High school senior Shaina Carthon is unlikely to ever step onto a football field.
Still, Carthon, who is deaf, realized she shouldn’t limit her dreams after hearing Houston Texans rookie Connor Barwin share his story of making it to the NFL despite being born almost completely deaf.
“He inspired me,” she said through an interpreter. “I always thought that being deaf I can’t do this and this and this, but I see that he plays football. Deaf people can do a lot of these things. They can do a lot of things that hearing people can do.”
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Barwin spent more than an hour with about 50 deaf and hard-of-hearing students at Barbara Jordan High School in Houston this week. The program is the only one for deaf high school students in the state’s largest school district.
The defensive end told students he was deaf until he was between 2 and 3 years old and doctors realized there was a problem. After the discovery, Barwin underwent almost a half dozen surgeries to repair his hearing and gained hearing in his right ear.
He remains completely deaf in his left ear despite the many surgeries, including one where his ear had to be cut open and flipped back because they’d already done too many procedures to enter it through the canal.
Barwin never learned to sign, but said he read lips when he was younger. Several sign language interpreters relayed his speech and helped students ask him questions.
It was Barwin’s first experience in talking with deaf students about his hearing loss. He spent years avoiding the subject altogether because he felt so lucky to be able to hear.
“I thought sharing my story … would make kids that weren’t as lucky as me kind of upset and angry that they didn’t have operations or surgeries to regain a lot of their hearing,” he said. “Then I realized that it’s not how people are going to look at it. They’re going to look at it as a story about getting through adversity and finding a way to not think that you have a handicap and just figure out a way to get through it.”
Tim Thorn, who teaches in the deaf program, said it’s important for his students to meet a person with a hearing loss in a position like Barwin’s.
“It’s great for the students to see someone who has overcome a hurdle and to see that you can be successful, that you should not allow your disability to hinder you,” Thorn said.
Houston coach Gary Kubiak said what Barwin has accomplished is impressive.
“It’s never been an issue here,” Kubiak said. “He has no problems. You can tell that he’s always paying special attention to what’s going on, whether it’s from growing up that way I don’t know, but he’s very attentive and does not make mistakes.”
Barwin was a second-round draft pick of the Texans this year after a college career at Cincinnati. He’s done well this season, appearing in each game for Houston and getting two sacks. He’s come a long way from a time a few years ago when he wondered if he’d make it this far in his career.
Barwin was a tight end when he started college and ran into trouble when he had to line up to the right of the quarterback. He couldn’t hear the call in the noise of a college stadium and would routinely come off the line late.
After a meeting with his coach and some practice he learned to watch the ball out of the corner of his eye to avoid the slowdown. He told the students that it was the first time his hearing loss became a major problem.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able to keep playing, I might not be able to go to the NFL because of the way I was born and this isn’t my fault,”‘ he said. “It was adversity that I just had to figure out a way to get around. I taught myself how to use my eyes so I didn’t have to use my ears. I think it made me a better player in the end.”
He moved to defense as a senior and found that not hearing the quarterback was beneficial.
“All I do is watch the ball and look for the snap and go as fast as I can,” he said. “Some people look at it and say the fact that you’re hearing impaired almost helps you play defensive line because I’m reacting solely on what I see and not what I hear.”
John Martinez, who can hear out of one ear, enjoyed listening to Barwin’s story, but it reinforced his belief that his goal of playing quarterback probably won’t happen.
“I really want to be a quarterback but as a quarterback you have to have two ears that hear very well,” he said. “It’s hard for me.”
Though football is probably out for Martinez, seeing what Barwin overcame to reach the NFL made him more determined to succeed in wrestling.
After the reaction he received from the class this week, Barwin hopes to spend more time with deaf students in the future. He loved their interest and had fun answering the dozens of questions he was peppered with.
“Knowing that I can help some kids and tell my story and they can somewhat get inspired by it and encouraged by it, makes me feel really good about it,” he said.
Carthon, who asked several questions during Barwin’s talk, said his story was eye-opening and she plans to share it with friends.
“He can play football and he is deaf,” Carthon said. “I didn’t know that we could have people with hearing loss playing pro football. I have deaf friends that want to play football but they think they can’t do it and I will tell them yes they can.”