Deaf fullback, interpreter breaking down sound barriers
BY JARED L. CHRISTOPHER
The football player and his interpreter stand together, away from the others in the back corner of the visitors’ locker room at AT&T Stadium. The faint sound of the marching band echoes down the tunnel and filters through an open door. Arlington Martin head coach Bob Wager paces the room barking orders and inspiration at his team.
“The effort of our opponent, the talent of our opponent, the scheme of our opponent; none of that matters, OK?” says Wager. “This is our experience inside AT&T Stadium.”
The interpreter, 62-year-old Gary Claunch, signs the words to the player, senior fullback Micah Willis, who nods his head and smiles.
Micah, who was born with significant hearing loss that has gotten progressively worse, wears a set of hearing aids. Along with his penchant for lip-reading, they give him the ability to understand those who don’t know sign language. But in just a few short minutes the hearing aids will come off (so as not to get damaged from sweat or on-field collisions), and his football helmet will go on.
From that point forward, he won’t hear a single sound.
“On the field, I can’t hear anything,” he says. “But if you look at the crowd … you can feel it.”
Together, Micah and Gary have shared nearly 70 football games dating back to their first season at Young Junior High in south Arlington. But none has been quite as special as this one. The Martin Warriors and district opponent Fort Worth Paschal were playing on a Saturday in late October at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. And less than 24 hours earlier Coach Wager had made a promise to Micah, pulling him aside in the weight room.
“He came up to me and started talking about some play, 22 or 23,” said Micah. “Then Gary looked me in the eye and said ‘You might be playing this Saturday,’ and we both started laughing.”
Countless practices, two-a-days, weight lifting sessions and injuries were behind him. Micah had been waiting four years for this moment, his moment, and he was ready.
Following the signs
In the late ’70s, Gary Claunch was a journeyman auto mechanic. If you had a front-end suspension problem or needed any electrical system work, he was your man. He would put in 10-hour days at the shop then come home to a driveway full of cars from friends and neighbors that needed repair.
His wife, Lisa, who ran a seamstress business from their home, would be there waiting on him.
“She was a remarkable woman,” said Gary. “Beautiful, smart. Her sewing business really started taking off when the hearing problem started.”
Still in her mid-20s and otherwise the picture of health, Lisa starting developing an auditory processing disorder that quickly worsened. The condition wouldn’t allow her brain to separate frequencies, turning all ambient noise into hash. In the quiet of their own home the two were able to hold a conversation but in public, where sounds couldn’t be regulated, Lisa was effectively rendered deaf.
“Our local church offered a sign language class, so we signed up together,” said Gary. “I wanted to be able to communicate with my wife and I was going to do whatever I had to do.”
The two immersed themselves in the classes and deaf culture, joining local groups and spending all their social outings with other deaf couples. They were dedicated to tackling the challenge side by side.
During one of the outings, Gary met a deaf pastor who needed an interpreter to travel with him to nursing homes and prisons. Although still learning the language, Gary volunteered to help him and on one of the pair’s first outings he witnessed the pastor do something that changed his outlook on the deaf.
“He was signing to another deaf person who was feeling particularly down and out,” remembers Gary. “He looked them in their eye with a serious face and signed ‘Can’t, Can’t, Can’t.’ And then he took both of his hands and pushed those words aside as if to say ‘Get those words out of your mind’. Then he signed ‘Can, can, can’ raising his hands a little higher with each sign until he was right in front of their face. And you could see a light flicker in their eyes. They got it.”
Although he was still working as a mechanic, his part-time gig as an interpreter proved more rewarding, so he decided to take the state certification test. He passed on his second attempt, putting hs name on the state Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.. It wasn’t long before he received a phone call from the Arlington Independent School District, which got his name from the registry. They wanted to offer him a job as an interpreter in their Deaf-Ed program.
“I was a mechanic,” said Gary. “I didn’t know what to think, but my wife said ‘You need to do this’ so I gave it a shot.”
