Tackling limitations

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Brandon Phillips plays one of the hardest, fastest positions in football. As a linebacker, he is expected to process multiple variables in the blink of an eye and make split-second decisions play after play. As a member of an 11-man unit, communication is crucial to a linebacker’s success. But Phillips, a senior majoring in applied computer sciences, has one more very important variable to consider among the controlled chaos of a football field: he is deaf in his left ear.

An unexpected turn

In 2008, Phillips was a recently arrived redshirt freshman from California, who had visited the university as a high school student and fallen in love with the campus. He had been suffering from an ear infection and woke one morning with a complete loss of hearing in his left ear. When he visited the doctor, the news was not encouraging: the medical professionals were stumped. When the condition stayed, Phillips had to adjust to a sudden, unexpected turn. 

“I was really scared,” Phillips says. “The doctors didn’t have any real answer for me. They did all these tests, but nothing came back positive. It was pretty frightening just to wake up and lose your hearing.”

Adapting on the field

Coming to grips with an abrupt loss of hearing was a difficult transition in itself, but acclimating to the field with this new obstacle would prove to be one of Phillips’ greatest challenges. Phillips, who played on the defensive line in high school football before joining the university, had to completely relearn and adapt to various aspects of the game; aside from adjusting to the alteration in balance, he had to find a way to overcome the communication barrier, which plays an important role in reading and executing plays on the field. 

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All of these changes, literally forced onto him overnight, created a significant hurdle for Phillips, but he says the support of the university’s coaching staff, his trainers, and his peers helped him persevere and contribute to the team.

“I got in the playbook a lot more and try to learn the defenses the best I could,” Phillips says. “I try to learn what everyone around me is doing and what I’m supposed to be doing so I don’t suffer if I can’t hear when someone’s trying to tell me something. On defense, there’s a lot of communication, so I try to learn what's going on. I’ve gotten to that point now.” 

His work has paid off. As a reserve linebacker for the Top 25-ranked Lumberjacks, he has seen action in every game this season and is one of the team’s leading tacklers. 

Rejecting excuses 

Adjusting to life on the field wasn’t the only hurdle for Phillips; as a full-time student, he also had to cope with his hearing impairment in the classroom.

While he admits that his peers can grow frustrated repeating themselves, Phillips acknowledges that he doesn’t want to use his disability as an excuse. Most of the time, he simply sits on the left side of the classroom and goes about his business.

His pursuit of a career in software development remains the next step following his graduation, and, like everything else in his life, Phillips refuses to allow his condition to slow him down.

“Most people can adapt to it,” Phillips says. “I had a little bit of time to get used to it, but I don’t really bring it up because I don’t try to use that as a crutch."