Deaf prep football player finds silence sharpens his focus

The part about silence is fascinating. That in a time where the sounds of a Friday night seem more magical each fall — marching bands playing, cheerleaders cheering, fans clapping, coaches screaming, players shouting words of support — Adam Finlayson hears none of it.

The kid known as A.J. is a reminder that if the deaf can’t hear, what senses do the rest of us lack? That if he can discover peace amid controlled chaos, how more focused might the rest of us be with a little more quiet?

Faith Lutheran begins a football season tonight that on paper reminds you how those Texan soldiers must have felt when a final attack descended on the Alamo. The Crusaders — armed and hopeful with a varsity roster not at 30 bodies — begin their journey into the powerful Class 4A at Legacy.

It is a challenging task made more difficult by a lack of depth, where one injury to a key position could on some nights turn the desire to remain competitive into the longing for a running clock.

Through it all, Finlayson won’t hear a single cheer.

He wants it this way. He could have chosen long ago to wear under a helmet his tiny microphone, the external component to a cochlear implant that stimulates nerves inside the cochlea and allows him to discriminate sound and understand speech.

He was the first child in Nevada history to receive an implant 14 years ago, to have his skull opened and an electronic device known as a bionic ear inserted to provide the sense of sound.

He is 18 now and, well, quite a remarkable young man.

”I have never heard the sounds of a football game, so it’s not a strange thing for me,” Finlayson said. ”I have never known what it was like to hear cheerleaders or bands. I am completely focused on the game.

”And if I get into a fight (during the game) with another player, he doesn’t know I’m deaf. So if he curses at me or calls me names, I have no idea what he’s saying. Yeah, it can be an advantage.”

He was born deaf and fought the idea of signing from an early age, wanting instead to grow and exist within the oral world of his parents and older sister. How they supported his wish.

The family moved to St. Louis so that A.J. could learn to speak from a woman named Jean Moog, who runs the Moog Center for Deaf Education, a school started by Finlayson’s parents and others with deaf children hoping to talk. One year turned into two in St. Louis, and two turned into six.

But a goal for oral deaf students is to eventually mainstream them back into regular schools, which meant a return to Las Vegas and the choice of Faith Lutheran, which A.J. has attended since the sixth grade.

”The people here, the support they have given him … incredible,” said A.J.’s father, Iain. ”They have been phenomenal for him. … We don’t know what sounds are for him. They say it’s like Donald Duck talking under water. Deaf kids are different. They just are. But what sports have done is level the playing field for him. He’s just another athlete out there.”

He is much more. Wide receiver. Cornerback. Backup quarterback. Kick returner. He might not hear on a field, but there is no question he expends energy on one. He reads lips better than most speak and spends time between plays searching for the next offensive or defensive signal to alert him of his responsibility.

”He’s such a hard working kid,” said Faith Lutheran head coach Jake Kothe, who was A.J.’s sixth-grade teacher. ”I’ve known him so long, the (deafness) isn’t even an issue. He does a good job in everything.”

Example: Finlayson is also a national honors society member and a scholar athlete who plays baseball and for two years was a member of the lacrosse team. He has done ministry work for his school and church. He has seen and appreciated places and children with issues far worse than his.

The support around him remains immense. His father. His mother, Karyn. Her boyfriend, Ron Sterling. Adam’s sister and best friend, Chelsey.

”The job his family has done with him is amazing,” said Brent Browner, who coaches defensive backs and special teams for the Crusaders. ”I didn’t even know he was deaf at first. He just came up and started talking to me. … He has made us all better coaches. He empowers all of us.

”During our first game last season, things were crazy, and people were screaming, and the band was playing, and he looked at me and said, ‘Coach, it’s so peaceful. I can’t hear a thing. I’m just focused on playing.’ He is a phenomenal kid.”

A.J. had his implant replaced over the summer because time has a way of wearing out even those devices that produce miracles. If his first one was a 1956 Volkswagen, his father says, this new version is a 2010 Lamborghini.

College is on his mind, one preferably that is as far away — ”I think Madrid, Spain, probably sounds good to him right now,” Iain said — from his family as possible.

Which means he is a typical 18-year old in some ways, but not in others.

”I am happy being deaf,” A.J. said. ”It makes me unique. I never really thought about wanting to hear. No matter where I go, I will be a strong person.

”A strong deaf person.”

Said his father: ”He will do fine. He won’t be like any other kid. He will need assistance and help to get him through certain things.

”But there is a place for him out there.”

Fortunate is that place.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 11 p.m.-1 a.m. on ”The Sports Scribes” on KDWN (720 AM) and www.infernosportsradio.com

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