by Ellin Walsh
Cuyahoga Falls -- The beat of a basketball being dribbled down the court. The swish of a basket. The cries of the crowd.
DJ Davis hears none of these as he barrels down the court. Deaf since 6 months of age, the 15-year-old finds he speaks the same language as his friends when a basketball is involved. He used to play baseball, but these days, DJ focuses on hoops, with the hope of playing for the University of North Carolina someday.
"Michael Jordan played there," DJ says, "and they have a really good basketball team. I love North Carolina and I love basketball."
A power forward for the freshman boys basketball team at Cuyahoga Falls High, DJ is the only deaf student in the Cuyahoga Falls City School District. He attends classes with hearing students, accompanied by his interpreter, Rachel Vitez. DJ and Vitez have been paired in the classroom since DJ was in the fourth grade, and now on the basketball court as well.
"She comes to my practices and interprets what the coach is saying for me," DJ reports.
"The joke is that I will sign, but I will not run," Vitez says, adding, "That is the one perk in my 'contract.' I have a bad leg."
When the players huddle around the coach for instructions, you'll find Vitez in the mix, signing instructions to DJ. She sits on the sidelines throughout the game, in DJ's line of sight. He constantly makes eye contact with Vitez as he criss-crosses the court, checking to see if the coach has revised his orders.
While he says his deafness poses no particular problems as a basketball player, DJ admits there has been a time or two when a referee has become angry when he's ignored instructions -- simply because he couldn't hear them. The upside to being deaf, DJ jokes, is he can't hear the coach when he's offering constructive criticism to his colleagues loudly.
"When we are on the basketball court," DJ says, "the kids understand me pretty well and they treat me like any other player. Not 'the deaf kid.' Just DJ.
"My teammates use a lot of body motions. They sign plays and use hand motions instead of just calling plays out. A lot of times the other teams have no idea what we are doing, which is kind of nice. It messes up their defense."
DJ's teammates allow time for interpreting when going over plays, and Coach Steve Newlon always includes Vitez at games and practices.
Newlon describes coaching DJ as a "pleasure."
"DJ comes from a wonderful home and is very respectful and hardworking," Newlon said of the 3.0-plus grade point average student. "It is amazing how well he picks things up in practice and how hard he plays in games.
"He has been a leader both on and off the court for the freshman team this year."
DJ's twin brother, Jake, is a sophomore at Falls High. Jake plays on both the junior varsity and varsity basketball teams. DJ aspires to be tapped for varsity, too, admitting there is a friendly rivalry between the twins when a basketball is involved.
DJ's parents are Dan and Elaine Davis. DJ also has a younger brother, Mitchell, who is a sixth-grader at Bolich Middle School. Mitchell plays basketball, too.
DJ has a strong Christian faith he is proud of and attends the Chapel in Akron. Vitez credits the Davis family with instilling in DJ the confidence to succeed in a hearing world.
DJ's parents have taught him to deal with, not hide, his deafness.
"He is a good role model for showing people that while he is deaf, he is only limited in hearing," Vitez said.
The students at Falls High have welcomed DJ into their hearing world. For instance, Vitez reports a "Happy Hands" Club was started this year to teach hearing kids to sign.
"We currently have about 20 students who have committed to learning to sign," Vitez says. "Many kids are able to communicate with him now and it really helps to make him feel more included as it would with anyone."
"The interpreting takes a bit of time, but it is worth it when you see the success of this student and the way he is a role model for people around him," Vitez concluded.
DJ will continue to seek success on the court, too.
"Being deaf doesn't mean you can't be an athlete," he said. "You just try harder."
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