BRUINS RECRUIT FITS IN UCLA FOOTBALL: HEARING IMPAIRMENT HAS NOT AFFECTED RUNNING BACK COLEMAN ON THE FIELD -- OR OFF IT, EITHER.
When the hits were especially hard, not even the tightness of Derrick Coleman's helmet kept his hearing aids from popping out of his ears.
For weeks he tried gadgets, including various jaw pads, and different hearing aids, but nothing worked. Finally, his mom cut apart a pair of old pantyhose, and Coleman put the snug-fitting undergarment on his head and pulled it down over his ears.
A gene defect resulted in nearly complete hearing loss for Coleman, but it didn't deter him in the classroom or on the field. Today, as high school seniors around the nation sign national letters of intent to play college football, Coleman stands out as much for what he does on the field as for what he overcame off the field.
The running back out of Troy High of Fullerton is one of at least 21, and possibly 25, players who will sign on and be part of new UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel's first class, which is rated in the top 15 by recruiting services.
"I am amazed he's playing football and how well he's doing," said May Hamlin, Coleman's mother. "He's really worked hard, and it makes this so special."
Coleman is a bruising 6-foot, 220-pounder who will enter UCLA as a tailback, although a move to fullback is possible. He ran for 2,464 yards and 38 touchdowns as a junior, and totaled 1,084 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior.
"You could tell he was going to be good when he was a sophomore playing varsity," Troy High coach Jim Burton said of Coleman. "You could see what kind of athlete he was. He can do it all. He can run. He can catch the ball. He can grab the ball and probably throw it 60 yards."
Being on the field is the easy part of an ordeal that began when Coleman was 2 years old, although a decade would pass before the family learned what caused his hearing loss.
Initially, Hamlin noticed her son wasn't speaking as clearly, or as fluently, as other children his age. At times, it was hard to tell if Derrick was being the typical toddler and ignoring his parents, or if he could not hear them.
So she took him to the doctor.
"When I found out, my heart was broken," Hamlin said. "I just realized I had to talk to him more."
The family learned Coleman had almost no hearing ("You have to be really close to him and really yelling for him to hear you," Hamlin said). They met with doctors, audiologists and speech therapists and he was fitted with hearing aids.
Special attention was paid to Coleman, but not in a coddling way.
"I think one of the reasons he does so well is because we caught it early and we worked hard," said Hamlin, a nurse. "There's always a way around things. You just have to learn to adjust to it and put your mind to it."
Coleman said he did not take special classes. Instead, he sat in the front row of every classroom and each teacher wore a microphone around the neck, and the teacher's voice would be transmitted to and amplified in Coleman's hearing aids.
"In elementary school and junior high, I always went to a speech therapist," Coleman said. "The 'S,' -- I can't hear it, so I had a lot of problems pronouncing it."
There were also a few taunts from grade school kids, but Hamlin eased Derrick's mind by equating his hearing aids to a person needing glasses.
"I learned from my family that God made me like this, so just accept it. If they teased me about it, oh well," Coleman said. "Since sixth grade, I got over it. I'm living a normal life like everybody else. I just have hearing loss. That's it.
"My grades are still up, just like everybody else, and sometimes even better. And I'm playing football. It doesn't matter anymore. Once you get to know me, you'll forget I have hearing aids."
Yet, it wasn't until Coleman was in junior high and asking to try out for the football team that the origin of his hearing loss was learned.
Doctors told him the structure of his ears were normal, and gene tests revealed the issue. Hamlin, herself, was missing a hearing gene. So, too, was Derrick's father, Derrick Coleman Sr. The combination made for the absence of a key hearing gene in their son.
"There was a lot of guilt on my part because I'm kind of like a perfectionist," Hamlin said. "We didn't know what caused it. Nobody ever knew. It was very hard. He had the regular ear infections, but he never needed tubes in his ear.
"It was like, 'What's going on?' I figured one day I would find out, and I did."
Still, the hearing loss didn't keep Derrick from becoming a member of the National Honor Society at Ladera Vista Junior High of Fullerton, or -- after some sheared pantyhose -- a football player.
By the time he was a junior at Troy High, he had learned to read lips, and told his teachers they no longer had to wear the microphone.
"I'm kind of an outgoing person," Coleman said. "If I don't hear something or don't understand, I ask the teacher to repeat it."
On the gridiron, he began making his mark as a sophomore, and turned into the most highly regarded player to come out of Troy since Mike Pawlawski, who played at Cal in the late 1980s.
Coleman, who now wears a skull cap to keep his hearing aids in place, became such a hot commodity during his senior season that USC offered him a scholarship, and he nearly flipped to the Trojans. However, Coleman, who is contemplating a pre-law major, stuck with the Bruins.
"I talked to my family about it, and that education you get at UCLA, it's really hard to top that unless you go to Stanford or Harvard," Coleman said. "That's how I look at it. I know I'm going to play football, but I want to get the best education I can."
Burton said the impact of Coleman's hearing loss is negligible on the field.
Troy quarterback Tyler Swaney called the plays in the huddle, and often told Coleman a second time.
If Swaney changed the play at the line of scrimmage, Coleman said he could hear the audible.
"With the snap count, he always gets off the ball on time," Burton said. "He'll either watch the ball or hear (the quarterback). It's never been a problem."
(color) A gene defect resulted in nearly complete hearing loss for Derrick Coleman.
Kevin Chang/Staff Photographer