Back in the 1970s when NFL rosters were smaller, Redskins coach George Allen used to exhort his players before kickoff with the impassioned motto, “47 men together can’t lose.”
Add seven men and that could be the slogan at this season at Gallaudet. The Bison are 8-0 and can clinch the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference title and their first Division III postseason berth by beating 2-6 Anna Maria at home on Saturday. Although at Gallaudet, the world’s only university for the deaf and hard of hearing, Allen’s words would be delivered in American Sign Language.
“We only have 54 guys,” said Chuck Goldstein, Gallaudet’s fourth-year coach, who says his best player is 5-foot-11, 170-pound Nick Elstad, who has played safety, running back and quarterback, returned kicks, covered them and held for them over the last two years. “That’s crazy. When I coached at Salisbury, we had 160 kids. I didn’t even know some of the kids on the other side of the ball. Having only 54 kids, makes us tighter than any other team, but we have to practice differently.”
The Bison only wear shoulder pads on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and even then, they don’t take full contact. Apparently, that’s not a problem on Florida Avenue where magic is happening this fall.
After overcoming a 14-point halftime deficit last Saturday, Gallaudet needed freshman Chris Papacek to block lowly Becker’s game-winning field goal try and senior Ryan Bonheyo to scoop up the ball and race 79 yards for the 40-34 victory that preserved the perfect season.
“At the beginning of the season, we could see we had plenty of talent and we had experienced leaders,” Bonheyo, a co-captain and running back who leads the Bison with nine touchdowns, said through an interpreter. “We had come up short the previous three years [while going 5-5, 5-5 and 7-2]. We’d never win the close games. This year we’re winning the close games [four of the last five by no more than eight points]. When we came to Gallaudet, our class knew we could do something special before we graduated. It’s finally showing.”
That’s for sure. The Bison average a whopping 326.6 rushing yards (to just 51 passing) while using an offense modeled after the triple option that Paul Johnson installed at Navy a decade ago.
“Our offensive philosophy is to hold onto the ball, win the time of possession [battle],” said Goldstein, whose team leads all of college football with an average time of possession of 36:40. “We are a very aggressive defense. We attack. We play very physical.”
It’s easier to play physical when 6-6, 292-pound Adham Talaat is lined up at defensive end. Talaat — who like half of the Bison is hard of hearing — grew up in Springfield in a hearing family. He had signed with Massachusetts, but when coach Don Brown left to become Maryland’s defensive coordinator, so did Talaat before ever enrolling in classes.
“I was working part-time, going to NOVA part-time and out of the blue I got a Facebook message from a high school teammate telling me that the Gallaudet coach wanted my phone number,” recalled Talaat, a co-captain who has been scouted by most NFL teams. “The next day, I got a text from Coach Chuck introducing himself. I saw a practice the day before homecoming. I came back for the game. We won 35-0. After the game, I was sitting in my car and I said a prayer. I had this overwhelming feeling that this was where I was supposed to come.”
Although he grew up in a deaf family and played for his father and with his brother Taylor – now the Bison’s sophomore quarterback — at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, Bonheyo also took an indirect route to Gallaudet. He spent his freshman year at Towson.
“It was a lifelong dream to get a full scholarship at a D-1 school,” said the speedy 6-2, 220-pound Bonheyo. “I couldn’t miss out on that opportunity. I have no regrets. I learned a lot. I saw what the real world was like. I was from the deaf community and I wanted to see the other side. It was fun at Towson, but I realized I belonged here.”
So does football. Gallaudet was where the huddle was invented in the late 19th century. However, the school didn’t have a winning season from 1931-85 and dropped to the club level after going 4-41-1 from 1990-94. Coach Ed Hottle restored the program’s intercollegiate status in 2007 and installed the triple option. And now the Bison are now succeeding beyond anyone’s imagination.
“Four years ago, people would ask, ‘Do you have a game on Saturday?’ “ Bonheyo said. “Now you go to class on Monday and everyone congratulates you. Every day in the cafeteria, they ask about the next game and about winning the championship and going undefeated.”
Whether Gallaudet wins on Saturday and then beats Maritime (N.Y.) on Nov. 16 to finish 10-0 and become the university’s first men’s team to compete in postseason (women’s basketball and volleyball have done so) or not, the Bison have already made their mark.
“At away games, we have more fans than the home team because the deaf community comes out to support us,” said Goldstein, who took a crash course in ASL so he could coach at Gallaudet where he uses internet searches to help find deaf and hard of hearing players.
“That gives you a sense of belonging and tells you that we’re making an impact on people outside of Gallaudet,” Talaat said.
And in the hearing world, too.
“We have to carry ourselves with class on and off the field because we represent every deaf person in the country and in the world,” Goldstein said. “If some six-year-old kid who has never seen a deaf person before sees our players acting badly, she’ll think every deaf person acts that way.”
No worries, coach. Your players are representing, on and off the field.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.