Deafness Isn't Slowing Down Chandler Hudson, Even with Mt. Zion's "Play Fast" Philosophy

MT. ZION -- You can call it new age play-calling with a purpose.

At Mt. Zion High School, the football team -- under new coach Mike Popovich -- is catching on to a trendy way to signal plays into the players on the field, but not exactly for the reasons many others are doing the same.

Popovich is a coach who likes to "play fast" -- that motto is printed on t-shirts, the hashtag #playfast is all over his twitter account.  As such, he's a guy who's adopted the practices of successful college programs which have pioneered fast-paced offense.

So you can only imagine what he thought when he first heard about his senior WR/DB Chandler Hudson from an assistant coach.

"He said, we've got a kid, he's a great athlete," said Popovich, "can play on both sides of the ball for us, but we've got a little bit of a problem."

"He can't hear."

Hudson is deaf.  He uses a hearing aid at home and at school, but because it's expensive -- and doesn't fit well in a football helmet -- he doesn't wear it when he plays.

As a result, he can't hear while on the field.  Not a sound.

So, the Braves adopted an increasingly popular practice that includes of use of pictures on a posterboard.  Each picture represents a play and formation.  Another signal is given to identify exactly which of the plays they'll be running.

At its most flashy, the technique is used at the University of Oregon, and will often feature photos of celebrities and ESPN personalities.  It received national attention, which turned into widespread mimicry, eventually making its way to Mt. Zion.

The play-calling style, of course, is a whole lot more about function, than flash in Mt. Zion.  Hudson is equipped with the team's playbook on a wristband, much like a quarterback.

"We put up a number, and he can look down at his wristband and see exactly what it is that he needs to do," said Popovich

Hudson, who can read lips and is able to speak, said it's the main reason he can still play football.

"Whenever they hold up the card, it's really easy," said Hudson. "It's really fast.  It's a lot faster than last year."

That's not to say there aren't challenges.  For instance, he can't hear a whistle.  Coaches warn officials to give some leeway on late-hit penalties as a result.

"Sometimes my teammates have to go up to me and tap me to be like 'We're done,'" said Hudson.

At times, checking over to the sidelines, he'll miss the start of a play, left to play catch-up with the action.

"It's something that he's learned to adjust to, and adapt," said Popovich.  "All the kids around here know exactly who he is, and what he brings to the team."

What he means is that Hudson isn't just some role player with an inspirational story.  He's a major part of the Braves game plan, and that's shown plenty in the 30 second highlight videos shown on the WAND Friday Frenzy.

We saw him intercept a pass in a game against the 4th-ranked team in the 4A, Mahomet-Seymour.

We saw a pivotal 4th down catch-and-run in a key scoring drive against Mattoon.

Just last week, Hudson help put a big Apollo Conference game out of reach with a touchdown run against Charleston.

And those are just the things we caught on video.

"We always talk to him, that he should play basketball," Popovich joked. "Crowd noise wouldn't bother him if he was on the free throw line."

It's precisely because of that crowd noise that teams are trying to find innovative -- and silent -- ways to call in their plays from the sidelines.

A side-effect of that movement: Kids like Chandler, who may otherwise not be able to play football, are getting an opportunity.

"It's very important, and it actually affects my game," said Hudson, of Mt. Zion's new approach to play-calling.  "The more time I play football, it actually affects it a lot, and I'm very happy with that."

Hudson and the Braves will try to keep their playoff hopes alive in a game against Salem, Friday at 7pm.