Football, Sign Language and a Bond That Can’t be Broken

It’s no surprise that teachers and other adults can change a student’s life, inspire a student to perform beyond his wildest dreams, or help a student choose a lifelong career path. Many of us can look back fondly on a teacher or adult who made such a profound stamp on our lives that we will never be same.
Side by Side, Fingers Flying


ut it’s also true, as you will soon see, that some students leave just as profound an imprint on the adults charged with guiding them. Instead, they guide us. Consider the possibility that you’re a deaf student managing a world without sound, navigating the winding hallways of a busy suburban high school, learning calculus or physics or European history. Imagine that you spend a majority of your time surrounded by teachers and students who can hear.

At Blind Brook, the 20 high school/middle school students served by the wellregarded BOCES program (another seven students are served in the elementary schools) have become so familiar to the school’s non-disabled students and staff that, in general, the sight of interpreters and mainstreamed deaf students sitting side-by-side during classes, their hands and fingers flying through the visual cues of sign language, is commonplace. “This school is great,” said Ms. Fico, “and I think the program is one of the best in the nation. Here, our students are on a level playing field with any student. They’re accepted, achieving, and most become involved in all kinds of extracurricular activities and sports.” Which brings us back to football.

Nathan, who lives in Katonah, is physically active and a sports fanatic, proudly wearing a Syracuse University baseball cap and a Blind Brook athletic sweatshirt during a recent interview. As a junior, he ran spring track and competed in the long jump, and made the varsity football team as he entered senior year. That turn of events required his presence at practices twice a day beginning in August, and daily practices (including weekends) throughout the fall. It also meant that Nathan would require the presence of an interpreter, both at practices and during games, so Ms. Fico or her colleague, interpreter Debbie Dvorak, came along to every practice and game. The interpreters shadowed Coach Joe Rinello, translating his calls and instruc-

Oh yes -- and imagine that you play high school football. Such is the case for Nathan Engel, a senior at Blind Brook High School and a member of the school’s Trojans football team. Nathan, who attends the Southern Westchester BOCES Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program at Blind Brook, uses American Sign Language to communicate. He, like other students in the program, is assisted by a staff of interpreters, but primarily has come to know and depend on Christine Fico, an interpreter with the BOCES program since 1994. It’s clear when you meet with these two - the 17-year-old student and his 50ish interpreter -- that theirs is a bond cemented by millions of moments that have hinged entirely on communication. Ms. Fico is Nathan’s ears on the world, and his voice when that voice needs to be heard.

Nathan Engel, right, a senior at Blind Brook High School, and his interpreter, Christine Fico, who has been with the SWBOCES Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program for the past 14 years.


tions for Nathan. Ms. Fico and Ms. Dvorak braved all kinds of weather to be present, sweating along with the players during the sweltering summer months and standing in the rain and mud with the team during the fall. Yet the interpreters take no credit for the experience. “Nathan was the incredible one,” said Ms. Fico. “He memorized more than 80 football plays for several different positions on the team. He never missed one practice or one game.” Besides his acumen for sports, she says, Nathan, who has applied to Gallaudet University and the Rochester Institute of Technology, is “an incredibly gifted kid with a bright future. He will go far in life.”
A Special Team

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Mr. Rinello, who has coached football at Blind Brook for 16 years, is no stranger to having an occasional student from the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program on his team. But Nathan, said the coach, was different. “I can barely talk about Nathan without getting emotional,” said Mr. Rinello. “He is a beautiful young man who takes pride in himself and everything he does.” With a record of one win and seven losses, the Trojans didn’t exactly have a stellar year, if you look at the statistics. But Mr. Rinello said it was one of the best seasons of football he can remember. “I watched their relationships grow and I watched the other players bond with Nate in a way I’ve never seen before. This team was special.” Nathan was so likeable, said Mr. Rinello, that other players began to learn rudimentary sign language to communicate certain plays to him. That included the sign for the so-called “apache” play, where the team decided to wave their fingers behind their heads, like American Indian feathers, to signal their friend and teammate. Teammate and junior Ben Kaplowitz said that when Nathan joined the team, more seasoned players told him that if he could learn as many plays as possible, he would get more time on the field. “He really wanted to play,” said Ben, “so he hustled. Not only did he learn all those plays, he gave 110 percent of himself to the team.” Whenever other players might be out because of injuries, Mr. Rinello said he

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would find notes in his mailbox from Nathan, volunteering to play those positions if he was needed. During this year’s Homecoming Pep Rally, in a traditional ceremony called “the burning of the cleats,” the football players all spoke about what the season meant to them, including Nathan. Through his trusted interpreter, he told his teammates what their acceptance and friendships meant to him. ”Even though we didn't win many games,” said Nathan, “I wouldn't change a thing because of the memories that we have.” Then the entire team embraced, with Nathan in the middle. “Having Nathan around brought out the best in all of us,” said Mr. Rinello.
Not a Cushy Job

As an interpreter in the middle of a football game, said Ms. Fico, she never felt intrusive in the bruising, loud, male environment. “The coaches made me feel accepted, and understood that I was a professional, just doing my job.” “The entire coaching staff has so much admiration for what all the interpreters do,” said Mr. Rinello. In the heat of the action, say both coach and interpreter,

they managed to get their jobs done and stay out of each other’s way. Nathan notes that his interpreter knows the game. “She knows football,” he said, “and that definitely helped out in the conversations that took place with the coaches, especially during games.” But that doesn’t mean Ms. Fico’s job was a cushy one. On one unseasonably hot day during a practice in October, she was interpreting from the sidelines as usual, when the team’s quarterback took a few steps backward to throw a pass, and stepped directly onto Ms. Fico’s foot with his cleats. The quarterback gave her a hand up, and she continued working. But after a visit to the doctor, Ms. Fico learned she had broken her toe. “I was proud,” she said. “It was my first football injury.” Nathan said the incident just cracked up everybody on the team. “To be honest, I laughed. Everybody did. Even the interpreter laughed.”