Senior Evan Allen overcomes odds every time he steps onto the field for the Hannibal football team.
Evan Allen looked out the window and watched intently as plays unfolded on a football practice field in plain sight from his family's residence in Hannibal.
The sprouting adolescent wanted nothing more than to be just like one of the boys on the team.
It seemed impossible.
Allen was born profoundly deaf.
Fast forward to present day, the senior is a star for the Hannibal High School football team, leading the Pirates with 14 tackles for loss and 5 1/2 sacks this season while also reeling in 118 yards receiving and a touchdown.
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound beast is a force to be reckoned with — cochlear implants and all.
“I would watch the football team play on the field because it was right across the house that we stayed in," Allen said. "I was like, 'Wow, I really want to play, but I don't think I can because of my deafness.' But I was wrong. You can do it. Nothing is impossible because you can always overcome things.
“I want to be an inspiration to other people like me."
Intricacies of the game
Some of Allen's best qualities as a bull-rushing defensive end can be attributed to habits he's mastered in order to overcome his hearing impairment.
He pays close attention to the intricacies of the game.
“One of the things I've learned is to focus and communicate with my teammates,” Allen said. “I would say I listen better than a normal person. And with my condition, I'm always focusing more because I don't want to miss anything. I'm always alert. I always keep my eyes open. That's helped me a lot.”
There are times Allen appears to overcome his hearing troubles with such ease that fellow senior captain Wyatt Waelder can forget about the impairment altogether.
Allen's condition was especially easy to overlook on Friday, Oct. 6, when the senior roared into the Marshall backfield for a safety and finished with a game-high four stops for loss in a 48-10 win.
There wasn't anything or anyone that could get in Allen's way.
“Evan is a man,” Waelder said. “He's tough to stop no matter where he's at. He's a matchup nightmare for most teams. Nobody can really guard him, and nobody can stop him when he's coming off the edge. It's pretty cool how he can overcome everything so easy.”
“It was a little tough at first.”
Allen utters these words while reflecting on what it was like to join the Hannibal Middle School football squad in seventh grade.
That year was his first playing the sport, and it wasn't easy.
“I was playing for the first time and it was hard to hear teammates because they had never had a person like me on their team before,” Allen admitted.
The first order of business was to get a special helmet that allowed space for Allen's hearing device, which he has had in his right ear since he was 1 year old. (This February, he underwent surgery to install an implant in his left ear.)
Allen's teammates slowly but surely grew accustomed to using hand signals to communicate with him. The quarterback was instructed to speak succinctly in the huddle and repeat sentences until the lineman understood.
Standing head and shoulders over many his age, Allen didn't take long to turn heads on the field, developing into a two-way player on both the offensive and defensive lines.
By the time Allen was a sophomore, longtime Hannibal coach Mark St. Clair bumped him up to the varsity roster, where he has remained ever since.
“When you think of Evan, you think of an athlete that's also got size,” St. Clair said of Allen. “He's not only athletic but he's a big fella. He runs well. He's obviously had some obstacles, but he's found a way to make things work in his favor.”
Anthony and Stacy Allen each have no difficulty hearing. That's why it was a surprise when three of their children, including Evan, were born with hearing impairments.
Evan is the second of their five children. His brother Leighton also has overcome the same condition and is a junior on the team.
“By the time he was born, we had him tested very, very early,” Anthony said of Evan. “He was implanted with a cochlear implant before one and went through extensive speech therapy until he was five, which allowed him to start school and be mainstream.”
Evan was born in North Carolina, but the family moved to America's Hometown when Anthony became president of Hannibal-LaGrange University in 2012.
Anthony has a football history of his own. He was a lineman for Duke in the late 1980s, including when the Blue Devils were co-champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1989 under coach Steve Spurrier.
Despite the pedigree of trying out for 15 professional teams and being offered a contract by the Cincinnati Bengals before opting to enroll in graduate school, Anthony mentioned he never once tried to pressure Evan to play sports.
“One of the things I've always said is I don't want to try and live my life through my son,” Anthony said. “But he expressed an interest in playing and we try to encourage him and help him.”
As Evan grew into his teenage years, his desire to play football became an obsession.
His parents allowed him to give it a shot.
“One thing Evan has always said is because he is deaf, it's more meaningful for him to play,” Stacy said, adding her other two hearing impaired children have expressed similar feelings. “They love sports, and it makes them feel like, 'If I can achieve this on the field, then I can achieve other things in life.'”
