If the Seahawks stick to standard procedure Sunday in the NFC Championship game against the 49ers, Derrick Coleman probably won’t get the ball in his hands very often. The dazzling Marshawn Lynch is Seattle’s feature back, and the 23-year-old Coleman is a bottom-of-the-depth-chart fullback and dogged special teams guy.
Yet Coleman, a force in his UCLA playing days, is getting a load of attention these days, not because of his ability, but rather his disability. He is legally deaf. He is the first such player ever to perform with an NFL offensive unit, where such things as hearing the snap count and picking up quarterback audibles are imperative to success in a game loosely defined as “kill the man with the ball and everyone within reasonable proximity to the ball.”
“If I don’t hear [the quarterback], we’re all in trouble,’’ Coleman noted to ESPN Los Angeles columnist Ramona Shelburne during his senior season (2011) at UCLA.
Duracell, the battery maker, has placed Coleman front and center in a very effective, emotional 60-second TV commercial. The spot provides a quick chronicle of his challenges and his will to persevere through life and on the football field, despite losing his hearing over roughly the 10 years leading up to middle school, right about when he took up football.
Duracell’s product line includes batteries that fit hearing aids such as the pair Coleman wears in every game, the tiny instruments fixed in place by tight-fitting skullcaps.
“They didn’t call my name, told me it was over,’’ Coleman says in the spot, referring to the fact that he went unchosen in the 2012 NFL draft. “But I’ve been deaf since I was 3, so I didn’t listen.’’
The tag line at the end of the spot: “Trust the power within.”
It’s an excellent, moving piece, crafted by Saatchi and Saatchi of New York, and could be the leader in the clubhouse for “best in show’’ these next couple of weeks when TV is saturated with talk about Super Bowl commercials and the running and rerunning of the commercials themselves.
Each 30-second spot for the big game Feb. 2 prices out around $4 million, roughly the cost these days of a half-decent NFL slot receiver. Fully decent slot receivers go for about $6 million.
There’s a lot to like about both the Coleman commercial and his story. The piece moves quickly (not always true in the 60-second pitch play), and it causes one to think, invest momentarily in Coleman’s struggles as a kid (“I was a lost cause . . . picked on, picked last’’), and ultimately rejoice in his triumph.
The camera’s final gaze captures him from the back as he makes his way down the runway into a packed stadium.
He was told to quit, Coleman says in the spot, and, “Now I’m here, with a lot of fans in the NFL cheering me on — and I can hear them all.’’
It delivers at just the right pitch, sullen in parts yet inspirational at the finish. And again, we’re talking a low-profile player here, someone who carried the ball only twice this season for Seattle and amassed but 3 yards in 12 games. He also caught eight passes, one of them for a touchdown. Surely not a lot of TDs, but one more than millions of other guys, hearing and non-hearing, in football America.
NFL fans of a certain age probably haven’t felt this good about an NFL-player-centric commercial since the late ’70s when a limping, exhausted Mean Joe Greene chugged down a Coke and tossed that adorable kid his Steelers jersey. “Wow, thanks Mean Joe!’’
I’m not sure there’s ever been a legitimate challenger to the Greene chug-and-toss. It used to be great fun to watch O.J. Simpson sprint through airports as a Hertz rental car pitchman, but then Simpson got himself run off to jail and that took the fun out of that. O.J.: “No one has what it takes to get you into a new LTD faster.’’
I do enjoy the many Peyton Manning spots. He’s a very likable guy and he puts his name on almost everything worth more than 50 bucks, although he’s yet to match Joe Namath in the pantyhose category. I suspect Joe Willie will own the pantyhose segment in perpetuity.
True story: Coleman’s mother used to shred her old pantyhose so he could use them for a bandana that could hold his hearing aids in place.
Last Sunday against San Diego, Manning yelled “Omaha!’’ so often, I was certain he eventually was going to audible off to, say, “Buick!’’ or maybe “Papa John’s!’’ He’s really keen on cars and pizza. I’m not sure how the rest of the Broncos’ 11-man offensive unit would have responded, but I’m pretty sure the NFL’s Executive Director of Sponsorship and Brand Enhancement would have spit out his Cheerios. Or maybe it would have been Froot Loops.
Coleman’s Q score is never going to reach those of the big boys. But so what? His story is real, compelling, relatable. When he can’t hear well enough in the huddle, he tugs on the quarterback’s jersey, makes him repeat the play directly to his face. Even if he can’t hear him, he can read his lips. He has learned to adapt. He gets it. He finds a way.
“It’s never held me back,’’ he told the Seattle Times during training camp. “And it’s not going to start now.’’
One shot in the commercial depicts Coleman as a little kid getting picked on for his hearing aids. Another one has him getting popped on the field, the hearing aids spilling onto the dirt. But he picked himself up, dusted himself off, remained in the game he loves.
After a fine career at UCLA, he stuck with the Vikings practice squad for a while, was released, then hooked on with the Seahawks extras a year ago December.
Now he’s here, No. 40 on his back, a full-fledged member of the 53-man unit standing maybe 60 minutes from the Super Bowl. Whether he plays a little or a lot, Derrick Coleman has been counted. He has been heard.