors took a moment to answer a few questions about in regards to the football program and some of the nuances of being a deaf team.
Q: So, 102 years of football, and I’m guessing most people don’t know that. We have Leon High here in its 100th year of football and there’s so much history. What can you tell me about the rich history of football at the school?
A: “The number 102 itself is astounding. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years. We’ve won three National Deaf Prep Championships (1976, 1979, 2013). And way back in the day, our teams would play against the University of Florida.”
Q: What are some of the challenges you face with a football team, specifically referring to hearing impairment?
A: The biggest challenge is ease of communication. We aren’t able to communicate while keeping our eyes on the ball. For example, when we’re communicating defensive schemes with each other, we can miss the snap of the ball because we’re looking at each other instead of the ball.
Q: Are there advantages in communication via hand signals, blocking out fan noise or reading lips?
A: I’m not sure if there are any proven advantages. But there are accidental ones like when I wanted to tell a player to do something, but he didn’t see me and did something else that ended up being a good play.
Q: What happens when you play another state’s school for the deaf & blind?
A: Oh, those games are the best. Everyone turns it up a notch. The boys hit a little bit harder. After the game, they meet up and make lifelong friends. It’s awesome.
Q: The FSDB basketball team manager said that players can feel vibration. Are other senses heightened?
A: I’m not able to tell you for sure if it’s factual that our four other senses are heightened, but I could swear that we see things in a lot more detail than the average hearing person. That’s because we’re trained to use our eyes to assess the environment around us.
Q: As a coach, how do you express anger, frustration or intensity to your players without audible voice level?
A: By the cadence, size and tone of our signs. Our faces will tell them plenty, too.
Q: When people learn that FSDB not only plays football but has for 102 years, do you think it helps break down people’s stereotypes of what “disabled” individuals can accomplish?
A: Most of the time we break down stereotypes after the game when they realize that we can run, block and tackle just like they do.
There are deaf football players (across the state) languishing on the bench at public schools, or that are too afraid to go out for the team. They need to know they can come our way and we’ll help them improve and give them an experience of a lifetime.