Rider defensive end is deaf, but still playing the game he loves
November 26, 2014
WICHITA FALLS, Texas
T.J. Woollis goes unnoticed most Friday nights.
The Rider senior defensive end really only plays in the fourth quarter when a game has been decided and he’s yet to register a tackle this season. He spends most of his time on the sidelines cheering on his teammates.
But it’s not like Woollis really minds his role. All things considered, he’s getting to experience something many high school seniors with his disability rarely do.
“I was born deaf,” Woollis explained. “I have implants that help me hear. Without them, I can’t hear anything.”
His disability hasn’t kept him from doing what he loves, though. And it doesn’t matter how much he plays. Woollis is a valued member of the Raiders.
“T.J. knows when to give it to you,” Rider senior defensive end and team captain R.D. Wegmann said. “T.J. is a grinder. He’s someone that if you’re slow off the ball, T.J. will let you know. He’s a team player. He does everything for the team.
“I love T.J. from the bottom of my heart. I’ve known him since freshman year. He’s one of the smartest guys I know.”
The fact Woollis is even a member of the Raiders is remarkable, and it all goes back to his parents’ decision to ensure their son had as normal a life as possible.
Woollis was born with severe hearing loss in both ears, but the disability wasn’t discovered until he was 6-years-old. His parents, Terence Woollis and Wendy Turner, noticed his speech was developing as quickly as other kids and decided to take him to an audiologist.
Even during the hearing test, it wasn’t clear Woollis was deaf.
“They finally did a speech and hearing test and he was passing everything,” Woollis’ father Terence said. “The doctor would ask him to pick out the picture of the apple and he would pick the apple.
“I told her, ‘He’s reading your lips.’ She didn’t think it was possible for a kid that young to read lips. I asked her to cover her mouth and ask him to pick out the apple.”
Woollis couldn’t do it. He had gotten by through the first couple years of school by learning to read lips — an unlikely feat for a kid who is only 4- or 5- years-old.
His parents made the decision to get Woollis cochlear implants, which would allow him to hear with the help of a processor.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen videos of kids who get hearing aids and their reaction the first time they can hear,” Terence said. “Being a parent and seeing that, it’s freaking amazing.”
There are always warnings for parents of deaf children. Learning disabilities are often an issue and a normal high school experience is unlikely.
“They said we can classify him as special ed,” Terence said. “He’s not special ed and we didn’t want him classified like that. His speech is good. It’s not perfect, but it’s good.”
The decision to keep Woollis in the public school system set his course for Rider, and gave him a chance to play a sport he’s always loved.
“I always loved football,” Woollis said. “I think it’s a lot of fun. I really like being a part of the team and helping my teammates.”
Woollis began playing football in junior high at McNiel. His parents consulted the surgeon who had put in his implants and he did say there was a possibility a hit could jar something loose, but it was no different a risk than him tripping and falling on the ground. The surgeon also said it would be a very rare occurrence for that to happen.”
Woollis naturally continued to play football when he started attending Rider. Jim Garfield was the head coach at the time and current coach Marc Bindel doesn’t recall any apprehension with Woollis joining the program.
“It was one of those things where he wanted to play football so let’s get it done and he can play,” Woollis said. “His teammates have really helped him out. They help him get lined up. Being deaf is a disability, but we don’t look at it like that and he doesn’t feel that way. He’s a teammate to us.”
Woollis has to completely overcome his disability during games. He’s not able to wear his processor under his helmet and as a result can’t hear anything.
“I can read the coaches’ lips,” Woollis said, “and I have to see the signs. The signs tell me what to do. My teammates help me, too.”
Wegmann remembers Woollis adjusting very quickly as a freshman.
“We just took him in,” Wegmann said. “We figured out what he was saying and he figured out what we were saying. Straight meant straight, left meant left and right meant right. We kind of figured it out.
“Senior year now, we all know him and it’s easier. He’s bossing all of us around. We love having him on the team.”
His teammates have a lot to do with Woollis sticking with the program for three years before finally reaching the varsity as a senior.
“I love being with my teammates,” Woollis said. “I’ve always wanted to play football.”
“It’s great,” Terence added. “He loves being there to support his team. It’s an amazing deal to just see him do what he loves to do. He’s always like football.
“The coaches and players are great to him. He’s a great kid just the way he is. His coaches and teammates, they’re all looking out for him.”
On Thanksgiving afternoon, Woollis will sit down with his family around the dinner table, and like many others, he’ll ponder the things he’s thankful for in his life.
On Friday afternoon when the Raiders face Canyon Randall in Lubbock, Woollis will be patrolling the sidelines at Lowrey Stadium, encouraging his teammates like he has most Fridays this season.
If the right situation comes along, Woollis might even see a little playing time. Maybe he’ll even notch his first varsity tackle.
Regardless, Woollis will be enjoying something he is most thankful for in his life — being part of a team and playing a game with his friends just like any other teenage boy.