Some players had finally gained eligibility to play for the Todd Beamer High School football team, meaning fewer reps for others. Their grumblings from within the team huddle at practice this week nearly set off coach Darren McKay.
“What are you pouting about?” McKay asked.
“You got a guy like Daniel Tanielu, who is happy just to be out here — with the operations he’s had, the kids who made fun of him when he was little — and you’re having a pity party about your reps taken away?”
But that’s the thing. Tanielu isn’t just happy to be out there.
He may be hard of hearing — not completely deaf — and wears hearing aids, but it hasn’t stopped him from becoming a senior team captain and a nearly every-down player for the Titans on the offensive and defensive lines.
Until Daniel entered preschool, Fia Tanielu believed her son simply had trouble paying attention. He wouldn’t respond unless she touched him, but it took Daniel’s teachers informing Fia that he wasn’t responding for her to suspect something more was wrong.
A doctor’s visit soon confirmed that both of his ears were blocked. Fia said Daniel has had more than five surgeries on his inner ear.
It hasn’t stopped Tanielu’s passion for sports.
He’s played football since elementary school, as well as basketball, soccer, wrestling and volleyball. He said he’ll also compete on Beamer’s wrestling and track and field teams this school year.
Fia said Daniel became especially attached to football in middle school when his father, Lose, was diagnosed with stage 3 diabetes and had to quit his job. That forced Fia to take on two jobs to help pay a growing list of bills.
“That’s why (Daniel) always said he wanted to be an NFL player,” Fia said. “He really wants to go to college to play football, and, to me, I’m so proud of him. I always pray and hope that he is going to make it because that is what he wants to do.”
The Federal Way School District has a Deaf and Hard of Hearing (D/HH) program based at Beamer. Since Tanielu’s freshman year, he’s had sign language interpreters for support at every class, practice, meeting and game. They sign the plays to him from the sideline.
“I felt different the first time I went out and played football,” Tanielu said through interpreter Stasie Henson, who later struggled to translate “Ndamukong Suh,” who Daniel said was his favorite NFL player.
“And then as practices went on, it wasn’t as big of a deal for me anymore.”
Tanielu’s freshman year was the first for McKay at Beamer following a 12-year stint at Gig Harbor. He said Tanielu and now-senior running back and linebacker Andrew Tofaeono were the two freshmen he really latched onto.
“I didn’t even know he was hard of hearing until we got onto the field and had the first couple of practices,” McKay said.
Tanielu said he hears low voices best and he’s learned how to read lips. He said he can’t hear women well, but he can hear — and feel — the crowd on Friday nights.
“(The crowd) makes me feel, like, pumped up,” Tanielu signed. “It makes me stay focused.”
The referee during last week’s 21-17 season-opening loss to Rogers once called out Tanielu’s No. 55 through a microphone for holding, though the penalty was really on another teammate.
“And he heard that because he put his arms up in disbelief,” McKay said. “Like, ‘What? Really.’”
Tofaeono said, regardless of Tanielu’s disability, he’s one of the team’s best players, and hardest workers and a role model.
But his disability doesn’t make it easy.
Tofaeono recalled a play where the snap count was on “Down” and Tanielu was supposed to pull from his guard position and block the opposing team’s defensive end.
Tanielu didn’t hear. And he was late getting off on the snap, allowing the defensive end a free rush to the ball carrier and a loss of yards on the play.
“He couldn’t do anything about it. It wasn’t his fault,” Tofaeono said. “But the next play he was back on it. He doesn’t go down easy.”
That’s why it’s so rare for hard-of-hearing athletes to play offense. Seattle Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman is the first deaf offensive player to play in the NFL.
Tanielu isn’t dependent on the interpreters at practice — three of them, including Henson, rotate days — but they are available just in case, stepping in if he doesn’t understand something.
“The only thing he has difficulty with is in the huddle or if there is a lot of commotion and he can’t catch everything everyone is saying,” Henson said.
The interpreters stand next to McKay along the sideline during games and sign the plays to Tanielu. McKay said one was trampled by players last season.
“I have to make sure they have preseason schedules, calendars, that they know when our workouts are,” McKay said. “They have to be at every single meeting. You want to have a defensive meeting? The first thing we need to do is get an interpreter in front of the room.
“At first it was hard with them following us all of the time. But you get used to it, and those girls are really good to work with. They are like part of the staff now.”
McKay said he received a hand-written letter from coaches at Gallaudet University — a federally chartered private university for the education of the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C. — saying they were interested in recruiting Tanielu for their football team.
“If he didn’t have the hearing problem, I could see him playing Division III,” McKay said. “But they would need to have the interpreters. You would think someone could arrange that.”
Tanielu said even if he doesn’t initially make a team, it won’t stop him from continuing to try.
“That’s always going to be my goal,” he signed.
“Deaf? So what? I want everyone to know about deaf culture and to respect us and learn about us. And I want deaf people to be involved in everything that hearing people are. We can do it.”