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COLLEGE FOOTBALL ’97: Deaf player gets signals from sidelines

August 15, 1997

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ When Dwight Collins scores a touchdown, he’s not interested in the roar of the crowd.

What the University of Central Florida running back wants to see is thousands of arms and wiggling fingers in the air. That lets Collins, who has been deaf since infancy, know he’s being cheered.

And he is being cheered _ by his Golden Knight teammates and fans who see a player who hasn’t let his disability get in the way of his athletic career.

When Collins was looking at schools last year, many colleges were impressed with his high school career stats of 2,587 yards and 27 touchdowns. But he got offers only from Central Florida; Tulane; Gallaudet, the nation’s top university for deaf students; and McNeese State, near his hometown of Lake Charles, La.

``Not all the colleges were interested in me because of my deafness,″ Collins said through an interpreter. ``They saw it as a handicap even though I didn’t think it was.″

Since his arrival this summer, Collins has been treated like a celebrity by many fans.

``He’s a star in the deaf community,″ said Debbie Drobney, a teacher of American Sign Language at Central Florida.

Deafness wasn’t an issue when the school recruited the muscled, 210-pound running back who sprints with abandon, coach Gene McDowell said.

``He’s a heck of a football player,″ he said. ``He runs real fast. He’s driven to excel and he has a high skill level.″

Collins’ hearing impairment, which is at a 98 percent loss, forces him to concentrate harder than his teammates and he rarely needs to be told twice to do something, the coach said.

``This is just my life. I assimilate into the hearing community,″ Collins said. ``I want to be looked at as an equal. A deaf person is the same as a hearing person.″

Even if Collins doesn’t start his freshman year, his upbeat attitude and sense of humor will be a good influence on the team as it enters its second year of Division I-A football, McDowell said. The Golden Knights face a tough schedule, including games against Auburn, Nebraska and South Carolina.

``He has an advantage over guys like us,″ the coach said. ``Most people don’t pay attention. He pays attention.″

Collins was 11 months old when he lost his hearing after contracting meningitis, said his mother, Annie Collins, a bank worker. He was always athletic and his father, Clifford, a forklifter, enrolled him in a karate class at age 6. From there, it was on to weightlifting, track and football.

Collins doesn’t read lips. He relies on his interpreter, Angel Carpenter, on the field during practice and on the sidelines at games.

It also helps that running back coach Alan Gooch spent the summer taking American Sign Language classes with a backup quarterback and a student trainer.

But Carpenter, Collins and Gooch won’t use the sign language during games in case someone on the other team knows it. Instead, they’ve created their own system of hand signals to convey plays.

Players may also stick a numbered list of signals on wristbands and learn which play to run by the number of fingers the coach holds up.

Carpenter, who will be with Collins at every team meeting, practice and road trip, didn’t know much about the game when she started. She has since purchased ``The Women’s Armchair Guide to Professional Football″ and is learning fast.

``I wasn’t a football fan to start with, but now I have to be. I’m Dwight’s No. 1 fan,″ she said.

Collins dreams of playing pro football, or becoming a math teacher if that doesn’t work out. He does have a predecessor. Kenny Walker, a deaf All-American defensive tackle for Nebraska in the late 1980s, went on to play for the Denver Broncos and two teams in the Canadian Football League.

``My son is going to make it wherever he goes,″ his father said. ``He’s going far.″

End Adv for weekend editions, Aug. 16-17

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