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GROWTH ON THE GRIDIRON

A leader whose actions resonate

Shawn McDonald didn't ask to be a team captain at a Riverside school for the deaf, but he didn't back down. `We have to show them,' he said -- and they did.

January 28, 2007|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

SILENCE. In the air was a symphony. Shoulder pads thumped and helmets cracked as Shawn McDonald and his teammates slammed into each other. But for Shawn, all was silence.

The quarterback tripped and tumbled. The fullback plowed into a defender and fell to his knees. The coaches slapped their thighs in frustration. Everything made noise, but Shawn could not hear a thing.

He was a lineman, a high school football player pounding and thudding through another hard practice. Shawn, 18, watched every mistake with dismay. He shared so much with his teammates. Their hopes, their fears. Not just about football, but about hardship. Nobody on the team could hear.

They were the Cubs. The Cubs of the California School for the Deaf, four miles south of downtown Riverside. The campus, classrooms and dorms were full of deaf kids. Teachers, coaches, administrators -- nearly all were deaf. Nobody talked much. There was no one to hear. The air was thick with muffled quiet.

But this was a proud bunch. When Shawn was a sophomore and a junior, the Cubs won 19 games and lost only three. Routinely, they beat nearly every football team in their league, a cluster of schools in the area, teams with good ears. The Cubs couldn't hear a referee's whistle, but last season they were league champions.

Now Shawn was a senior. In September, at the start of what figured to be his last year of football, the pressure had doubled. Shawn wasn't a star. He was a good offensive blocker and a hard defensive tackler, simply a kid who loved to play football. Nevertheless, before the first practice, Coach Keith Adams had stood him in front of the team.

"We need players who can be examples for us, players who can help the coaches show the way, show us how to be Riverside Cub blood brothers," the coach said in sign language, his fingers tracing through the air. "Now it is up to you guys to vote on our leaders for this season. Whoever wants Shawn to be one of our captains, raise your hand."

Under his curly, brown hair, Shawn furrowed his brow. He grimaced. He stood on strong, bowed legs, but he shuffled his black Nike cleats in the dirt. This had been the coach's idea, not his.

Every hand went up.

If only he were as sure of himself as they were of him. There had been times when he'd lost his temper, thrown his helmet, torn off his jersey, yelled in the guttural way he had of getting angry. He had a lot to learn. Leading was up to someone else. Besides, so much was uncertain. This year, half his championship teammates were gone.

Arrayed in front of him were only five seniors with muscled necks like his and expectations as high. There was one junior running back, who had been a star the year before. But most of the rest were freshmen and sophomores -- a ragtag bunch, some too light, others too heavy, some too knock-kneed, others too passive.

Several had never played organized sports. One was just over 5 feet tall. Another was so skinny his legs looked like bones and tendons under tightly stretched skin.

There were 22 players in all. Some opposing teams had twice that many.

It was hard enough being deaf. And now this.

The team picked four additional captains. Coach Adams asked the captains if they had anything to say.

Shawn did not trust himself. It was all he could do to sign: "Let's go."

Taunted, spit upon

Nothing had ever been easy for Shawn McDonald. When he was 6 months old, his family took him to a birthday party at his grandparents'. A kid behind him dropped a toy truck. It was metal, and it crashed on some concrete. Everyone winced but Shawn. In time, doctors delivered the news: Shawn was deaf.

His father, Ramon, believed it was his fault. His hearing was impaired. He had always blamed it on a cold he caught as an infant, but maybe it was hereditary. Shawn's mother, Ana, could hear well. So could his sister, Gabi, three years older. So could his little brother. Ana McDonald resolved that Shawn would grow up no differently from a child who could hear.

The world, Shawn's father and mother knew, was a hearing world, and Shawn would have to adapt. His parents didn't learn much sign language. They insisted that Shawn read lips. He struggled to communicate, to make his feelings known. But in the small desert town of Hesperia, where they lived, 2 1/2 hours northeast of Los Angeles, he was an outcast.

Other children called him "retard." They taunted him. They spit on him and hit him.

More than once, big sister Gabi stepped in and settled his scores for him with her fists. As his frame began to fill and he grew stronger, with thick hands and wide shoulders, he fought for himself. Gabi learned to sign and came up with ways to teach Shawn to form words.

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