A group of soccer players has congregated on the indoor field at Columbia's Volleyball House just about every Thursday night for the past two years, displaying their passion for the sport - and the heart of their community.
The players make up the Maryland United Deaf Football Club (MUDFC), which was formed in 1999 by Ellicott City resident Jamie Clark, who also founded the Internet service provider Clark.net, and Alex Simmons, a Webmaster for the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick and Columbia.
Don't be misled by the "recreational" division in which MUDFC plays. Its name is patterned after that of the famous Manchester United Football Club in England's Premier League.
Five MUDFC players have been internationally tested. Three - John Sanchez, Elijah Gold and Tom Wells - start on the U.S. deaf national team that will compete in outdoor soccer in the 19th Deaf World Games in Rome from July 19 to Aug. 1. This will be the fourth Games appearance for Sanchez and Gold. Two others, Trevor Shearer and Simmons, are alternates.
The Games, structured much like the Olympics, are about "pride in being able to represent the United States in international competition," said Wells, who will be making his second appearance in the quadrennial Games. It's exciting, he said, to "meet deaf soccer players from all over the U.S. and from overseas."
About 75 players tried out for the national team last summer at Gallaudet University in Washington, the world's only university for the deaf and hard of hearing. Twenty-two made the team.
Not only did MUDFC contribute national-team players, the club - and the deaf community - banded together for a cause under the direction of Columbia resident Slemo Warigon, an avid soccer fan and MUDFC mainstay from the club's beginning.
National team player Edward Cheah, like many cash-strapped college students, could not afford a trip to Rome. In stepped Warigon.
He organized fund-raising events and, within a week, $3,100 of the $4,000 goal was met; any additional proceeds will be donated to the United States of America Deaf Soccer Association (www.usadsa.net).
"This is just my way of giving back to the community," said Warigon, a mentor to Cheah and other African-American students at Gallaudet. "I've been fortunate to be in the situation I'm now in due largely to the help of many good Samaritans in my life."
While the national team tries to make its international mark, MUDFC will try to maintain its winning ways locally. It has had only one losing session in the 10 it has played at Volleyball House, with a few communication mishaps along the way.
Simmons recalled one such problem - a referee's misunderstanding that led to two suspensions. As a deaf player ran to protect his teammate after a particularly rough collision, the referee saw only a player running toward the fracas, not what others saw, a teammate about to be hit on the floor. In the chaos, the referee pushed the deaf player to the floor. With no interpreter, MUDFC didn't get to offer its explanation.
Rick Crow, a frequent Volleyball House soccer referee with more than 20 years of experience, has learned how to adjust to the different communication needs of deaf players.
"I tell the hearing players to simply stop playing when a call is made," he said. "The deaf players usually stop very quickly after that, especially if a deaf player with the ball sees that he or she is no longer being chased.
"I especially talk to the hearing goalkeeper and let him or her know that they risk a collision if the deaf player can't hear the whistle. Therefore, when the whistle blows, the goalkeeper is urged to stop playing and get out of the way."
Crow also makes sure that hearing players understand that contact after the whistle by a deaf player is usually not intentional.
For the most part, though, language is not an issue.
"The deaf soccer players are more alert and rely on visual cues and hand motions to know where opposing players and the ball are located," said Wells, who began playing at age 7. "During stoppage in play, we will sign instructions and encouragement to each other, just like the hearing players do."
It isn't against only hearing teams that deaf players experience a language difference. International deaf teams use a different sign system. But there are advantages when MUDFC plays hearing teams.
"We can communicate from afar without shouting at the top of our lungs or giving away what we plan to do," said Warigon.
When it comes right down to it, though, it's all about soccer, not linguistics.
"Soccer is an art ... a beautiful game," said Gold. "It's 90 minutes of nonstop action with an average of five to seven miles [ground covered during a game] with no timeout, like basketball or football. In many other countries, soccer is their religion. I feel the same."