It doesn't hurt that Anthony has been alongside Evan every step of the way to offer strategy and game insights most fathers dream they could but few could replicate.
“I wasn't as good as he is when I was in high school,” Anthony admitted. “I was a little taller, but I wasn't as big. Evan has done well.”
Anthony turned to face Evan, grabbing his son's biceps.
“These are some monster arms,” Anthony said with a smile.
'Excellent, timely intervention'
Craig Buchman heads the Department of Otolaryngology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The doctor has a relationship with the Allen family that spans over 15 years.
Buchman previously worked at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he forged a connection with the Allens. His move to Missouri made it easy to stay in close contact with Evan.
Buchman has installed more than 1,000 cochlear implants during his career, including the one in Evan's left ear this past winter.
Medical advances have changed the playing field for patients such as Evan. Before implants became mainstream, the same opportunities were not possible, according to Buchman.
“This is part of the marvel of this technology and intervention that when children with severe to profound deafness are identified at an early age and they get appropriate intervention and the families take on to do the right things for communication, the children can achieve basically normal communication and lifestyle, which I just think is so remarkable,” he said.
“In days prior to all this, it really wasn't possible. These are kids that without these devices can't hear the jet on the tarmac.”
Buchman mentioned there are concerns that come with Evan playing football, such as an implant breaking if he's part of a major collision.
It's a matter of weighing the benefits and risks.
“Having a cochlear implant under a football helmet does create a little bit of risk, which the family is willing to accept because he so much wants to play the game,” Buchman said. “I support that.”
The fact Evan maintains a normal lifestyle with his condition is not rare in of itself nowadays, Buchman added. It's an example of someone combating the challenges of hearing impairment in the best way possible.
“He's had a very dedicated family to his cause,” Buchman said. “He's had excellent, timely intervention for his hearing loss. He spent a lot of time learning how to speak and talk and communicate. For him, all the right things have aligned.”
Making it work
The aspects of football that are most natural for many players can prove difficult for Evan, such as hearing the snap count or the play call.
Take this year's preseason jamboree for example.
While on offense, Evan got caught in the trenches trying to fend off the opposing defensive linemen. In the process, his hearing device fell out of his ear, wiggled its way out of his skull cap and bounced onto the turf.
“I told everybody, 'Hey, my thing fell off. Make sure you're looking at me when you're talking to me,'” Evan recalled.
The senior played the rest of the scrimmage without the device, effectively cutting off nearly all of his hearing.
“I read coach St. Clair's lips from the line,” he said.
Like always, Evan found a way to make it work.
He credits his teammates for helping him turn his dream of playing football into reality.
“These are guys I have known forever and they understand my condition,” Evan said.
Eye on the future
With high school graduation seven months away, Evan is looking ahead to what his future may hold. He hopes to continue playing football. Over this past summer, he attended football camps at Duke, Vanderbilt and USC with the goal of being recruited.
“Just trying to get my name out there and see what it's like to play on a college team,” he said. “Everything they did was on a college level. That was a lot of fun. It's something I really enjoy and hope to continue to do.”
St. Clair thinks Evan has what it takes to play in college.
"He's got the frame to play," the coach said. "He's going to have to get a little faster and stronger, but absolutely he can play at the next level."
While it remains to be seen where he will wind up the next four years, there still is unfinished business this fall. Evan is on a mission to help Hannibal (5-4) advance to its third straight state quarterfinal — then perhaps beyond.
Hannibal hosts Warrensburg for a Class 4 District 7 quarterfinal at 7 p.m. on Friday.
“My dream would be to win the state championship,” Evan said. “That would be amazing. If our team can come together, work as one, we can really achieve that. I believe we can.”
If there were ever a kid to find the silver lining in a hearing impairment, it's Evan Allen.
He doesn't want his story to go to waste.
The soon-to-be high school grad intends to pursue a college degree in the medical field with the hope of becoming a doctor — possibly an ear, nose and throat specialist.
“If I become something like that, I would be much more of a help to the people who are like me because I've gone through it all,” he said.
Anthony beams with pride at his son's statement.
“Evan, I'm sure if he had a choice, would have liked to have been able to hear,” the father said. “But the Lord has given him opportunities, opened doors for him to encourage other people, and I'm really proud of him.”
Evan hopes his success resonates with a middle school boy looking out the window at a football field, longing to play but worried it won't ever be possible.
The senior has proven it's possible to defy the odds.
“If you really want something, you've got to go for it,” Evan concluded. “You've got to give what it takes to get where you want to go.”