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Deaf California football team draws national attention

They mustered just 19 players from their high school, so few that some of them regularly had to play both offense and defense. Not one of those players weighed as much as 200 pounds, putting the team regularly at a size disadvantage.

But the most obvious obstacle is one the Eagles insist hindered them not at all: Each of the players — and the head coach — is deaf.

Representing the California School for the Deaf, the Eagles just concluded their best season ever, capturing a North Central II/Bay League title competing against teams with no such disadvantages.

Tuesday, they will learn whether they will receive a special citation and a $25,000 grant at Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year ceremony; the Eagles are one of 10 teams nationwide vying for that honor. According to Deaf Digest Sports, the team is the national champion in its class among deaf high schools.

Sports Illustrated this season featured CSD in “Underdogs,” an online video series that focused on 10 high school football teams battling major challenges. The undersized Eagles squad, led by quarterback Carlos Lopez and running back Brian Freeman, filled their football season with glory by transforming perceived negatives into positives.

“Some might call us disabled, but that can be extra motivation for us,” said Lopez, clad in jeans, a sweatshirt and a belt that reads, “I love haters.” He added: “Some of us might feel hurt or angry, but when it comes time to play the game, we prove them wrong and we earn their respect.”

First, they outwitted bigger teams by using their speed, Lopez said. Fueled by the bold creativity of head coach Warren Keller, they exhausted opponents by running a no-huddle offense. Keller used large color-coded boards — like the highly ranked University of Oregon team does — and American Sign Language to call and communicate plays during games.

“Our goal is to get off a play within seven seconds after a referee spots the ball,” said Keller, who grew up in Chicago and played quarterback as a teenager for New Mexico School for the Deaf. “We try to get off so many snaps that it’s like playing two games in one day.”

The quick-strike strategy worked. The Eagles set a single-season record for wins and racked up 349 points in 11 contests (one victory was a forfeit), averaging about 32 points a game.

Another key to their success is the bond teammates forged while adhering to Keller’s “Hard Work Philosophy,” which demands that players always move fast during practice, work hard in all aspects of life and respect everyone, especially each other.

The team’s chemistry and offensive dominance helped them capture their first league title since 2002, and their second since 1991, when Gil Lentz Jr. was head coach. Lentz Jr. was quarterback of another CSD league-winning team in 1974. Lentz’s son, Ryan Lentz, is now a 26-year-old CSD employee who helps coach the Eagles’ middle school football team.

“Anytime the School for the Deaf takes the field, it proves to the world that being deaf is not a disability, it’s just a speed bump,” Lentz said. “It proves no matter how high or wide the obstacle is, it’s not one that somebody can’t overcome.”

Still, being the league’s only deaf team poses its challenges.

Keller, 26, cannot readily communicate with referees, which shuts him out of the time-honored coach’s ploy of chewing a ref’s ear. Also, some referees will confuse a player’s wordless demeanor with bad body language and mistakenly think he’s acting negatively toward them, said Keller, a Pleasanton, Calif., resident.

But besides those nuances, “we don’t do anything different than any other program,” he said. “We haven’t faced one opponent where we’re at a disadvantage.”

Opposing coaches, such as Gary Galloway of Petaluma’s St. Vincent de Paul, agree with Keller. In fact, Galloway sees an advantage for the Eagles.

“They’re one of the most disciplined teams we play,” he said. “It might be because of the focus they have to have (as deaf players). It was amazing to see how excited they were to play the game.”

Founded in Berkeley in 1860, the California School for the Deaf moved to Fremont in the late 1970s. Its 426 K-12 students attend classes on the campus situated between Central Park, Walnut Avenue and Mission Boulevard, where there are more similarities to other schools than differences. The school gymnasium hallway includes a glass-encased trophy room that showcases the Eagles’ rich sports history, which dates back more than a century. A recent inductee into the school’s Hall of Fame was James Baker, an Eagles baseball standout who played in 1905.

The gym’s hallway walls are covered with several signs that read: “There is no shortcut to success,” and “There is no ‘I’ on an Eagles team!”

As head coach, Keller leaned on those slogans and his “Hard Work Philosophy” to boost his players’ spirits after a heartbreaking playoff loss Nov. 17 to St. Vincent de Paul. The Eagles were defeated 13-12 on a last-minute touchdown, losing the chance to advance to the CIF North Coast Section Division V championship game.

Not even that can diminish the accomplishments of the California School for the Deaf’s greatest season ever, Keller said.

“After the game, I told them to keep using the ‘Hard Work Philosophy’ for their following sports and for the rest of their lives,” he said. “And they will do just fine.”

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