Watching running back Derrick Coleman on the Minnesota Vikings’ practice field, he looks like any other undrafted rookie free agent trying to make his first NFL roster.
At times, he’s lost in the assignments. Other times, he flashes some signs of potential. He works with special teams units trying to make his mark, giving the effort he hopes will catch the eye of a coach or two.
Only Coleman isn’t a typical rookie.
Coleman, 21, is hard of hearing, though not completely deaf. He can hear sounds and tones and wears hearing aids to distinguish words. He has become a very visual learner and needs to read lips to understand fully what people are saying. But he also has dealt with his reality, made his coaches and teammates aware of what he needs and is ready to prove he can play at the NFL level.
“It doesn’t affect me that much anymore,” Coleman said at Minnesota’s minicamp last month. “I sat down with the coaches and players in the quarterback room and let them know, ‘Whenever we change the play, you already say it twice, just turn around one time and say it one more time. It don’t hurt nobody.”
With the instructions out of the way, Coleman has looked the part of an NFL player as much as any rookie can through a few limited practices. He doesn’t view his hearing loss as an impediment to playing in the NFL. If anything, the only reason he might have been behind other rookies during the June minicamp was because he missed much of the organized team activities while still in school at UCLA.
After going undrafted, Coleman agreed to terms with the Vikings. He attended the rookie minicamp the following week but returned to finish out his classes at UCLA. An NFL rule didn’t allow him to return for practices before his term at UCLA was completed.
“I can’t say enough about how bright the kid is,” Minnesota running backs coach James Saxon said. “I can’t say enough about how much of a hard worker he is. He’s at a point, I believe, just by watching him, he’s got a great desire to try and do things, do everything right.
“He takes meticulous notes. He asks the right questions. He doesn’t make mistakes twice. And if he does make a mistake, he wants to know why and how and how to correct it and move forward. He shows a lot of maturity that way.”
Coleman is a 6-foot-1, 240-pound bruising runner who also excelled on special teams at UCLA. He ran for 765 yards and 11 touchdowns last year for the Bruins and was named All-Pac 12 second-team as a special teams player after making seven tackles. He had 10 special teams tackles the previous season.
Offensively, he finished his UCLA career with 19 touchdowns and 1,780 yards rushing, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Because of his playing style, Coleman doesn’t think he’s shown his best attributes to the Vikings yet.
“Wait till we get the pads on,” Coleman said. “It took me two years to realize it in college, but the last two years, I know my strength is the power running. That’s what I do. My strength’s power running. I have a lot of versatility. I love to play special teams, whatever they ask me to do — go out there and make tackles or whatever. They need me on field goal, I’ll go play field goal because I love to contribute.”
Coleman could find his way onto the roster, or at least the practice squad for Minnesota. Saxon says he doesn’t put much thought into Coleman’s impediment. The coach jokes that he’s used to yelling. And he sees talent in Coleman and the desire to get the most out of his ability.
“He’s got a hearing issue,” Saxon said. “So, that in itself is what it is. To me, I don’t see that. All I see is a young hungry guy who wants to try and come help this football team be better.
“Everybody has a different way. Some guys are more visual than others. He just happens to be a little more visual than the rest of the guys.”
Coleman’s hearing started to fade when he was 3 and worsened until he was in middle school. Doctors have said the cause was genetic. He wears hearing aids and two skull caps under his helmet to keep them dry and in place. He said the transition from high school to college was bigger, for him, than what he’s experienced so far with the Vikings.
“A lot of people think the hearing is holding me back,” Coleman said. “But it’s really not.”
He has proven it to himself. Now his only concern is proving himself to the Vikings.
Brian Hall writes about the Vikings for Fox Sports North.