It’s not whether you win or lose but if you get to play the game.
No one understands this modified adage more than the 2023 Iowa School for the Deaf (ISD) football team. The last time the Bobcats were on the field was 2019. COVID-19, a dip in enrollment and different interests among potential athletes meant there weren’t enough players to fill out a six-man roster.
This summer it became evident student numbers and interest was enough for a team once again. When Grant Wood AEA students Christopher Andrew and Timothy Purifoy, both of Cedar Rapids and Aaron Perez of Iowa City signed up to play, they may not have realized this would be a season unlike any in ISD’s past: none of the 12 boys on this fall’s team has high school playing experience and only one played in middle school. Some weren’t even sure of the rules of the game. With three eighth graders, two freshmen, two sophomores and five juniors, Coach Danny Case trained the team from scratch.
Timothy may have the team’s only experience when he was a wide receiver at his local middle school. He said after playing flag football at ISD last year, he knew he was interested in football. His positions at ISD are running back, wide receiver and center. Something that is surprising to him is the rigor of the game. “Tackling hurts!” he said. “I do like the running and throwing the ball.”
Andrew, who is playing running back and wide receiver positions, said tackling was harder than he thought it would be. But communication on the field makes playing easier than it might be at his public school. “Some of us are playing football for the first time, so we have a lot of learning to do,” he said, noting the learning is not only about the physical play on the field but also the rules and strategy of the game. “Communication is easier here- I always thought about playing football because my brothers do and now I can, too. I feel good about learning and playing.” Andrew said tackling is a lot harder than he thought it would be- and he was most surprised at how much he enjoys receiving. “I like catching a good pass,” he said.
Case is keeping realistic expectations with his young team. “We just want the boys to get a feeling of tackle football, grow their trust, knowledge and understanding,” he said. Case wants the boys to learn leadership, teamwork and challenge themselves, similar to his own experiences. He was center offensive lineman and defensive nose guard during his high school years at Iowa School for the Deaf. He was ISD’s assistant coach for five years. “This year, I am thrilled to say ISD football is back.”
Excitement and pride will likely take the team far. That’s good, because there are more challenges, too. Iowa School for the Deaf students live in communities throughout Iowa; a handful are from Nebraska and South Dakota. Meeting for summer training is impractical. The boys live in the school’s dorms Sunday through Thursday nights. They are transported home every Friday at noon, limiting the number of weekly practices to four.
One challenge the team does not have, however, is clear and direct instruction. The players have a variety of hearing levels, but even the students who use speech also can sign. With coaches who are native American Sign Language users, everyone can communicate in the same language. Some of the team attended public school before enrolling at ISD. Without this communication benefit, they might have hesitated to join sports.
As an introductory year, only four games were set this fall, all against other schools for the deaf. The first was canceled because the ISD team had only a few practices before game day; the second was canceled because the opposing school did not have a team. The third game didn’t materialize because of scheduling and transportation logistics. The only game of the season will be what counts: homecoming against Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf on Oct. 14.
Regardless of performance, Case knows the efforts will be worth it for the team. “We want to build their fundamental skills, help the boys understand football, and have positive lifetime experiences and memories from playing,” he said.