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Quiet Star?

August 13, 2009

Ryan Bonheyo May Never Hear Roar Of Crowd, But He Could Make Loud Noise For Towson

By Krystina Lucido

"I don't think there are disadvantages on the field for me."
-- Ryan Bonheyo
(Photo Courtesy of Donna Frank)
The running back tears down the field, scoring a touchdown before defenders have even reached the 10-yard line. Dodging defenders left and right, he finds an opening to take off, pushing through pockets of players without so much as tripping. In one play, it takes three defenders to bring him down.

The video is strange to watch, for no other reason than it is silent: no whistles, no commentary, no cheers.

This is what playing is like for the video's star, Ryan Bonheyo, a profoundly deaf football player who begins his first season at Towson University this fall.

Bonheyo dominated on the field at his previous school, the Maryland School for the Deaf (MSD), setting numerous records as a running back and outside linebacker under coach Andy Bonheyo, his father. The 6-foot-2, 214-pounder was the all-time leading rusher in school history with more than 4,000 career yards.

Feb. 4, 2009 marked the day Bonheyo became the first student-athlete in MSD history to sign with a Division I school when he committed to Towson. After speaking with him, no one would be surprised this unabashed 18-year-old was his school?s trail blazer. He has no interest in getting a cochlear implant (used to assist in hearing) and has no qualms about being deaf on a hearing team or playing under someone who doesn?t share a seat at the same kitchen table.

?I am aware that my first few months in Towson might be tough,? Bonheyo said in an e-mail. ?I will have to make a lot of adjustments, but I don't think I will have any problems after that.?

After watching him run one of the fastest 40-yard dash times in the state at the Nike Combine (4.47) in the summer of 2008, Towson offered Bonheyo a scholarship. It was the first school to do so and because Towson was also the closest school to his parents' home in Frederick, Md., Bonheyo accepted.

Bonheyo verbally committed that summer, meaning first-year Towson coach, Rob Ambrose came in after the recruiting process had ended. But, the former University of Connecticut offensive coordinator had already heard of the rising star.

?He was actually on my radar for recruiting when he was a junior and I was at UConn,? Ambrose said. ?I knew he was deaf and it didn?t really bother me. I thought I would watch the film just like I would watch anybody else and I was really impressed.?

With a stat sheet like Bonheyo?s, any coach would be impressed. In addition to playing baseball and basketball for the MSD Orioles, Bonheyo led the football team to four consecutive Deaf Prep national championships with a 41-2 record over four years. He set school records in career rushing yards (4,528), carries (485) and touchdowns (66). In his senior season, he ran for nearly 1,600 yards and 21 touchdowns.

While becoming the first player in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards three years in a row, Bonheyo also had 24 career games in which he ran for more than 100 yards. He earned second-team all-state honors as a junior and was a first-team all-state selection as a senior.

Even though he has set the bar high, Bonheyo knows playing at the college level will be an adjustment, especially when going from playing on a non-hearing team to a hearing one.

?I feel I can bring my talent and leadership to Towson,? he said. ?I'm going there with only one long-term goal, winning a national championship or more than just one championship. My main plan is to do whatever it takes to win, something Towson hasn't really done often in the past, and there are many areas for me to work on in order to be good enough to help the team win.

?I need to work on many little things. It's impossible to name all of them. I'm a good football player, but there's always room for improvement.?

Bonheyo was born deaf to parents who are also deaf. Andy and Lori Bonheyo both work at the Maryland School for the Deaf, Andy as athletic director/football coach and Lori as special assistant to the principal. Being the son of a football coach means learning early on the rules and tricks of the game, and Bonheyo is no exception.

?I have been a coach for 23 years and Ryan grew up on the sideline,? Andy Bonheyo said in an e-mail. ?He was in the locker room for most of the team meetings. I think he got his football IQ through that experience. As a player, he has always worked very hard on and off the field. He is very determined and wants to be the best.?

Being entrenched in the game of football since age 4 and learning from his father was a priceless experience for Bonheyo.

?He brought me with him into the locker rooms to watch him give halftime or postgame speeches,? Bonheyo said. ?There were many moments I would never forget, such as watching him yell at the players during halftimes. It gave me the impression coaches expected the players to perform well on the field; otherwise, they would get yelled at.?

But without his dad to lean on, will the transition to a college team be as easy as Bonheyo thinks? Ambrose and the rest of the staff at Towson are striving to ensure the shift is as easy as possible.

?On my desk sits "Signing for Dummies" so that?s my start,? Ambrose said. ?We?ve met with some people on campus from deaf studies to kind of pre-acclimate ourselves, but I don?t think anything?s going to really get us ready for this.

?He?ll have university interpreters for all of his classes but when it comes to football, we?re going to have our own and that guy will be part of the staff, so to speak. He?ll be around all the time. Necessity is the mother of invention; none of us are going to learn ASL that fast.?

It will most certainly be a learning experience for the first few months, but all parties seem to agree on one thing: Bonheyo?s deafness -- a seeming impairment -- comes with many advantages.

?Well, I can tell you talking to him will be a waste of time,? Ambrose said. ?All the occasional trash-talking that happens during the game will be lost on him. I don?t really think anyone?s getting in that kid?s head. He already has clearly heightened other senses, but he?s really going to have to be detailed in senses.

?It?s the transition from being a senior to a freshman in any institution, which is really hard, now coupled with the fact that he?s going from a non-hearing world to a hearing world. He?s just going to have to adjust. I honestly think of all the sports, football is going to be the easiest. ... In the world of football there are a lot of gesturing and hand signals that already exist. A whole conversation can happen without words.?

Bonheyo agrees there will be difficulty in the general transition of going from high school to college play but doesn?t see his deafness as holding him down.

?I don't think there are any disadvantages on the field for me,? Bonheyo said. ?Actually there are some advantages. For example, I won't be fooled by a quarterback's false snap calls. Also, I won't be distracted by the noise around the field. Once the team and I learn how to communicate on the field, there won't be any disadvantages for me.?

The USA Deaf Sports Federation recognizes numerous deaf athletes in a wide array of sports and though only a small group has made it to the professional level, they have made a big impact. Bonnie Sloan, the first of only two deaf football players in the NFL who played defensive tackle for the Denver Broncos; Kenny Walker, the other deaf NFL player who also played for the Broncos as a defensive lineman; and Dummy Hoy, the American League?s first deaf major-leaguer who was credited with the creation of the four major signals used in baseball today.

The success of these players may be one of the reasons Bonheyo won't consider getting the cochlear implant.

?I?ve seen many people with cochlear implants,? Bonheyo said. ?They were my living evidences to show cochlear implants aren't necessary. Almost all successful deaf people never had a cochlear implant.?

Bonheyo communicates by texting on his iPhone, old-fashioned handwritten notes or the use of an interpreter. He also said most people want to learn sign language so he teaches them some basic phrases.

A long-standing football background, an assiduous personality and a dogged drive to succeed bode well for Bonheyo?s first season at Towson. His core support system?s confidence in him as well as his own seemingly nonchalant attitude about the difficulties he is about to face hopefully will make it easier to succeed in his new environment.

?This kid is undaunted,? Ambrose said. ?He is not scared about anything and that is the kind of person that is successful.?

Issue 140: August 2009