Football History: How Did Deaf Players Transform the Game?

by Dave Fabry, Ph.D., Chief Innovation Officer, Starkey

Republished with Permission on February 8, 2023


It’s nearing the NFL’s Super Bowl, so it seems appropriate for a football-related post that also has a “hearing” angle.  Most fans of the sport are familiar with the term “huddle” - but do you know its origin?


As it relates to sports, Wikipedia defines a huddle as “the action of a team gathering together, usually in a tight circle, to strategize, motivate or celebrate”. It is a popular strategy for keeping opponents insulated from sensitive information and serves to improve communication when the level of noise in the stadium or arena is such that normal on-field interaction is difficult. The huddle is commonly used in American and Canadian football to strategize before each play; the offensive team's huddle is almost always led by the quarterback, and the defensive huddle is typically led by one of the linebackers. It is also popular in basketball, football (soccer), volleyball, and cricket.


The football huddle was still unusual enough in the 1920s that it made fans at college games wonder what was going on and led to complaints about the game pace being slowed down. There are a few different stories about how it originated (in 1918 at Oregon State, in 1921 at the University of Illinois, in 1924 at Lafayette College), but it had first been used in the 1890s when Paul D. Hubbard, the quarterback for Gallaudet — the deaf college (now a University) in Washington, D.C. — had his offense form a tight circle so they could discuss plays without the other team seeing what they were signing to each other. The Bison went 5-2-1 in 1894 and defeated the Pennsylvania Deaf School, 24-0, and the New York Deaf School, 20-6. Hubbard was worried that the other teams were stealing Gallaudet's plays because his sign language was out in the open and clearly visible to the other teams. He decided to circle up his teammates and the huddle was born.


This type of huddle is still in common use today, typically between plays in American Football as the quarterback assigns the next play to the offense.


Another Gallaudet football innovation was the giant drum on the sidelines that would be used for the snap count (the players could feel the vibrations).  In the modern era, they more commonly use a "silent: count system, which relies on the sense of touch rather than voice when the quarterback is receiving the snap from the center. They also did away with the huddle, instead just signing their plays out in the open since the teams they play now often don't know American Sign Language (ASL). As current coach Chuck Goldstein says, "My philosophy is if you're going to take the time to learn sign language and be able to interpret what we're doing in 25 seconds, then more power to you."




Will you be watching the game in-person or at a large watch-party or tailgate? Make sure you pack hearing protection! The noise record for a NFL stadium is 142.2 decibels claimed in 2014 by the Kansas City Chiefs. This volume is louder than a jet taking off and can permanently damage your hearing within minutes. The NIOSH Sound Level Meter App can be downloaded to your smartphone for free and will tell you if the surrounding volume puts your hearing in danger. Visit our Noise and Hearing Loss webpage to learn more tips about protecting your hearing. Stay safe and enjoy the game!

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