When Jo Casanova tells prospective players about a high school football team she coaches for deaf students in San Diego, she flips to the volunteer coaching database where there are hundreds of sports mentors everywhere willing to come out and serve as unpaid coaches for the players.
Casanova fills out her application with a resume and a picture, not to mention messages of encouragement and encouragement to the high school players. But Casanova writes something else in her application – the ability to communicate with the players through sign language and sign with the parents.
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Casanova is on the cusp of making history this week as the first deaf coach to lead her high school’s varsity football team. Casanova became the head coach at her school’s Varsity Cheerleading Division III after coaching her team for seven years. This week, she will join the varsity team as the new coach at the high school in the San Diego area. It was the boys’s reaction to her as a full-time coach that compelled her to begin coaching, especially their responses when they saw the picture on her application.
“The day they saw it, they walked around like, whoa,” Casanova told The Guardian. “It was so awesome.”
After Casanova earned the high school’s permanent head coach position, she was asked if she would be interested in serving as the varsity team’s new head coach. Her answer was that she wouldn’t necessarily be a high school head coach.
“I said, ‘Yea, I’d love to be involved with the team but not just head coach,’” Casanova said. “I said, ‘I’m not interested in coaching varsity football,’ but the answer was, ‘If you’re interested and if you’re sincere …’”
Casanova has coached deaf players at different levels for several years, and she said she can’t name a different coach in other high schools who teaches signing skills on their team. The problem for deaf coaches, she said, is that they have to come out of the closet.
“It’s just not something to out yourself for,” she said. “Now people know me and know I do sign language and that I get to play football. If I knew that, I would have just texted everyone and said ‘Hi!’”
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Some of Casanova’s players have never heard of her and others have never been to a signing game. She said she understands that to most of her players, her ability to communicate with them will seem a strength and a weakness.
“That’s the struggle of the deaf community,” she said. “We are a people who are hidden. Hearing people get to see us on the field. Hearing people get to see us interact with other people. Deaf people don’t see themselves in society. We find ourselves in the most challenging situations.”
Even so, Casanova has never seen a deaf player quit or had another player refuse to play because of it.
“To be honest,” she said, “I don’t think any of my players are being intentionally discriminated against.”