His sister found him wandering the park, searching for the hearing aids that had been ripped out. A furious May went door-to-door, found the attackers and warned their parents that the next time she'd press charges. Derrick Sr. claims he was in "sheer anger." But young Derrick quietly went back to his room … to do push-ups.
Football, as is often the case, was the great equalizer. Whereas Derrick was once the shy, disengaged deaf kid, he soon became the kid most likely to make a tackle.
It didn't happen overnight, but there was value in the journey. In the seventh grade, he had begged his parents to let him play Pop Warner football, and, at first, May, a nurse, resisted because of the hearing aid issues. She worried they would come flying out on impact -- which would turn out to be correct -- and she was wondering, too, whether collisions could damage his hearing even more.
Derrick Sr. pushed to let him play, convinced that football would be his son's ticket to normalcy. Derrick Sr. had always feared that, in response to the heckling, young Derrick would resort to using his fists. Football was the better alternative, he felt, and May let their pediatrician decide.
The pediatrician ordered an MRI to examine the bone structure in young Derrick's inner ear, and his conclusion was that football would not damage Derrick's hearing any further.
"What football did was save my life," Coleman says. He already had begun to read lips with the help of his audiologist, but football inspired him to master lip reading sooner and at a more expert level. He knew coaches would be yelling. He knew quarterbacks would be panicking. He had to be able to focus, stare at their mouths and translate swiftly.
The hearing aids could do only so much. At that time, in the early 2000s, his hearing devices were bulkier and not as amplified. "If we go on a scale of zero to 10, with 10 being what normal people hear, without my hearing aids, I'm about a one, one and a half,'' Coleman says. "But with hearing aids when I was younger, I was more like a six or seven."
But his "six or seven" would dip lower, he says, when there was the accompanying mayhem of the football field. Teammates were wearing mouthpieces. They were speaking in incomplete, garbled sentences. In his brain, all of that noise morphed into an undecipherable hum. Pop Warner coaches didn't trust him at first. They stuck him on the offensive and defensive line. They didn't realize that, for a lip reader, it's more difficult to understand someone when they're shouting and twitching. And the coaches were doing a lot of shouting and twitching.
But football still boils down to blocking and tackling, and young Derrick was usually the most ripped physical specimen on the field, not to mention the most fearless. There was only one glitch. May would see him digging through the grass to find his hearing aids after he leveled some opponent. So she fixed that by designing a pantyhose skull cap to keep his earpieces from falling off.
"Football gave him self-esteem he never would have had," Derrick Sr. says. "After he got to prove himself, he was no longer picked last -- he was picked first. Because now everybody knows this kid. 'Oh, that kid? Yeah, Derrick with the hearing aids. Yeah, he's a great player.' So, he found his niche in life early on."
The only question was: Could this be his niche in life later on?