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Breaking Barriers
Derrick Coleman finds his next calling in Green Bay
First deaf Super Bowl champion’s NFL career inspired a generation
By Wes Hodkiewicz Aug 02, 2023

The book was, quite literally, written. Derrick Coleman's remarkable story expertly told.

First-generation college graduate. Super Bowl champion. The first legally deaf offensive player in NFL history.

By every measure, Coleman had succeeded in accomplishing everything he'd ever set out to achieve in a sport that fewer than 2% of college athletes play professionally.

After a lifetime spent on the gridiron, however, one of the most inspirational athletes of his generation needed to find what came next after playing his final season with the Arizona Cardinals in 2018.

Never afraid to work, Coleman dabbled in construction, real estate, and insurance. Recreationally, he swapped football for golf to scratch his competitive itch.

Still, nothing could replace the camaraderie Coleman felt on Sundays.

"The one thing I loved about football – when I stepped in the building, when I stepped on the field, nothing else in the world mattered," Coleman said.

"Nobody else cares if you were broke. Nobody cares what skin color you are or if you have ADD, anxiety, hearing loss, wear glasses. They don't care about none of that. They care about can we succeed and can we win with you."

Coleman first returned to football last year as running backs coach at Santa Ana College, a California community college whose head coach led one of Coleman's rival high schools.

It was a rewarding experience and Coleman enjoyed teaching younger athletes the game. But in returning to the sidelines, the service-oriented Coleman was as enamored with his players' classroom habits as he was the result on gamedays.

Discovering a few players were struggling in class, Coleman encouraged them to come 15-20 minutes early to focus on schoolwork before diving into the film. Football is a fun game, but college is also about forging a path to ensure a financial future.

"I like to help people," Coleman said. "I want to see them enjoy their journeys to get to the destination. They get to the destination, great. If they don't, how do we change that? That's the part that I like. That's being me. That's where I get my joy from. That's what lights me on fire."

That experience opened a new corridor for Coleman, one that has now brought him to Green Bay as the Packers' assistant to the director of player engagement.

It's a serendipitous arrangement considering this month marks the 10-year anniversary of Coleman getting his first big NFL break with the Seahawks in a preseason game at Lambeau Field.

In the decade that's followed, Coleman has become one of the country's leading ambassadors for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. His story of toughness, positivity, and willpower to conquer the impossible inspired an entire generation.

Football gave Coleman a gift and he's spent every waking moment since vowing to pay it forward. Any possible way he can.

"He's had a different route to get where he is than anyone else, and I think that perspective is important," said Packers director of player engagement Grey Ruegamer. "If you think that you have it hard, here's a young man who came up through football and had to overcome a hell of a lot more."

Derrick Coleman, with parents May Hamlin (left) and Derrick Coleman Sr. (right)

No excuses

Coleman was diagnosed with bilateral hearing loss when he was 3 years old, caused by a recessive genetic trait.

On a speech banana – the term used to describe where the sound of human speech appears on an audiogram – Coleman hovers near the bottom. Or to put it another way, on a scale of 1-10, Coleman is right around a 7 when his hearing aids are in.

Without them, it's a 1. Maybe 2 on a good day.

His parents, Derrick Coleman Sr. and May Hamlin, were understanding and supportive but also didn't allow Derrick Jr. to use his predicament as an excuse. They mainstreamed him in school, with help from audiologists and speech-language pathologists, and kept him with his peers.

"That's what I love about them so much," Coleman said. "They wanted to see me succeed but they don't ever want to see me get comfortable."

And he wasn't. Coleman questioned himself a lot as a child, often unsure how to approach kids. Growing up in Los Angeles, it wasn't natural to ask kids to play with him. He also moved around five times before middle school.

Coleman got picked on, stared at, and called "four ears" during elementary school, but he persevered. It was through football Coleman found his first true sense of belonging.

“If you think that you have it hard, here’s a young man who came up through football and had to overcome a hell of a lot more.” - Grey Ruegamer, Packers director of player engagement.

The sport extracted him from his shell and introduced him to kids he considers friends to this day. Seeing what the game meant to their son, his parents ran Derrick through a series of tests to make sure it was safe for him to play football.

Once they cleared him, Coleman couldn't be stopped. He ran for 5,214 yards and scored 86 touchdowns as a three-year starting running back at Troy High School in Fullerton, Calif., and earned a scholarship to UCLA.