The first year was a bit of culture shock for a man who was used to coming home with grease under his fingernails. But soon after, Lisa followed him into teaching.
“We’d learned sign language together,” said Gary. “We were working together, passionate about what we were doing. Dealing with obstacles as a team and moving forward. And then one day she found a lump in her breast.”
A biopsy revealed their worst nightmare. A very aggressive form of cancer. Lisa would undergo surgeries; chemo and radiation treatments but it couldn’t stop the cancer. Eventually it metastasized to her lower spine and eventually her brain.
She died two days before her 40th birthday.
Gary wrote her a letter as part of his eulogy. It finished with these words:
“I thank you for spending your life with me. I love you and miss you more than words can say. I don’t know what I’ll do without you.”
He just kept on truckin’
In the summer of 2000, Jimmy and Annette Willis sat at the kitchen table, finishing their meal. Their 3-year-old son, Micah, sat on the kitchen floor playing with his toys. Suddenly, one of the kitchen cabinets swung open and pots and pans came crashing onto the floor. Jimmy and Annette swung their heads around, checking to make sure Micah was OK. He sat with his back to the pans just a few feet away and continued to play, unfazed by the noise.
“Surely he had heard it,” thought Jimmy.
He looked at his wife, confused. Micah had been late to crawl, late to walk. Was this all interconnected?
Over the next few years, other signs would arise and the two would start to connect the dots. But it wasn’t until a school counselor called on Micah’s first day of kindergarten that their suspicions were confirmed.
“They told us they had done a hearing test and that Micah had hearing loss,” said Jimmy. “We thought they had done a hearing test on him at the hospital when he was born and no one ever said anything. My wife and I took it pretty hard at first but not Micah. He did everything he was supposed to do and just kept on truckin’.”
The Willis family enrolled Micah at Waverly Park Elementary, the regional day school for the deaf children of Tarrant County. Finally, Micah was given the tools and guidance he needed.
“I didn’t realize [my hearing impairment] at first but the first time I remember it myself, I was standing close to the TV and I turned it up really loud and my mom turned it back down,” remembers Micah. “I kept turning it up so I could hear it closer.”
Micah would make several more moves before settling into Young Junior High for seventh grade. He had enjoyed playing Little League baseball throughout elementary school but was surprised to find out baseball wasn’t offered to middle schoolers.
He asked his mother, Annette, if he could give football a try and she told him she thought that was a great idea.
“I was a little skeptical at first,” said Jimmy. “I didn’t want to see him get hurt, but she encouraged him to give it a try and it turned out great.”
The school provided Micah an interpreter but she wasn’t allowed into the boy’s locker room, which meant Micah couldn’t understand what the coaches were saying unless the team was on the field. The school made a phone call to James Martin High School’s Deaf-Ed program.
Was there someone there who could lend a hand to the middle school’s football team?
A new best friend
Gary was working at Martin when that call came in.
“They asked if I could start going to their football practice after school,” said Gary. “That’s when I met Micah. He was having some trouble at that time, some frustrations and I pulled him aside and listened to him.”
While the two talked, a memory came to Gary. An image of the deaf pastor all those years earlier.
“I put my hands in front of me and signed ‘Can’t, can’t, can’t,’ said Gary. “Then I pushed it away, just like the pastor had taught me. Then I put my hands back in front of me and signed ‘Can, can, can’ and held it there in between the two of us.”
Micah nodded and smiled. He got it … and Gary got him.
“When I found Gary we started getting along good and we really became best friends,” said Micah.
Over the next few years the pair would spend hundreds of hours together, coming up with signs for plays and disguising them just in case someone from another team might also know sign language.
After two years at Young, Micah and Gary moved on to Martin High School.
Martin, a Class 6A powerhouse, is one of North Texas’ most respected football programs. Head Coach Bob Wager runs his program with a focus on striving for excellence both on and off the field. With more than 100 kids trying out for the freshman team, Micah had a tough road ahead of him.
