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It must be a sign! George Washington’s hearing impaired goalie succeeds thanks to teammate who knows sign language

Tuesday, 8th April 2014

Categories Boy's/Men's, High School  

By Ed Morrone
Courtesy Of The Northeast Times, Posted 4/8/14

What are the odds?

It’s a ques­tion George Wash­ing­ton High School head boys’ lacrosse coach John Creighton has been ask­ing him­self every day of the 2014 cam­paign so far. And while the sea­son is still in its in­fancy stages, there’s a close­ness to this Eagles team that has made their bond to­geth­er stronger than oak.

Communication is key: Washington sophomore goalie Paul Thiergartner (right), a student at Rush, has been welcomed by his new teammates. They communicate through fellow goaltender Robert Franklin (left), whose parents and sister are also deaf. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

Communication is key: Washington sophomore goalie Paul Thiergartner (right), a student at Rush, has been welcomed by his new teammates. They communicate through fellow goaltender Robert Franklin (left), whose parents and sister are also deaf. Photo courtesy of MARIA POUCHNIKOVA of the Northeast Times)

There’s a reas­on for that.

You see, Wash­ing­ton sopho­more goalie Paul Thi­er­gart­ner is 100 per­cent deaf; nor­mally, this might place a ma­jor hindrance on in­tra-team com­mu­nic­a­tion, but fortunately the Eagles’ oth­er goal­tender, ju­ni­or Robert Frank­lin, knows Amer­ic­an Sign Lan­guage. How and why? Both of Franklin’s par­ents, as well as his sis­ter, are hear­ing im­paired.

Wheth­er it was kismet or just a stroke of good luck, all of the vari­ables to this equa­tion have lined up per­fectly through the first five games, four of them Wash­ing­ton wins.

“If you would have asked me five years ago if he’d mean any­thing in my life, I would have prob­ably said no,” said Frank­lin in re­gards to Thi­er­gart­ner, whom he’s known since fourth grade when their fam­il­ies at­ten­ded the same church. “I wouldn’t have ever ex­pec­ted this to hap­pen, but he’s a good per­son. I like shar­ing things and help­ing people, it makes me feel good. He’s my friend, and I en­joy it be­cause I’m help­ing some­body do bet­ter, you know?”

Thi­er­gart­ner at­tends school at the nearby The Arts Academy at Ben­jamin Rush, but since the school does not have a lacrosse team, a part­ner­ship ex­ists with Wash­ing­ton to al­low Rush stu­dents to go out for sports for the Eagles. (In fact, Creighton has players on his team from five oth­er schools in ad­di­tion to G.W., located in Northeast Philadelphia.)

Frank­lin, who ex­celled when thrust in­to goal for Creighton in the Pub­lic League title game his fresh­man year, is a re­spec­ted lead­er, so it’s no sur­prise he’s taken on the re­spons­ib­il­ity of mak­ing Thi­er­gart­ner feel part of the fam­ily des­pite be­ing un­able to com­mu­nic­ate with his coach and team­mates through tra­di­tion­al speech.

“I’m just help­ing him feel like he be­longs,” Frank­lin said. “People think that be­cause he’s deaf he can’t play lacrosse, but he can play. I’m here for him. It’s not a bur­den at all.”

Dur­ing a joint in­ter­view after a recent win over West Phil­adelphia in which each goalie played a half, Frank­lin ac­ted as Thi­er­gart­ner’s in­ter­pret­er, listen­ing to a re­port­er’s ques­tions be­fore sign­ing it to Thi­er­gart­ner. He, in turn, signed his an­swer back to Frank­lin, who an­nu­nci­ated it. The pro­cess, though not without some kinks, is ef­fect­ive enough with some pa­tience, which is cer­tainly the path Wash­ing­ton’s sea­son seems to be headed.

It’s been a con­stant learn­ing pro­cess, but in a good way. Creighton es­tim­ates he’s learned “eight to ten” words he can com­fort­ably use when Frank­lin isn’t around as a safety valve, and text mes­saging, email and Face­book still serve as a crutch when in doubt. But des­pite some speed bumps along the way, the easi­est way to fig­ure out how it’s been go­ing is to take one look at the en­thu­si­ast­ic smile plastered all over Thi­er­gart­ner’s face.

“On older teams I played on I just didn’t like it, be­cause I couldn’t com­mu­nic­ate with any­one,” he said. “It’s a long pro­cess, but right now it’s go­ing well. The team has al­ways been there for me. Every­one has opened up and been really nice. I feel great.”