"Once we got the helmet, everything fit, I felt like I was a football player. I felt like I belonged on the field," Coleman said. "I didn't feel like I was different. I didn't feel like I was something special or something not special. I just felt like I was me. I was able to go out and play something and have fun doing it."

His parents pushed him to advocate for himself in school, as well. At the start of every year, he made the rounds to all his new teachers and explained his situation.

He also gave a similar introduction to teammates entering every sports season: "Hey, my name is Derrick Coleman. I'm hard of hearing. I wear hearing aids but I also lip read. So, as long as you look at me when you're talking through the plays – as long as I can see you, we're good to go."

That was Coleman's routine, from Troy to UCLA and eventually Seattle, where he captured a roster spot with the Seahawks in 2013 after converting to fullback.

Driven and detailed, Coleman studied the game fiercely. As a running back, the nature of his position made it possible to watch for the center's snap and react to what he saw in front of him.

Once he was the lead-blocking fullback for Marshawn Lynch, Coleman needed to go above and beyond since he couldn't hear the verbal audibles of quarterback Russell Wilson. The two developed a synergy. As long as Wilson looked at him, Coleman understood.

"Everyone is impressed by him," Wilson told Mike Freeman in January 2014. "Not just as a player but as a person."

As fans learned of his story, Coleman began speaking to local schools and youth groups. His outgoing personality made it easy for him to connect to hard-of-hearing kids and their families.

With the Seahawks on the cusp of a playoff run, an opportunity presented itself that would change the trajectory of Coleman's life and the years that followed.

"Originally, my goal was let them know they're not alone and I've been where you are," Coleman said. "Just make no excuses, give them the tips and tricks, and everything kind of progressed. But what really made a big difference is when I had the Duracell commercial."

Derrick Coleman

Anything is possible

Coleman wasn't looking for celebrity. When he signed on for the Duracell campaign, he just hoped maybe his story might inspire a few people. The free batteries were also appreciated.

They taped the commercial on New Year's Eve 2013, in the midst of top-seeded Seattle's NFC playoff push. As soon as it aired during the NFL playoffs, the commercial became an immediate hit. Millions watched it on YouTube and letters poured in from across the country.

One of those came from 9-year-old identical twin sisters Riley and Erin Kovalick, whose genetic condition left them partially deaf. Coleman saw the letter and surprised the family with tickets to watch the Seahawks play Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII.

The Updegrove family, in Fitchburg, Wis., was another whose lives were impacted by Coleman's message. Their youngest son, Liam, was diagnosed with sensorineural bilateral mild-to-moderate hearing loss when he was an infant.

Liam's hearing was stable but low. Generally speaking, without hearing aids, Liam hears at about half the level he should ideally. Watching the commercial's reenactment of a young Derrick feeling on the ground after his hearing aid popped out hit home for Liam, who'd experienced similar challenges in his own sports.

"It's just like the worry that people are going to assume different things based on having hearing loss or being deaf when it doesn't really change much," said Liam, now 18 and recently graduated from Verona (Wis.) Area High School.

"Seeing someone like Derrick who's in the NFL – something that very few people are able to achieve in their life with so many people trying – it kind of goes to show like, 'Oh, they can do anything we can do.'"

After the Seahawks won the Super Bowl with a dominant 43-8 victory over the Broncos, an 8-year-old Liam did his third-grade science-fair project on hearing loss. It included famous individuals such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Thomas Edison…and Derrick Coleman.

For the presentation, Liam even wore Derrick's "No excuses" T-shirt with the fullback's powerful creed on the front: "They told me I couldn't do it. I couldn't live my dream. But I've been deaf since I was 3, so I didn't listen."

Liam's mom, Heidi, sent the photo of a smiling Liam to Coleman, who posted it on his own Facebook page with the description: "Another school project. Thank you for helping to get the word out that we can do anything."

“This is a person I’ve looked up to for a lot of my childhood and showed me that anything’s possible and he’s right in front of me.” -Liam Updegrove, Verona Area High School student-athlete

It was an empowering moment for Liam but also brought a tear to the eyes of his mother, who did her best to uplift her young son whenever they went to the audiologist for a checkup or to get new ear molds.

Still, no words from a parent or family member can compare to a professional athlete who's overcome the same challenges a child is presently dealing with.

"Just learning how to adapt but making no excuses," said Heidi, referring to Coleman's message. "There are other people who are going to have the same connection in some way with you. Don't change yourself because you want to be something you're not."

Liam stayed true to himself and succeeded, both in the classroom and sports. Last month, he graduated magna cum laude from Verona and will attend the University of Wisconsin this fall to study engineering.

