Eagle lets his play do the talking

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Barber, deaf since birth, excelling on football field

By Brian Forbes

Steven Barber plays football in a world of silence and simplicity.

Profoundly deaf since he was born, Barber will never play for the roar of the crowd, nor will he run his mouth between plays to mask his frustration or a bruised ego.

Talking trash would just take too much time, not to mention the last opponent that tried yelling at him finally gave up after being continually ignored.

What the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Dakota Ridge senior does exceptionally well is play defense. All the chatter and pageantry under the Friday night lights are just a sideshow.

“I just love hitting people,” Barber says through an interpreter via sign language after a recent practice. Then Barber – with his eyes eagerly widening – smiles. “And hurting people.”

It is football, folks. And besides, once you meet Barber you get the feeling he’s no different than any other teenage monster of the midway. Yep, just your average teenage football player with a bleached-out Mohawk and his own personal interpreter that must relay to him any vital words the coaching staff are saying.

The way that Barber plays for the Class 4A Eagles is every coach’s dream. While some players get distracted by all the commotion on the field, especially in the trenches of the defensive line, Barber is a purist. He hears no snap count and is never betrayed by any loud sounds. He gets the incoming play call using a simplified code sheet he wears on his wrist, then just cocks his head to the side and awaits his cue.

“He watches the ball,” Eagles coach Ron Woitalewicz said. “That’s why he’s good on defense because he watches the ball, he finds the ball and he makes a tackle, which is exactly what you want defensive guys to do.

“I’ll tell the officials before, ‘If he jumps offside, it’s probably a false start.’ You can’t hard count him because he doesn’t hear.”

Barber can, however, sense and feel things, especially when the crowd – like when the Eagles advanced to the state semifinals last season – is going nuts.

“Sometimes you can feel when there’s yelling,” Barber said. “Even with the helmet, it’s like you can just feel that rumble.”

Barber has no second gear. During pass rushing and blocking drills on the first day of full-contact practice, he stands out. While some teammates are moving at half speed or blocking each other like friends, Barber brings it on every play. Aggressive? Yes. But as one coach points out, no one is doing their teammates any favors by practicing at half speed.

Coachable? Barber takes every critique and criticism with an approving smile and then gets it done correctly.

Barber is also very perceptive. Susan Gobbo is the primary interpreter assigned by the county to Barber, who is home schooled. When not rotating with another interpreter, Gobbo will attend every practice and every game. She’s on the field for every timeout with her hands and fingers flying as she repeats what Woitalewicz is saying.

There are many things in football-speak, however, that don’t have universal signs. Gobbo and Barber have created some of their own words, although Gobbo’s fear that she might mistranslate some jargon is usually calmed by Barber’s intuition.

“He’s so perceptive about things,” Gobbo said. “He’s taught me a lot of stuff – how he would want to see it. Things that would make sense to him.”

Barber figures to be a big part of the Eagles’ defense this season, although his greatest asset is his long-snapping abilities.

Often overlooked until a mistake is made, long snapping has developed into an art and a niche over the years. Considering the Denver Broncos recently signed long-snapper Lonie Paxton to a five-year, $5.5-million deal, it’s a skill that can make for a comfortable living.

At summer camps up at the University of Colorado, Barber’s talent for the long hike was duly noted by many college coaches, Woitalewicz said. Scary thing is, Barber taught himself by “watching the NFL on TV.”

“Especially in high school, it’s huge, because you don’t have punters that can catch it and kick it and get it off quick,” Woitalewicz said. “We’ve played teams were the punter has to like fair catch it.”

And since Barber likes to hit people, the prep rules suit him perfectly. Opponents are not allowed to jam, block or otherwise touch the long snapper, which gives Barber a free release and a chance to be the first guy down the field on punt coverage.

Being the first down the field usually means the first to hit somebody. And that is exciting for any defensive player. But it’s especially exciting for Barber, who is just like every teenage high school football player with the grins and gusto coupled with the excitement of playing his senior season and the dream of something more.

“It’s very exciting,” he said. “I’m just hoping I can go to college after this.”