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‘Something that nobody can take away’: Michigan School for the Deaf football team wins first game since 1978

'Something that nobody can take away': Michigan School for the Deaf football team wins first game since 1978

The Michigan School for the Deaf football team defeated New Haven Meritt Academy 50-26 on Oct. 10, the team's first victory since 1978. (Jake May | MLive.com)

By Ross Maghielse
[email protected]
October 16, 2013 

FLINT, MI — Among the clutter of paperwork and binders stacked in his cramped office at the Michigan School for the Deaf, Sammy Oates adamantly points to a picture pinned to the wall with a thumbtack and beams with pride.

It’s a picture of him and 11 students — the football team at the School for the Deaf — after winning the school’s first game since 1978. They are posed in front of a scoreboard that proves they did indeed beat New Haven Merritt Academy, 50-26, Thursday Oct. 10 at their home field in Flint.

“I’ll have that picture with me forever,” Oates, who is deaf, said through a sign language interpreter.

Oates took the job as the head football coach and athletic director at the Michigan School for the Deaf this summer after previously coaching in football-crazed Texas, where he won many games coaching at the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin.

None of those wins were like this one, though.

“In Texas, I had a lot of wins but this is my most favorite win ever,” Oates said. “It’s my favorite because I have seen so much growth. I remember coming here for our first summer camp and oh my, I have seen a lot of change since then.”

Oates is trying to solidify a football program at the School for the Deaf that restarted in 2009 after being inactive since 1985. The team plays 8-man football instead of the traditional 11-player format and Oates says he’s hopeful the team will grow and eventually be able to compete.

The concept of 8-man football is a growing trend in Michigan for schools with low numbers. With only 11 players on the team, it's really on the only option a team like the Tartars have.

Winning a game was a goal Oates set when he arrived. He had hoped to be able to do it next season.

“I just asked the players to meet me halfway,” Oates said. “We had a list of goals. About tackling, about stats, about scoring touchdowns and the last one on the list was a win. Win one game. We thought maybe next year. But we did it. We met all of the goals in just this fall.”

More goals still remain. Oates wants to add more players to the program, which he hopes will help stabilize it for the long-term. The School for the Deaf restarted the team to add another extra-curricular option for students and hopefully attract more students to the school. Fifty kids are enrolled in the school this year.

"It can be hard for the program to maintain itself, but the players that we have are very dedicated," Oates said. "Most of the schools we play have at least 100 students so they have more kids that want to play football. Some of the boys on my team had never played football before and it is a great challenge for them, to convince them to try it. I think us winning this game might make more kids want to be a part of the team."

Other high school football teams in Michigan are still playing for conference championships and playoff spots over the final two weeks of the regular season but the School for the Deaf’s team is done for the fall. The win over Merritt Academy was their final game of the year.

Keegan Linton, a senior captain, wasn’t sure it would ever happen.

“I went through all four years here and it was very hard sometimes,” Linton said. “I remember during my freshman year I really struggled a lot. I wasn’t sure I liked football but now I really cherish the experience. I’ll never forget that win and now I can always say that I won that game. It was a very special moment.”

Asante Matten, a junior, is the team’s quarterback and orchestrated the high-scoring effort in the win. Even with a big lead late in the game, the reality of closing in on a victory hadn’t hit him.

“I was shocked after the game that we won,” Matten said. “We saw all the fans coming onto the field smiling and cheering for us and it was the first time we felt that. It was very exciting and was kind of a lot going on. That was really cool. We were just thrilled.”

Matten was one of the students who at first was reluctant to play football. Oates refers to him as a natural athlete but the task of learning the game — especially at the quarterback position — seemed daunting, Matten said.

All the plays, for example, are communicated via sign language and the football terminology used was totally different than much of the words the players had already learned.

"It was very hard to learn when I started and I wasn't sure how long I would play, but I love it now," Matten said. "I think when I saw my family come watch me play for the first time and how happy it made them, that was really exciting for me. That really meant a lot for me and I'm already excited about playing again (next season)."

Even a week later, the congratulations and encouragement from the school’s alumni and outside supporters are still pouring in, Oates said, and the moment is still fresh in his mind.

“I can still replay it in like slow motion,” Oates said. “Afterwards, my mind was still racing. The deaf community is very small, so the news has spread quickly. We put it on Facebook and so many people have reached out. So many people felt like the win was for them, too.

“It’s something that nobody can take away from these boys now.”

Contact Ross at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Maghielse.



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