A multi-sport athlete, Liam was the goalie on the Verona boys soccer team that won the WIAA Division 1 state championship last fall. He also advanced to the state swim meet on two relay teams.

There were obstacles. Liam couldn't wear his hearing aids in the pool and occasionally had to push up his swim cap to ensure he could hear the start signal for his races. But it's all part of who Liam is and he wouldn't trade that for anything.

Nearly 10 years after his science-fair project, Liam and his mom finally met Coleman in-person when he spoke at his high school this past spring.

"It was kind of surreal," Liam said. "This is a person I've looked up to for a lot of my childhood and showed me that anything's possible and he's right in front of me. Now, I had a chance to shake his hand."

Derrick Coleman

'A blessing that keeps on blessing'

Abbi Ewert can't help but chuckle when recalling how Coleman's visit to Verona came about.

An American Sign Language teacher at the school, Ewert became a huge fan of Coleman's while studying sign-language interpreting at Portland Community College in the early 2010s.

In fact, the first and only NFL game Ewert ever attended was to watch Coleman play at Lambeau Field as a member of the Seahawks. She couldn't contain her excitement when it was announced in April that Coleman was now a member of the Packers organization.

So much so Ewert even called and left a voicemail for Coleman to see if he might be interested in speaking to her ASL students. She expected it might take a few days or a week to hear a response. Ewert's phone rang an hour later.

She thought maybe it was a secretary or public-relations staff member returning the call. Nope, it was Derrick Coleman. Ewert was lost for words.

"I'm sorry, hold on. Let me compose myself," Ewert remembers telling him. "I'm kind of fan-girling right now. I want to make sure the things coming out of my mouth right now are what are actually supposed to be coming out."

Coleman didn't just accept Ewert's invitation. He asked her how soon she wanted him to be there – What about this Friday? Next week? Astonished, Ewert asked for a couple days to gather students at Verona and also reach out to the Wisconsin School for the Deaf.

This was old hat for Coleman, who has been speaking to schools since his sophomore year at UCLA. It started when his childhood audiologist asked him to speak with some high school students who were having a hard time in school.

“He may be retired from his own playing career but still being in the football world in some capacity is neat. … Not even being a Packer, just as a person and all those things he represents.” -Abbi Ewert, Verona Area High School American Sign Language teacher

Finally, on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Coleman made the 2½-hour trek to address Verona's ASL students and faculty. He doesn't go into speeches with a script. Instead, Coleman speaks from the heart and listens to the kids' perspectives.

"If I can talk to 100 kids and one of them (gets the message) of just being themselves to the fullest of their ability, my heart is satisfied," Coleman said. "Because that one kid is going to grow up and do something phenomenal and they're gonna teach it and keep on going. It's a blessing that keeps on blessing."

After his speech, Coleman did a Q&A with students and took pictures. The group moved outside to the football field, where Coleman let a few kids hold his Super Bowl ring and even played gaga ball for an hour.

It was a full-circle moment for Ewert, who started signing when she was just 5 years old. She's dedicated her life to American Sign Language and the community it represents.

"He may be retired from his own playing career but still being in the football world in some capacity is neat," Ewert said. "And getting to meet someone like that is not only a thrill for a kid but other people were able to make connections, too. Not even being a Packer, just as a person and all those things he represents."

Liam Updegrove, age 8 (left) and Heidi and Liam Updegrove with Derrick Coleman (right)

Life after fullback

Coleman's remarkable NFL career lasted 70 games longer than anyone could have ever predicted after he was cut by Minnesota as an undrafted rookie in 2012.

Over six years, the 6-foot, 233-pound fullback produced 35 career special-teams tackles, 174 total yards and two touchdown catches, the second of which came in Seattle's 2014 opener against Green Bay.

Five years removed from his last NFL game, Coleman thought long and hard about whether to make a return to the NFL in a front-office role this past winter. A new father with a young family, Coleman was contemplating starting his own trucking business when he was connected with Ruegamer.

"The first thing I did was say I'm not sure about that," Coleman smiled. "Mainly because it was outside of California. I'm going to have to leave my family, but then I started researching and was like, 'This job was made for me. This is the job made for me.'"

A valuable part of that research was the conversations Coleman had with his former player-engagement representatives: Maurice Kelly in Seattle and Anthony Edwards in Arizona.

