Gallaudet University’s men’s soccer program is opening its season Friday night at Centre College in Danville and following that up with a game at Spalding University in Louisville on Sunday.
That’s unique for a couple of reasons. Gallaudet, a federally chartered private college located in Washington, D.C., is the only liberal arts college dedicated to students who are deaf and hard of hearing. Other than a trip by the school’s track-and-field teams for an independent championship event held earlier this year in Berea, the school believes this to be the first time any Gallaudet sports program has played a contest in Kentucky.
The Bison will make the most of their time here. On Thursday they’ll get to Louisville, where they’ll be staying for the weekend, and head to Danville to meet with students and community members at Kentucky School for the Deaf. The team will spend more time touring the facilities at KSD on Friday before its game against Centre.
Gallaudet on Saturday will attend the DeaFestival, a free one-day event in Louisville that celebrates the language, art, diversity and talents of the deaf and hard of hearing. The Bison plan to tour the Louisville Slugger museum as well. The school has reached out to the University of Kentucky to try and arrange a meeting with men’s basketball coach John Calipari, too.
The swing through the Bluegrass will by far be Gallaudet’s longest road trip this season, topping out at about 10 hours each way; next farthest are a couple of seven-hour trips to New York state.
“I don’t think another Gallaudet team will be there for another three, four, five years,” Gallaudet Coach Pedro Braz said. “It’s not often at all, so this is great for (KSD), the community, and the kids seeing our students playing an NCAA Division III sport. They can do it. They have that possibility.”
Braz, a native of Angola who came to the U.S. when he was about 5 years old, is fully-hearing but uses American Sign Language in addition to speaking Creole, English, Portuguese and Spanish. He was the head coach at Montgomery College, a junior college he guided to a national championship appearance in 2012, for three seasons before accepting the task of renewing the program at Gallaudet, which was suspended for a year due to budgetary concerns.
“I had zero experience signing and zero experience with deaf culture,” Braz said. “I came in without one word of ASL and now I’m almost fluent. ... I started a brand new program and learned a brand new language. It’s like me putting you to coach in China and saying, ‘OK, now go learn their language as well.’ It was a challenge and an experience.”
Learning ASL was just one piece to his latest puzzle. Navigating the recruitment landscape can be harrowing — “On a boys’ high school roster it does not say, ‘Oh, Joe Schmo is No. 7 but he’s also deaf,” Braz said — as can internal communications.
“Some players are hard of hearing, some are only 10 percent deafness and some are fully deaf,” Braz said. “Some have no experience in signing, some are fully deaf and only sign, and some are only voice. You’re bringing so many people in from so many different backgrounds. We have a Russian player, we have a Tunisia player from Africa. If they don’t know English, they don’t know ASL. If you know Russian, you know Russian Sign Language. Then you have players from all over the country — California, New Jersey, Texas. So you have different backgrounds, different people and different languages even though they’re all deaf or have some type of hearing loss.”
Braz, now in his fourth year leading the program, hopes Gallaudet’s visit generates excitement and interest beyond those in the deaf community and at KSD; generating awareness and support of the deaf and hard of hearing is as important to the Bison as getting a couple of games under their belt.
“You’re helping young people become men and also providing a service which is education, but also seeing them develop and do well in a sport like every other hearing person in this world,” Braz said. “They’ve proven that they can do it and are showing everybody that if you put some work in and have a mindset of succeeding, it can happen. ...
“The more support the better. Not only just the deaf community but every community. We want to make it all together, make it even and make it accessible to all.”
Gallaudet in Kentucky
At Centre College: 5 p.m. Friday
At Spalding University: 1 p.m. Sunday