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January 17, 2012

Hearing-impaired Lewis is a silent star

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Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

SAN ANTONIO - Demontrai Lewis exploded through the drill, recording a hypothetical sack to earn praise from his coach and recognition from the group of other top players at the U.S. Army National Combine.

It was the type of effort that separates the more than 500 top players from all over the country at the event. The type of play that helps break the ice among the high school hot shots, most of which had never met before the start of the day.

But when another player approached him in an athletic bonding moment, he soon found out what truly separates Lewis from the rest.

Lewis is deaf.

Don't feel bad for him. He doesn't. And he doesn't let it prevent him from being a star football player in pursuit of a college scholarship. Or just an average teen-ager.

"I try to be a regular kid," he said through a translator, a jovial attitude coming through loud and clear. "I like girls with big butts and hanging out with my friends."

Lewis, who was born hearing impaired, communicates through his father, Michael, or someone who signs.

His dad always has made sure his son had the same opportunities as others, including sports.

"He has been playing since he was 5," the elder Lewis said. "We are very proud of him and what he has done.

"We don't make a big deal about him not being able to hear. We want everyone to treat him like any other kid."

At the same time, both Demontrai and his father realize he isn't like everyone else. And it is something they embrace.

"When God gives you a gift, whether it is being a football player or being deaf, it is for a reason," Michael Lewis said. "God gave (Demontrai) both."

Indeed. Lewis, 6-foot-3 and a lean 230 pounds, is a star defensive end at Lufkin (Texas) High, a school in the southeast part of the state, roughly halfway between Houston and Dallas. In one game last season against nationally ranked John Tyler, he recorded 15 tackles, including an impressive seven for loss.

At the combine, he shined in both his position groups and in one-on-one repetitions.

How high a recruit he is remains to be seen. But hearing-impaired athletes have competed at the highest levels.

Two deaf athletes have played in the NFL: Kenny Walker with the Denver Broncos in the early 1990s and Bonnie Sloan for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973.

Others have played collegiately, including Martel Van Zant, who finished his career at Oklahoma State in 2007. Van Zant got an NFL tryout before landing in the Arena League.

Lewis' father said that colleges are starting to recruit his son. He feels his play on the field will override any concern that a school will have with his impairment.

"What is given to you is yours," he said. "Schools will see he is a very good player and give him an opportunity if he earns it."

And realize this, Lewis feels being hearing impaired actually helps his game in some ways since his other senses are heightened.

"I am very aware," he said. "My sight is faster.

"Speed, strength, and awareness are my biggest strengths. Because I cannot hear I have to be more aware."

Lewis said that he molds his game after Mario Williams of the Houston Texas but celebrates like another NFL player.

"When I make a big play I flex like (Green Bay Packer linebacker) Clay Matthews," he said, and flexed. "I can feel the crowd get pumped."

That's right, he can feel the vibrations of a roaring crowd. He cannot, however, hear a quarterback bark out the signals. Which, of course, means he'll never fall victim to a snap count.

"I never jump (offside)," he joked. "Never.

"It is a gift within a gift."

Lewis, who has a signing specialist with him on the sidelines during his high school games, had translator Randy Tower with him throughout his day at the combine.

"I'm the only deaf player here," he said through Towers. "I haven't had any problems with it since I've been here. The coaches and players they all accepted it and I'm just here to compete just like everyone else."

His smile is infectious and his eyes are bright. He oozes with personality. But while a signing specialist can help him during football lessons, other spur-of-the-moment situations can be tough.

His father said because of it, events such as the combine - where no one knows his background - can be difficult on his son at times.

"People don't know how to take him," his dad said. "He tries to interact, but it is hard. Kids will try to talk to him and he will have to try and explain he is deaf."

That's what happened after Lewis' big effort on the drill, where he easily bolted past the offensive lineman trying to block him.

As he walked back to the line, he was approached by another defensive lineman. He had to respond as he's had to so many times before - pointing to his ear.

The other player understood and then walked away.

Lewis was left to stand in silence.

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