“Can you imagine, playing at the very highest level of high school football in the country, yet you don’t have the ability to hear?” said Wager. “Over the course of these kids’ four-year careers, those 100 kids become more like 35 or 36 by they time they’re seniors. When you look up and its midway through his senior year and Micah Willis is one of those 36 guys, it’s extremely impressive.”
The Warriors were regional finalists in their 2014 season and have advanced to the same round this year. (They play undefeated Allen on Friday at 5:30 p.m. at AT&T Stadium.) At this level of competition, Micah doesn’t get much playing time but he doesn’t let that get him down. He never misses a practice, a film session, a game. And neither does Gary.
“This team is like a family,” said Gary. “And they let us into their culture and allowed us to be a part of their world.”
So on Oct. 24, with Martin squaring off against Paschal at AT&T Stadium, Wager knew Micah’s time had come. The stage was set.
“When you start to add those three hours a day, every day, to have an opportunity to get on the football field for one, two, maybe three plays in a game, it’s a tremendous sacrifice,” said Wager. “Yet that moment will last them a lifetime.”
‘Micah, you’re in!’
The Warriors had their way with Paschal in the early going, moving the ball and putting points on the board to create a comfortable lead. With the clock ticking down late in the second quarter, Martin tailback Nick Smith took a pitch from quarterback Eric Walker and sprinted toward the end zone. Paschal defenders were able to drag him down at the 2-yard line before he could score.
With more than 5,000 screaming fans on their feet, Wager looked over his shoulder and spotted Micah, standing next to Gary, hands folded, watching the replay on the giant screen. Wager waved his arm furiously and shouted: “Micah, Micah, you’re in!”
Gary’s knees buckled as he jumped in front of Micah to sign the message.
Micah sprinted onto the field but paused midway to the huddle so Gary could relay the play. It was 22 dive, just like Wager had told him the day before in the weight room.
The Warrior offense approached the line of scrimmage; Walker read the defense and realized they were in trouble.
“Micah had been told we were going right but the defense was shifted that way and I knew he would have a hard time getting into the end zone,” said Walker. “I had to change the play.”
Walker turned around and whispered to Micah, hoping he understood. Micah read Walker’s lips and nodded. Just to be sure, Walker patted his left hip and crouched under center. Walker took the snap, turned to his left and handed off the ball.
Micah surged through the line and into the end zone for a touchdown. His teammates climbed on his back and shouted. As he sprinted to the sidelines, Wager met him and grabbed his facemask, pulling him close as they embraced.
“It was all the moments that led up to that,” said Wager. “That moment wasn’t so much a rejoice of what had taken place but a reflection of what had taken place every day for the course of three consecutive years.”
Back in the locker room at halftime, Gary pulled Micah aside and the two shared a moment.
“I was bouncing off the wall,” said Gary. “I told him ‘You played football at AT&T Stadium buddy. You not only played here but you made a touchdown. And nobody can take that away from you for the rest of your life.”
A bond beyond football
When Micah graduates this spring Gary plans to be there. It will be the end of a journey that started six years ago, but their friendship will remain.
“My family really loves Gary and I do too,” said Micah. “He’s like a grandfather to me.”
He credits Gary as well as actress Marlee Matlin with inspiring him to pursue his dreams.
“I watched her on Dancing With the Stars,” said Micah. “She did that to prove to the world that deaf can do anything and that really inspired me.”
Jimmy says Micah worries about Gary constantly, especially during the holidays.
“Micah knows Gary is probably spending that time alone and he wants to make sure he knows we’re thinking about him,” said Jimmy.
Gary plans to continue interpreting until he no longer can. Ironically, his own hearing has started to deteriorate in recent years, a progressive loss that doctors attribute to his many years as a mechanic. Like Micah, he’s taken to wearing hearing aids and even reads lips on occasion.
“Micah’s made me feel like I’m worth something,” said Gary. “I’d like to think I made a difference in his life. One day I’m going to see my wife again and when I do I’m going to ask her if I made her proud.”