Deaf coach Bonheyo's epic career speaks for itself

Nov 8 2009 - 9:01pm

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(The Associated Press) Maryland School for the Deaf football coach Andy Bonheyo goes over a defensive drill with his team during practice Wednesday.
(The Associated Press) Maryland School for the Deaf football coach Andy Bonheyo goes over a defensive drill with his team during practice Wednesday.

FREDERICK, Md. -- Andy Bonheyo has spent half his life as a high school football coach. Like many of his peers, he loves the game, takes pride in teaching the importance of teamwork and insists his players display good sportsmanship.

What distinguishes Bonheyo from almost everyone else is his dazzling 178-49-1 career record -- and that he and his players are deaf.

Last July, Bonheyo became the first deaf coach to attend the annual NFL-USA Football Youth Football Summit in Canton, Ohio. Usually, only one coach from each state receives a coveted invitation, although this year there were two attendees from Maryland.

Bonheyo brought an interpreter with him, but his zest for the game speaks for itself. He became fast friends with former NFL coach Dick Vermeil, who won a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams.

"It's obvious he has a great passion for football and compassion for those he teaches," Vermeil said. "Certain people are destined to be coaches, and Andy Bonheyo is one of them. He is worthy of emulation."

For 24 years, Bonheyo's teams have bested schools with and without deaf students. This season, with Bonheyo's son Todd at quarterback, the Maryland School for the Deaf is 8-1.

"I don't view my players as a group of deaf boys. I feel like I'm coaching a team," Andy Bonheyo said through an interpreter. "And the players, they work just as any other team does except they cannot hear. So we communicate in sign language."

Everyone who tries out for the football team makes it. Still, the roster usually doesn't exceed 25 or 35 players, including the junior varsity. Still, the Orioles still find a way to win.

The key is that the players stick together from grade school through their senior year. Now a junior, Todd Bonheyo -- who also is deaf -- began playing in fourth grade and has been running the same plays with the same players since he first strapped on a set of shoulder pads.

"I believe we have an advantage over many of the other teams because we've played together for a long time," Andy Bonheyo said. "Some of the other teams have different middle schools feeding into their high school, so they don't know each other as our boys do. But the other schools have more players, more talent to choose from."

Those other teams can also rely on a snap count to start their offense. For Bonheyo's teams, the play starts when the quarterback gives the appropriate hand signal to the center.

There's also the matter of knowing when a play ends, because they can't hear the referee's whistle. But that's not often a problem.

"We all have that sense when the play is over," said Todd Bonheyo through an interpreter. "Sometimes we get a penalty for a late hit, but most of the time we're fine."

Brent Johnson is head coach and athletic director at Baltimore Lutheran, which faced MSD in the season opener this year. Even though his team absorbed a lopsided 38-6 defeat, Johnson figures his players received an education in the process.

"I think our kids realize that it's an uphill battle, playing football when your communication is hindered," Johnson said. "But of all the teams we play, I think they execute and play together best. It's cool that they're so successful in overcoming their disability. I guess when it comes down to it, it's still just blocking and tackling."

Few teams do it better than those overseen by the 48-year-old Bonheyo, who began his coaching career in 1987 after playing at Gallaudet University. He has won 15 national deaf prep Championships: Three with Model (Md.) Secondary School, five in Texas and seven at MSD.

Bonheyo has gone unbeaten four times, endured only one losing season and coached two of his own kids. His oldest son, Ryan, became one of very few deaf student-athletes to receive a Division I football scholarship when he accepted an offer from Towson University in February.

Yet, when asked what he loves best about coaching, Bonheyo said, "Meeting my former players after they graduate and seeing them successful with families and making a living. That's really the most rewarding part of my job. I really feel like I'm doing them a favor, just getting them ready for life."

He may not be doing it for much longer.

"I'd like to continue coaching, but I have a dilemma. My oldest boy is in college and I'd like to watch him play the game," Bonheyo said. "He's a redshirt this season, but if he played this year, I could watch only two of his games. I have time to make preparations for next year. But I'll definitely coach next year because Todd will be a senior."

Some football players might dread the idea of having their father as a coach. Todd Bonheyo wouldn't want it any other way.

"Who wouldn't be proud of him? I've been through many coaches and I can see the difference," Todd said. "When we're on the field, he's not my dad. I really value his knowledge of football and his ability to coach. It really makes me look up to him."

 

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