June 23, 2018
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Hearing-impaired football player elevates team play


BREWER, Maine — The sounds of a football game are vivid — quarterbacks barking out signals, pads hitting pads, the referee’s whistle and the roar of the crowd.

But for Brewer High School senior Billy Bissell, they are largely the sounds of silence.

“Sometimes, like when the public address announcer says ‘15-yard run by Bissell,’ I can hear it a little bit,” said Bissell, a running back who is defined as hard of hearing. “Otherwise I can’t hear anything.”

Bissell was born with a hearing impairment, and initially it was thought that even hearing aids wouldn’t help.

That proved not to be the case, and Bissell has successfully made his way through school with the assistance of sign language interpreters, speech therapy, auditory trainers and hearing aids.

Sports also have been a major part of his life, as the son of Bill and Lynn Bissell has emerged as one of Eastern Maine’s better all-around athletes.

He’s a strong-armed outfielder who has competed in the Senior League World Series and last spring helped Brewer win the Eastern Maine Class A championship. He also is a quick-jumping forward on the Witches basketball team.

But football has proved more challenging.

Bissell had played the sport since his elementary school years, and while hearing aids helped, excessive sweat from wearing them beneath his football helmet or damage from the contact inherent in the sport jeopardized their effectiveness from game to game and practice to practice.

As a sophomore at Brewer, that concern became too troublesome. His hearing aids routinely stopped working during games, and Bissell would try to blow the moisture out of them, but to no avail.

Without them, he sometimes was lost amid a game he knew well.

“Halfway through almost every game, the hearing aids would die out because of the sweat or the impact of the hits,” Bissell said. “Or they’d get crushed. It was very frustrating.”

So frustrating, in fact, that he chose not to play football last fall.

“It had really become a pain for him,” said Lynn Bissell. “The year before, he used his hearing aids, and they’d just build up moisture and wouldn’t work, but nobody knew at the time that he just couldn’t hear anything. He tried everything, but nothing worked.”

Bissell continued to play basketball and baseball. Hearing aids could withstand the demands of those sports. In basketball he used an FM receiver to better hear instructions in the loud, often cozy confines of the area’s high school gymnasiums from then-Brewer coach Mark Reed, who wore a microphone during games.

But the vastness of the playing field, the need to be in sync with his teammates and the verbalized signals used to start each play made football a more imposing challenge.

“In basketball I do wear my hearing aids, and I can hear the atmosphere. I hear everything,” said Bissell. “In football I can’t really hear anything.”

Bissell wasn’t sure he’d play football again, but after meeting with Witches head coach Don Farnham and assistant Dana Corey this summer, he decided to return to the team and deal with the issue by eliminating hearing aids from the equation.

“Last year I thought about playing,” said Bissell. “But I just didn’t want to play, and it was a lot about my hearing aids. This year I decided to come back, and I asked Coach if I could come back and play without any hearing aids.

“He said they’d do everything they could to make it happen.”

Familiar terrain

Farnham knows where Bissell is coming from, not because he has any hearing issues, but he, too, carved out a solid playing career despite a disabled arm.

“Here’s a kid who’s got a disability, and I can relate to that,” said Farnham. “People asked me if I’d have been a better player if I had two good arms, and I always said no because it just made me work harder.

“I think if you ask Billy the same question, he’d answer the same way because he’s had to work harder to overcome his situation. You adjust, and you compete, and Billy’s a competitor.”

One adjustment that has helped Bissell cope with the silence is that he wears two special armbands when he is playing — one with numbered offensive plays on it, the other bearing numbered defensive plays.

Classmate Coby Hutchins, the Witches’ quarterback, relays Bissell each play by hand, and if Bissell is required to go in motion before the play starts, Hutchins gestures while awaiting the center snap to let Bissell know when to begin moving down the line of scrimmage.

“He’s in motion quite a lot, and I’ve got to remember when to tell him to go,” said Hutchins. “Early on I had a difficult time with it because I had to make sure Billy knew what he was supposed to do, and I’d forget my steps. But I’m used to it now.”

Occasionally a play will get lost in translation, but Bissell’s teammates are quick to assist.

“My teammates have been great,” said Bissell. “If I miss something, they’ll try to give me a sign and I’ll finally get it, or I’ll try to read their lips.”

And that’s one area where Bissell’s fellow Witches have been especially helpful, making sure he can read their lips through the bars on their helmets.

“So far we really haven’t had any problems,” said Hutchins. “Once in a while something might happen, and while he can’t hear, he’s really good at reading lips. You just have to make sure you’re facing him when you try to tell him something.”

Farnham said the extra attention that ensures Bissell is up to speed on each play is beneficial to everyone involved in Brewer’s football operation.

“I’ve found that having him on the team has made us better coaches,” said Farnham, “because we have to make sure we communicate well and think out everything we can do to make sure that when Billy’s on the field he’s going to get the message either by armbands or hand signals.

“I remember in our first game that he was on the punt return team and he was standing too deep, but we couldn’t communicate with him because he was looking downfield. We were yelling at him to move up, but he couldn’t see us. We didn’t prepare for that, and it affected Billy, so it made us as coaches really go through everything he’s a part of to make sure we’re able to communicate with each other the best we can.”

Yet there’s one place where typical forms of communication can’t help Bissell — on the snap of the football. He can’t hear Hutchins call out the signals, and since he lines up behind the quarterback, there’s no opportunity to read lips.

“Mainly, I just go by motion, the first movement,” said Bissell. “Since I don’t have any hearing aids, I’ve got to really rely on my vision.”

That’s nothing new. Bissell’s visual acuity has been a prominent means of compensating for his hearing challenge over the years, no matter the sporting venue.

“He’s very visual,” said Lynn Bissell. “His eyes are probably better than any of ours because that’s all he has. He probably sees things that we don’t because he’s so focused on what he’s doing.”

That vision has served Bissell well so far this season. Not only does he rank among the Pine Tree Conference Class A rushing leaders, he’s perhaps proudest of the fact that he has yet to draw an offsides penalty.

“He’s reacting,” said Farnham. “It’s almost like playing defense. He’s looking right down the line, and the quarterback has some signals for him to start some of his motions. But a lot of it is just adapting to what he sees. When the line goes, he goes.”

Bissell’s return to football has helped Brewer become more competitive this fall. After a winless season in 2007, the Witches enter tonight’s homecoming game at Doyle Field against Cony of Augusta with a 2-3 record and still in contention for a playoff berth.

“We’ve been playing sports together and been friends since I can remember,” said Hutchins. “We’re just glad to have him back on the team.”

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