Deaf Head Coach is Jr. Football League’s First

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 19, 2015 issue of The Press Enterprise. View clip online.

Marcus Chmaj is an expressive football coach. To get his point across, he gets close. He crouches. He grimaces.

The boys, all 7 or 8 years old, stand attentive, watching his every move.

The boys watch him closely because they can’t hear him speak. That’s because Chmaj can neither speak nor hear.

“I use a lot of body language and gesturing,” Chmaj says through a sign language interpreter. “They pick it up faster that way.”

Chmaj, pronounced “Sshmahj,” is the first deaf head coach in the history of Riverside’s Orangecrest Junior All-American League.

The league first reached out to the deaf community a few years ago, said league President Danny Cisneros, to “bridge the gap” between those who can hear and those who can’t.

Now team rosters include about a dozen deaf players, two of whom play on Chmaj’s team – and one of whom is Chmaj’s son Donovan, 7.

Sometimes Chmaj, 35, communicates by writing in a notepad or typing into a note-taking app. Occasionally Aaron Chase Molina-Milbourne, 24, a Riverside City College sign language student, volunteers as translator.

In ten years of coaching football, basketball and soccer, mostly at the California School for the Deaf in Riverside, this is Chmaj’s first time at the helm of a hearing team.

Impressed by Chmaj’s coaching resume, and with “football being about overcoming adversity,” Cisneros said the league put him in charge of the “Jr. Micro” team. His first practice was Aug. 5.

At first, Cisneros said, some parents balked. They wondered how a deaf coach could teach football to their sons.

Chmaj acknowledged the communication challenge, but pointed out that football is “not a lot of talking.”

Parents are starting to get the message.

“It’s good for the kids,” says Claudia Gilles, 39, of Riverside, whose son Jacob, 7, is on Chmaj’s team. “They have to pay more attention … (and Chmaj) seems to have a lot of experience and confidence.”

But Cisneros said some parents still have doubts, and other challenges remain. The season opener on Saturday, Sept. 12, for example, will test how well Chmaj and the referees can work together, and how effectively Chmaj can cool down hot-headed parents.

Cisneros seeks a translator to supplement Molina-Milbourne’s limited availability. Unable to afford professional translators at $75 an hour, the nonprofit league hopes to find another volunteer.

Meanwhile, many of Chmaj’s signs — a high five, a thumbs up, a good-job clap or a pat on the back — require no translation. These messages, given freely and frequently, come across loud and clear.