High School Sports

Bringing the noise: Montgomery football standout can't hear it, but everyone can see it

Montgomery County linebacker Mason Gooch and his dad, head coach Dan Gooch, posed in their stadium in Mount Sterling on Tuesday. Mason Gooch is second on the team with 44 tackles, 14 for loss. He's been a key to the Indians' 4-1 start this season.
Montgomery County linebacker Mason Gooch and his dad, head coach Dan Gooch, posed in their stadium in Mount Sterling on Tuesday. Mason Gooch is second on the team with 44 tackles, 14 for loss. He's been a key to the Indians' 4-1 start this season. Herald-Leader

As you watch highlights of Montgomery County outside linebacker Mason Gooch knocking down quarterbacks, stripping the ball away from runners and batting passes out of the air, you'd not once think there's a trait that sets him apart from everyone he takes the field against.

Gooch is profoundly deaf, meaning he is unable to detect sound at all without the aid of a cochlear implant he received when he was 20 months old. He wears a processor that attaches to a magnet in his head and sends wavelengths to the implant in his ear.

Out on the football field, though, that piece won't fit under his helmet. So Gooch makes sacks, tackles and blocks in total silence every Friday night.

No matter. Gooch is second on the team with 44 tackles (Chase Parker leads with 45) and has a team-best 14 tackles for loss — four off the school record for most in a season. He's a key cog for a Montgomery County defense that's allowed just 55 points this year — third fewest in Class 5A — and has the Indians out to a 4-1 start for the first time since 2012.

"I'm just like any other person," Gooch said. "The only thing I can't do is hear. But that doesn't do anything to my ability."

Lip reader

Dan Gooch, Mason's father who's in his 11th season as Montgomery County's head coach, said some doctors in Indianapolis — where Mason received his implant — said going all oral and forgoing sign language in Mason's development could be beneficial in the long run. Signing would be easier, they said, but he would be unlikely to speak vocally if they'd gone that route.

So Mason underwent five years of speech therapy as a child and speaks just as well as someone not born profoundly deaf. Through that process and in having his parents speak really close to him as he was growing up, he gained an affinity for reading lips.

That extra ability has provided a means of on-field communication with teammates, who will exaggerate their lips or spell things out quickly.

It's at least once proved to be an advantage against opponents, too.

"One time in fourth grade, it was a close game or something and the coaches were in the huddle," Dan said. " ... We won the game. They threw a pass and we knocked it down. After the game, (Mason) said 'Dad, I knew they were going to pass the ball.' He said 'I could read the lips of that head coach telling them it was a pass.'"

Mason said he'd try to learn sign language if there ever came a time he'd need to, but for now speaking and reading lips is second nature. So much so that his teammates — most of whom he's played alongside most of his life — might not fully comprehend the severity of his condition.

"Mason said once, 'I don't think anyone on the team knows I'm really, really deaf," Dan said.

Just how Mason likes it.

Football blood

Dan was a star linebacker at Morehead State University, where he still owns several records, and spent a season with the Birmingham Stallions in the USFL.

Mason's uncle, Tim Gooch, was a defensive tackle at the University of Kentucky under Fran Curci.

So for Mason, playing football wasn't a matter of if but rather "just finding a way" to make it work, Dan said.

The Riddell Revolution helmet became a comfortable solution for a young Mason, who in PeeWee leagues could feel pressure from his helmet pressing against the magnet in his head. The newest "Speed" model from Riddell is even better.

Early on, Mason would continue going full speed after the whistle had blown a play dead. As he's gotten older, he's developed a better sense of when the action stops and those after-the-whistle plays have decreased significantly.

The transition to varsity football as a sophomore was a big challenge because coaches would often forget he couldn't hear things they were teaching. That was partly due to Mason's refusal to take his helmet off and put his earpiece on because he wanted to better fit in, Dan said.

Mason has matured since that first varsity season, and his teammates are understanding when he might need a second explanation regarding a formation or scheme, Dan said.

"There's just so much sound involved in football," Dan said. "The snap count and everything going on. And he's in complete silence. He's really come a long way since his sophomore year."

Mason spent most of his junior season on the sideline with his father because of an injury. It was a great experience, Mason said, because he got to listen to the coaches make adjustments and take in the sounds others take for granted at a high school football game.

"I don't hear those sounds while I'm out there playing with my helmet on," Mason said. "I can't hear all the fans and the whistles and the helmets hitting and everything. It was cool."

Dan thought that exposure was great for his son, a boy who was "eat up with football" as a youngster watching Tennessee Titans games every Sunday when the family lived in Owensboro.

"I hated that he was hurt but he could stand on the sideline and hear all the things going on in a football game," Dan said. "He could stand there and take it all in. It helped him this year in a way."

And even though Mason can't hear those sounds when he's bringing down guys behind the line of scrimmage, he knows they're there.

"When I'm playing, I have a feeling in my head," Mason said. "I imagine what the sounds are like. Like in the Clark County game (this season), everybody was screaming. I couldn't hear 'em, but I knew they were screaming."