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Deaf football team brings motivation to the field

From Fremont, Calif., 19 players and the coach on this small football team have brought grit and motivation to the field, using color coded signs and their own language to communicate. NBC's Mike Taibbi reports.

By Mike Taibbi, NBC News correspondent

It sounds like one of those “Hoosiers” stories: a small high school with undersized players and not even enough of those to fill out a full squad goes all the way! But the story of the 2012 CSD Eagles is better than that.

That’s because ‘CSD’ stands for “California School for the Deaf.”

Yep … all 19 players on the Eagles squad in Freemont, Calif., and head coach Warren Keller, are deaf.

Think of it: Anyone who’s ever played or watched football knows that what often separates failure and mayhem from progress and escape is sound. The signals that are called, or changed at the last second:  the imminent arrival of an oncoming tackler, the exhortations and warnings of teammates and coaches.

But the Eagles found a way to turn deafness into an asset. Using sign language and big color-coded sideline boards, they communicated instantaneously with each other in a language that was natural to them but incomprehensible to every public school opponent who took the field against them.

And they preached speed in practice and during the actual games -- each snap no more than seven seconds from the referee’s spot of the ball. Talk about a quick strike offense -- opposing coaches found themselves mystified by the voiceless whirlwind of these smaller, quicker players who racked up 329 points in 11 games.

Said one opposing coach, “They can talk to each other and don’t have to create a new language. As a matter of fact, we may be at a disadvantage.”

And you have to appreciate the sports-as-a-laboratory-for-life part of this story. As coach Keller put it, “We want to prepare these kids the best we can for the rest of their lives.  No matter how hard we push them, we want to prepare them for real  life.”

It goes without saying that real life is tough enough, growing up deaf. Overcoming that deficit takes extra work that never ends.

It can seem like a burden, an unfair burden; but the Eagles coaches not only convinced their players to adopt the simplest of mottos: "Hard Work!" They showed the rewards available for anyone who bought in, over the course of a single season’s worth of football games.

The kids brought motivation to the field, from their own histories.  

“They think we’re nothing,” generalized linebacker Johnny Morales of the Eagles’ opponents. "That we can’t beat them.  And they have big egos.”

“And then we shock them,” said receiver Zane Peterson, “when they realize deaf people can play.”

And win.

They were victorious in 10 games this season, all but two against public schools. League champions. Finalists for a special citation in Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year” awards. All for young athletes who’d learned that proving their mettle and equality with the hearing world on the field of play can carry over for a lifetime.

“What happens on the football field applies in real life,” said defensive back Trace Martin.   

Johnny Morales added, “I’ll always remember playing football here, of course I will. It’s gonna help me be a better man.”