Until he arrived at Troy High School in Fullerton, Calif., his football existence was a rugged three-point stance, watching and waiting for the ball to be snapped -- and then plowing anything in his path.
But the high school coaches at Troy, after watching him run, had a novel idea: Give him the ball.
He was 200 pounds, instinctive, athletic, blazing fast, and, better yet, had a chip on his shoulder. The coaches didn't know his entire history -- like having been pummeled at a park for being different -- but they were unconcerned about his impairment.
"There really wasn't a buzz about the hearing," says then-assistant coach Kevin Hastin. "If you didn't see the hearing aids, then you really wouldn't know about the impairment. 'Cause he reads lips so well. If you're directly looking at him, he can communicate with you almost perfectly."
The main advice his mother had given him was to stop at nothing to understand the play. As a tailback, he would almost always line up behind the quarterback, which meant he would not be able to see the QB's face or the QB's lips. This was trouble, and he would need to fix the problem.
"I told him, 'If you can't hear what your quarterback is saying, you need to push your way through to the front," May says. "And you need to stand right there by them. And if you can't hear them, you grab them and you tell them to repeat themselves."
It must have gone well, because, when Coleman's sophomore year began, he was Troy's starting tailback. The poignant moment was not lost on his parents, who settled into their seats for the season opener and prayed for greatness.
Coleman's first carry was a fumble. Later in the first half, he fumbled again. Then again.
Maybe it was too much to expect a deaf kid to lip read the play call, lip read the audibles, keep one eye on the center snap, keep one eye on the defense -- and not come unglued. He'd never before played a varsity game of tailback in his life. What were the odds he'd survive it?
But here's what happened in the second half -- three touchdowns by Coleman, no fumbles and a sense that somebody down there was special.
"Most kids would be down and out [at halftime]," Hastin says. "They'd go into the tank. But Derrick didn't. We kept giving him the ball, and he overcame that game. It's kind of a snapshot of who Derrick is."
By his senior year in 2006, he was considered one of the elite running backs in Southern California. San Diego State recruited him first, followed by UCLA and then big, bad USC -- led by their rock-star head coach Pete Carroll. The Trojans had always been Coleman's favorite team, but Carroll and his scouts saw barrel-chested Coleman as a fullback in their system. UCLA, on the other hand, wanted him as a tailback. Coleman signed in Westwood.
To the college coaches who were pursuing him, the hearing impairment seemed a non-issue. Troy's coaches assured all of the recruiters that Coleman had, in many ways, turned his disability into a plus. First of all, they said he paid attention five times more than the average player. He was so tuned in, they said, that in one high school game, he had eyeballed an opposing head coach calling out "Sweep!" to his quarterback. From 50 yards away, he had read the man's lips. It was fourth-and-1. Coleman told his defensive coordinator. The Troy defense stuffed the sweep.
Hmmm, the UCLA coaches thought when they heard that, maybe we've got something here.