The first US university for the deaf… and its connection to sports

Gallaudet University was the first University for the deaf, established by Thomas Gallaudet in 1864. But in 1894, Gallaudet University was involved in another innovation. Read on!

Fred Bowen is a sports columnist for the Washington Post, and wrote this column in 2006. From


A crowd filled the stands but it was strangely quiet. We rose for the national anthem, but no band played and nobody sang. Instead, three cheerleaders stood in the middle of the field signing “The Star Spangled Banner” with their hands.

During the game, a home-team coach wheeled a huge bass drum along the sideline. When his team had the ball, he signaled the start of a play by pounding the drum with a big mallet.

I was at Gallaudet University, a college for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Washington.

The Gallaudet Bison have been playing football for more than 100 years. In fact, the football huddle was invented at Gallaudet in 1894, by the team’s star quarterback, Paul Hubbard.

Hubbard worried that other teams–deaf and hearing teams–were stealing his hand signals at the line of scrimmage. So he gathered his players in a huddle to keep his sign language private.

Other teams liked the idea. Now, the huddle is as much a part of football as helmets and shoulder pads.

The drum has not caught on with other teams, but it’s an important part of Gallaudet football.

Thirty years ago, the Gallaudet Bison did not have the drum and they had a big problem.

Football plays typically start with the quarterback calling, “Hut . . . hut . . . hut . . . ” The team takes off on the first, second or third “hut,” depending on what the players decided in the huddle.

The Gallaudet players couldn’t use the “hut” system because the players couldn’t hear the calls. They had to wait for the center to hike the ball. Well, the opposing team also was watching for the center to hike the ball, so
Gallaudet could not “get the jump” on the play. Without that half-a-second head start (it’s more important than it sounds!), Gallaudet had trouble scoring.

R. Orin Cornett was at Gallaudet in 1970 and he tried to help. First he thought about putting a radio transmitter on the center’s hip. The quarterback would push a button to send a signal to tiny radio receivers on his teammates’
helmets. A vibration in the player’s helmets would signal when the play started.

Then he thought a strong flashing light might work better. He borrowed one from an airport a few days before a football practice. However, Cornett never tried it out, because as he was falling asleep one night he got another idea: a drum!

Cornett remembered the University of Texas band’s big bass drum from when he attended football games there. He remembered how he felt the vibrations when the band pounded the drum.

Maybe the drum’s vibrations could work as a football signal.

They did. Sure enough, the Gallaudet players couldn’t hear the drum but they could feel its vibrations. And, man, were the Bison ready to go.

They won three of their final four games of the 1970-71 season.

And although they haven’t always had winning seasons, they have kept the drum.</blockquote>

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