Deaf Football Players Forge a Path to the Super Bowl

Minutes before the Super Bowl gets underway on Sunday, four high school students from Riverside will be standing on the field in the glare of the national spotlight.

The National Football League, which invited them to take part in the coin toss, is calling the teenagers “honorary captains.”

Trevin Adams, Christian Jimenez, Jory Valencia and Enos Zornoza are representing their teammates from the California School for the Deaf, Riverside, after a remarkable and record-breaking season. They will be wearing their Cubs uniforms.

“I don’t think I ever thought I would go to the Super Bowl,” Christian, an offensive lineman, said on Wednesday. “My parents have never had that experience. I’m 16 years old and I’m doing the coin toss. I don’t think anything is ever going to replace this.”

The boys, chosen because they were the captains of their team, will be part of a wider group of people witnessing the coin toss that Samantha Roth, an NFL spokeswoman, calls an effort to focus on inclusion. The other participants will be announced on Friday, she said.

Early in the Super Bowl era, the coin toss was done by the referee; then football legends like Red Grange and Bart Starr were asked to participate. During some years the NFL cast a wider net, inviting politicians and military veterans. Ronald Reagan flipped a coin remotely from the White House for Super Bowl XIX, which was held in the Bay Area. And last year the NFL invited an intensive care nurse to do the honors.

Roth said the NFL invited the deaf players this year because “they were defying stereotypes.” Two deaf artists will also be taking part in the halftime show.

For the players from Riverside, the journey from their parched and rutted field to the manicured turf at SoFi Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday has been a whirlwind.

When I first met the team in mid-November, they were undefeated but unheralded. An article about their achievements brought television cameras, the promise of Hollywood contracts and hordes of reporters. The governor’s office vowed to upgrade their playing fields and rusted bleachers. They went all the way to the championship but lost their final game.

This will be the second time they are honored at SoFi Stadium. They were guests of the Los Angeles Chargers in November and were featured on the stadium’s giant screens during the game.

But it goes without saying that a role in the Super Bowl festivities is something entirely different.

Just a few weeks ago, Trevin, the team’s quarterback, had been making plans to get together with some friends to watch the Super Bowl. Then in late January he was pulled aside by a member of the school’s administration and told about the invitation.

“I was in disbelief. I was like, ‘Is this a joke? You’ve got to be kidding me, right?’” he said. “It was amazing,” he said of his reaction at the time. “And then I felt so honoured.”

His football team’s success is carrying over to other sports at the school. Both varsity basketball teams are having record seasons: The girls won their league championship for the first time since 1986, and the boys won their first since 1999. Both teams are now competing for Southern California titles.

The past 12 months have been extremely trying for many residents of Riverside, which is among the counties with the highest death rates from the coronavirus.

But Keith Adams, the coach, and his players at the California School for the Deaf talk about creating their own path, and their own destiny, amid the gloom.

“Fortitude was the word that was used by the coach,” Christian said. “And that just means forging ahead. You have to get through adversity. There’s no red carpet through this life.”

Speaking through an American Sign Language interpreter, and with the tempo and the passion of a halftime locker-room speech, Christian summarized his journey during the pandemic.

“For me, 2021 was an amazing year,” he said.


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Soumya Karlamangla, Miles McKinley, Briana Scalia and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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