Coleman's interactions with Ruegamer also were reassuring. He didn't know Ruegamer personally but was familiar with his background. A football junkie, Coleman remembered Ruegamer from his time at Arizona State with All-American quarterback Jake Plummer.

In their discussions, Ruegamer and Coleman discovered they had a lot in common. Although Ruegamer was a former third-round pick, he had to work for everything he earned during a 10-year NFL career that produced two Super Bowl rings.

“He’s there for you. He’s checking on everybody – bright spirit, smiling every day. I got a lot of respect for him and what he did, and what he’s doing now. I think he’s gonna be a special piece to this team to help us.” -Aaron Jones, Packers running back

After finding his own post-football path, Ruegamer was hired as the Packers' director of player engagement in 2017. In that role, Ruegamer helps promote the cohesiveness of the Packers' locker room and acclimate incoming players to the team and community.

Based on Coleman's history, it was clear he could bring value to an NFL team as more than just a fullback.

"He's a self-starter. He gets it," Ruegamer said. "We're in the service of the organization to make sure our guys can get up and running as a pro as fast as possible. How do we set that mindset with our rookies and then continue to support that as they go through their careers?"

Service has always been top of mind for Coleman. Maybe that's because of his parents or former coaches like Sherman Smith, whose meetings with Seattle's running backs often centered more on conversations about life than football itself.

Or perhaps it's just who Derrick Coleman is. In his 32 years, Coleman has gained the most joy from helping. It doesn't matter if it's assisting the coaches at practice, easing the Packers rookies' transition to Green Bay or just explaining how to file taxes.

"They help us with our voices being heard," said defensive lineman Kenny Clark, a two-time team captain. "They've been through it. They've played. They understand how our bodies are feeling. They know just about everything, and if not, they can get the information for us. So, it's good to be able to lean on Grey and Derrick."

Coleman doesn't have all the answers, but he's resourceful. If a player comes to him with a question he doesn't know, just give D.C. an hour and he'll get to the bottom of it.

Problem-solving is embedded into his DNA. For most of his life, Coleman has needed to work twice as hard to get the same result as everyone else. That crucible taught him grace and the realization it's entirely up to the individual to be the best football player, and person, he can be.

"He's a very smart individual," said Packers running back Aaron Jones of Coleman. "Anything you need, he's there for you. He's checking on everybody – bright spirit, smiling every day. I got a lot of respect for him and what he did, and what he's doing now. I think he's gonna be a special piece to this team to help us."

Derrick Coleman with the Kovalcik family (left)

'What can I do to help you?'

It's been more than eight years since Coleman published his 230-page memoir, "No Excuses: Growing Up Deaf and Achieving My Super Bowl Dreams."

A lot has happened in Coleman's life since then. He's succeeded and stumbled. He knows what it feels like to win a Super Bowl in dominating fashion and also the anguish of losing in the most gut-wrenching way.

But Coleman has pressed on, grateful for the lessons that life has taught him. For all the men who have played NFL football over the past century, Coleman's journey is unmatched.

"Derrick Coleman is such an incredible story," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "You talk about handling adversity – that's a big part of all of us in this (business). There's going to be adversity along the way, throughout the season, throughout the course of life.

"He's a tremendous resource for all of us. He definitely loves the game. He loves our players. Up to this point, he's been a huge asset for us."

Sitting in a chair inside the Don Hutson Center, Coleman is asked what message he'd deliver to 5-year-old Derrick, the quiet kid who only felt comfortable opening up to his close family. He thinks for a second before verbalizing three key points.

Have fun.Don't let anybody tell you that you can't do something. And just do you.

That last part is sometimes easier said than done. Coleman still remembers trying to mimic Marshawn Lynch after getting signed to the Seahawks' practice squad in 2012 because that's what Coleman thought he needed to do to make the team.

“I know there’s more for me than just playing. It’s helping the guys that are here now get to where they want to be. To be able to do that, that puts me on fire more than playing did.” -Derrick Coleman

Eventually, Sherman Smith pulled him aside and said the exact opposite: "You need to find out who Derrick Coleman is and bring him out."

Coleman did just that. In the end, the football ride of a lifetime allowed him to touch thousands of lives…and it's not over yet.

"I know there's more for me than just playing. It's helping the guys that are here now get to where they want to be," Coleman said. "To be able to do that, that puts me on fire more than playing did, more than winning the Super Bowl. Seeing these guys get to the Super Bowl, that would be better than anything I've ever done.

"Whether it's hard of hearing, you're deaf, you have any sort of disability or you're just a football player – what can I do to help you?"

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