If you try to tell 11-year-old Joe Gavriloff he can’t participate in sports because he’s deaf, he won’t listen.
A starting lineman for the Kent All Ohio Youth Football Association, Joe’s team, the Rough Riders, participated in the league championship the past 2 years.
This weekend, Joe will be rooting for the Seahawks and their fullback Derrick Coleman, the first legally deaf offensive player to ever play in the NFL. He says he admires Coleman and the hurdles he’s overcome to play on Sundays.
Someday, he would also like to play in the pros, but his favorite team is the Steelers.
“Derrick Coleman is just like me – we’re both deaf and we both love football,” said Joe, who also plays basketball and baseball. “Being deaf made me want to be even better at sports. When I grow up, I want to be the first deaf lineman in pro football.”
His coach, Cecil Anderson, said Joe might just do that someday.
“He’s definitely got potential,” said Anderson, head coach of the Rough Riders and assistant director of the Kent All Ohio Youth Football Association. “He knows it takes hard work to overcome things. Joe’s never played that ‘I have a disability’ card or said ‘I should be treated different.’ He wants to be treated the same as everyone else.”
Joe also has size in his favor.
A fraternal twin, he weighed a mere 5 lbs., 8 oz. at birth. But he’s made up for that now, weighing in at a strong 170 lbs. He wears a men’s size 14 shoe and he’s already 5 ft., 7 in. tall.
His mom, Carrie Gavriloff, who’s the administrative director of neurosciences at Akron Children’s Hospital, says his pediatrician forecasts his adult height will tower at 6 ft., 7 in.
Losing his hearing
Joe had normal hearing until he turned 5. Then, for reasons that remain unknown, he began to lose his hearing and now has 70 percent loss in his right ear and 65 percent loss in his left ear.
“We were really astounded and worried at the time that the hearing loss was due to something really serious, like a brain tumor. But it ended up being none of those things,” said Carrie. “We think it was just congenital hearing loss and it’s really a miracle that he could hear at all the first 5 years of his life.”
Because he could hear well his first few years – and his parents caught the decline in his hearing so quickly – Joe’s speech sounds normal and you would never know he had a hearing deficit, except for the neon ear molds he wears in his ears. He’s a straight-A student at Stanton Middle School and very popular with his friends and teammates.
“Joe’s a very open kid. He owns his hearing loss,” said his audiologist Carrie Putka. “He wants his hearing aids to be bright and loud. It doesn’t bother him that he has hearing loss. Some kids would worry that the hearing aids make them different. Not Joe. He has a great personality and he’s a jokester.”
Dr. Anton Milo, director of Akron Children’s ENT center, said Joe can’t wear his hearing aids while he’s playing football. A former tight end himself, Dr. Milo said the helmet would probably cause Joe’s hearing aids to create feedback – even if you could keep them from breaking from the hard hits.
But Dr. Milo’s not surprised that Joe is such a good athlete.
“I think once you catch the problem and work to restore the hearing as fast as you can, these kids can do anything anyone else does,” said Dr. Milo. “Joe’s the classic case and it is wonderful to see him doing so well on the field.”
Without the hearing aids, it can be tough for kids with hearing impairment to hear their coaches and fellow players, especially through all the background noise during games.
Coach Anderson said the players all respect Joe’s ability and they’re happy to help him out, making sure he has sight views so he can read the lips of the quarterback calling the play. His fellow linemen help him keep up with the play calls by tapping out signals on his back before the play.
Putka said as an audiologist, she loves working with families like the Gavriloffs, who made a point not to treat Joe differently than their other children.
“I always encourage parents to treat these kids just like typical kids,” said Putka. “Don’t let the hearing loss limit them. It’s just a matter of how to work around it. If coaches and teammates are willing to work around it, there is no reason that kids with hearing loss shouldn’t participate in sports.”
This Sunday, Joe will be watching the game and dreaming about all the football seasons, and maybe even Super Bowls, to come.
“I love playing sports. It makes you feel special inside,” said Joe. “Our team works together and we push forward until we succeed. And if we don’t succeed, we try to put our heads back up and try again. I appreciate that.”