When he first got to Rush, Thi­er­gart­ner was a bit tim­id at the out­set, but small classroom sizes and a cul­ture that fa­cil­it­ates ac­cept­ance at the school got him to come out of his shell, and fast. He signed up for everything he could find, in­clud­ing base­ball and in­tra­mur­al soc­cer. It wasn’t al­ways that way, as Thi­er­gart­ner’s shy­ness was a byproduct of be­ing bul­lied and teased grow­ing up due to the fact that he couldn’t hear.

“I think once he came here, he saw that people either ac­cep­ted him or left him alone,” said Rush ath­let­ic dir­ect­or Todd Cor­abi, who en­cour­aged Thi­er­gart­ner to go out for the Wash­ing­ton lacrosse team this sea­son. “Now, he was ac­cep­ted for who he was, in­stead of people say­ing, ‘Oh, he’s dif­fer­ent.’ After a couple of days, he came back and said Creighton was go­ing to keep him around. The smile was ear-to-ear. After that first day of fear, he just em­braced it, and now he’s liv­ing his life the way any­one should.”

In lacrosse, the goalie tends to be the loudest play­er on the field, bark­ing out move­ment and po­s­i­tion­ing in­struc­tions throughout the game. Since Thi­er­gart­ner can­not do this, Wash­ing­ton has had to ad­apt.

“It’s ac­tu­ally made us col­lect­ively bet­ter, be­cause now the rest of them all have to talk more,” Creighton said. “It hasn’t hurt us. And you wouldn’t even know Paul is hear­ing im­paired with the group we have. We don’t have any is­sues wel­com­ing in new play­ers, and part of that is be­cause Bob (Frank­lin) is so re­spec­ted by his team­mates. It’s a whole oth­er com­mit­ment for him, to take on an­oth­er full-time job. In ad­di­tion to be­ing my start­ing goalie, he’s also my in­ter­pret­er. And it hasn’t been stress­ful at all.”

Frank­lin is just a ju­ni­or, so he’s got plenty of time to keep teach­ing sign lan­guage to Creighton and his team­mates be­fore he gradu­ates. His one hope is that Thi­er­gart­ner’s suc­cess shows oth­er kids with impair­ments or dis­ab­il­it­ies or just things about them that makes them dif­fer­ent that in the end, whatever it may be, is not what defines them as people.

“I hope my mark leaves an im­print, one that shows teams that just be­cause my friend is deaf, doesn’t mean he can’t play,” Frank­lin said. “That goes for any­one. It just doesn’t mat­ter.”

“They’re all learn­ing sign lan­guage and are all will­ing to be my broth­ers,” Thi­er­gart­ner said. “I have a lot of fun, and I look for­ward to hav­ing a lot more of it. I love the team. It’s al­most like it was meant to be, in a way.”

Cor­abi, the Rush AD, couldn’t be hap­pi­er for his stu­dent. Edu­cat­ors are con­stantly com­bat­ing bul­ly­ing on the front lines in an ef­fort to help their stu­dents fit in and find areas in which they thrive, so see­ing Thi­er­gart­ner be ac­cep­ted so un­con­di­tion­ally at Wash­ing­ton has brought him joy.

“He’s a genu­inely nice kid,” Cor­abi said. “It’s blessed my heart for him to be able to have this op­por­tun­ity, even if it’s not at Rush. He’s just a nice boy, and whenev­er he sees something is wrong, he wants to help. It’s good to see that he gets something he wants for a change. He’s find­ing his way. It’s been a match made in heav­en.”

And if he ever stumbles along the way, his team­mates will have his back.

“Some­times it can be dif­fi­cult,” said seni­or cap­tain Kev­in Free­man. “I’ll find my­self yelling at him to throw me the ball be­fore real­iz­ing, ‘Oh yeah, he can’t hear me.’ We’re all still learn­ing how to com­mu­nic­ate with one an­oth­er. Bob is do­ing a great job be­ing a lead­er and show­ing us how to do the hand signs. At Wash­ing­ton, we re­spect our goalies. Without them, we wouldn’t be a team.”

Which, really, is all Thi­er­gart­ner had ever hoped for: to be a part of a team.

“They’ve ac­cep­ted me and wel­comed me,” he said. “It makes me feel like I’m in­volved in a fam­ily.”

Thanks for Ed Morrone and the Northeast Times for allowing to post the article. The original article can be found by clicking here



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