SHERIDAN — Helping hands that guide Ed Arzy through a football practice are mostly patient ones.
Like anything in football, they’re direct and firm, but the motions often end in thumbs up.
Arzy, a sophomore lineman on the Sheridan High School football team, was born deaf. Working through drills in practice, teammates paired with him in one-on-one drills pat his shoulder or point to the ground when he needs to be in his three-point stance.
Senior lineman Zachary Shatek stands between Arzy and his partner, Shatek kicking his foot back quickly to signal “go” and simulate the whistle other players hear. From there, Arzy blends quickly into the gaggle of shoving linemen, just one of the big guys, powerfully driving his partner backwards in a swarm of yellow practice jerseys.
It’s hard to believe he has only played sports for three years.
“I decided for the first time I would try sports in eighth grade, mostly because I wasn’t very active,” he communicates with sign language and his educational interpreter Cindy Woolston. “I started football but I knew nothing about it. It was hard, it was a lot of language.”
Even more than never playing, Arzy was not familiar with sports in any capacity. He had to learn football from people who didn’t speak his language — American Sign Language. His interpreter of three years, Woolston, was also new to the sport. Her involvement in the game has become comparable to a coach as she mirrors what they say, right in the middle of the scrum at practice. Besides football, Arzy wrestles and throws for the track team — two sports the two had to learn together as well, working with sign language and the many meanings of English itself. Woolston said that the irregularities of English are displayed exclusively in a sport like football.
“You don’t think about it, you just have a word for it, but in football we have a lot of jargon, that there’s no word for in sign language,” Broncs line coach Kevin Rizer said. “Cindy has to basically show a story to him sometimes to explain one word.”
Arzy explained how the process was also made difficult by his inactivity beforehand.
“In eighth grade, I was really lazy – I’ll be honest with you I couldn’t run a mile. I couldn’t do anything. So when I went out for sports it was best. I was really isolated.”
“I’m social more, kids accept me more, and I’m more part of a team.”
Last year he made strides with the help of Broncs ninth-grade coach Bob Hanchett, who created an entire playbook for Arzy. That team, of course, went undefeated and won the state championship as freshmen — something Arzy was sure to point out Tuesday.
“We have really good coaches,” he said. “We have plays and plans that are really hard to learn, but I’ve studied and studied the plays, but that’s why we’re so good.”
Now in his sophomore year, he sees some varsity time and plays noseguard for the junior varsity squad. Arzy won’t be able to play offense because playcalls and audibles require more than simply watching the ball as he does on defense.
From a coach’s standpoint, there’s benefits to Arzy’s method of playing defense. All players are taught to watch the ball instead of listening to a quarterback’s cadence to prevent offsides penalties.
“In my 19 years of coaching we spend so much time getting players not to listen to the quarterback and to just watch the ball,” Rizer said. “That’s something we never have to worry about with Ed.”
Arzy explained that the upper-classmen have been especially helpful in his first season with the varsity. Fellow wrestlers and defensive linemen, junior Tory Music and senior Cody Delk work well with him he said, as does Shatek.
Still, it’s not always smooth sailing.
“It’s hard, communication is a problem, they’re hearing and they don’t understand sign language, I don’t read lips very well so it’s confusing,” Arzy explained.
“The hardest is the isolation,” he explained that there’s still a barrier. He gets help from both the coaches and players. His class, the sophomores, have been particularly helpful, Woolston said. Dayton Bruney has learned enough to help interpret.
Activity as a forced social interactioin, as a whole, has done wonders for Arzy.
This year he has lost so much weight playing football, he’s not sure what weight he’ll be wrestling this season after competing at heavyweight last year.
The domino effect is a manageable one compared to where he was three years ago.
“When I started working with Ed, he was a loner,” Woolston said, signing to Arzy. “In PE he would be one of the last kids picked. When it came to running laps, he would just barely jog. Encouraging him to get into sports has really changed his outlook.”
“Physically, he’s lost a lot of weight,” she continued. “He has gotten in such good shape, which has boosted his confidence. This is a kid who knew nothing about football. As in, ‘What is a quarterback, being something other than 25 cents that you get back.”
Even beyond the direct benefits of being more active, he’s also become a student of the game. The research he was at first required to do to even be able to play has now become a valuable skill in his schoolwork.
He now looks up to famous deaf athletes like collegiate national champion wrestler and MMA star Matt Hamill and former Nebraska football player Kenny Walker.
Even further, is goals post-high school goals reach beyond sports.
“I like school, a lot of people say they hate school, but I love school,” Arzy says. He wants to go to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in New York and study to become an engineer. That motivation came from his mentor, Will Roach, who grew up in Big Horn and now works for Boeing in Seattle, where he is an engineer. Roach and Arzy are able to communicate through videophones at SHS.
“He wants to hook me up with Matt Hamill — ‘the Hammer,'” Arzy said of his mentor, signing, “Very inspiring.”
There’s clear and simple cheerfulness about Arzy, something Woolston reiterated wasn’t always the case.
“What’s so inspiring about his story is how he’s gone from being alone to being part of a team, being accepted as part of a brotherhood, the friendships, the self confidence, and the health he’s gained and the steps he’s taken against drugs, alcohol, cigarettes.”
Arzy speaks out at the school against alcohol and drug use. Sometimes he uses the TV monitors in the hallways to teach sign language, making slides that run with the various announcements. Hallways that weren’t always so friendly are now where he gets high-fives.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Arzy said of the team.
New to football fandom, he loves the Denver Broncos, and was quick to jokingly scoff at Woolston’s favorite team, the rival Kansas City Chiefs. Even closer to home, he’s a trained Bronc football player through and through.
Rizer said that he was impressed with Arzy with how he played in JV games against Kelly Walsh and Billings Senior. The junior varsity was preparing for a big game against Billings Skyview this week.
Of course, Arzy was sure to take a jab when the topic of rival Gillette came up.
“I call them the llamas,” he smiled.
“It helps that he’s such a great kid,” Rizer said of working with Arzy. “He’s not a kid that you have to worry about in terms of working hard and paying attention — all those kinds of things that could be a problem with a kid are not things you have to worry about with him.
“We always catch ourselves, I’ll always yell something and then say, oh, wait,” he said. “The reality is, it helps us think about how we communicate things. Ultimately, coaching him is like coaching any other kid, we have to make sure we get through to him.”