Gallaudet Plans a National Championship Run
Gallaudet is the nation’s deaf and hard of hearing university. It is the only such university in the world.
“Once we won our conference, I started making plans,” Sam said. “I knew that if we were to get into the national tournament, our social media presence would give us a good shot at it.”
The Bison won their conference in Helmet Bowl I, then swept away their first-round opponent in the National Championship bracket of 64. Now, they faced the behemoth Ohio State University.
Learn more about Gallaudet University here.
Mostly deaf or hard of hearing, Gallaudet students come from across the country and internationally. Sam knew he could tap this community for support. He’d done it before. As Sports Information Director it was his job. Social media is an important link for the deaf community to share news, stay in touch, build bonds.
“Our Instagram account is very active. We communicate with our hands—we are very visual,” Sam said.
Gallaudet counts nearly 8,400 followers on Instagram. The next highest DIII school, Johns Hopkins, sports less than 7,000.
“I started thinking about strategy when we learned we faced Cheyney. I looked ahead and saw Ohio State looming. That would be a tough one for us. We knew it. As I talked about it across campus, I got asked several times how we were going to beat a big program like that.”
Bison defeat Wolves, face the Buckeyes
As Sam drummed up support throughout campus and the deaf community at large, he was asked the same question again and again: How would a little school like Gallaudet have any chance at all against Ohio State, a university with more than 66,000 students and a readily identifiable silver football helmet bedecked with buckeye leaf stickers?
Then, in the second week of the Helmet Bowl National Championship, Gallaudet did. They took down Ohio State, winners of the Big 10 in Helmet Bowl.
“I’m not sure Ohio State took it very seriously,” Sam said. “But beating Ohio State is beating Ohio State. We did it.”
On the horizon rose Colgate, who had caught fire late in the Conference play, then loomed Army, a fan favorite.
Bison start a stampede
“Our football season had ended, but Helmet Bowl was a great way to highlight our football program and it’s history—a history wrapped up in football. We started the huddle in the 1890s when our team used it to communicate the next plays.”
Now, Gallaudet eyed another moment in history—could they, a DIII school, become the first Helmet Bowl National Champion? (See our story about Gallaudet Equipment Manager Kris Gould here.)
Now, Colgate stood in their way. The Raiders had finished the Conference play in a tie with Georgetown in the Patriot League. Both teams sort of found themselves in a one-week playoff without really being aware of the contest. Suddenly, Colgate fans discovered Helmet Bowl and began voting. Colgate destroyed Georgetown in the playoff, then swept aside their initial National Champion foe. (See our story about Colgate's victory over Georgetown here).
Now, they faced Gallaudet—a DIII school.
Sam Arrives in DC
Sam was raised just 30 minutes from our nation’s capital. He graduated Salsbury University on the eastern shore of Maryland with a degree in Communications. He did
some sports reporting, worked in television, then for US Lacrosse writing website content and such. Soon, he was back at Salsbury working as the Sports Information Director. Life was good.
He married and soon found he and his bride were expecting their first child.
“As we started a family, I wanted to get back closer to home,” Sam said. “Gallaudet was in our conference and there was a job there, but I was not fluent in sign language.”
A college roommate’s parents signed, but Sam was always at a loss for how to communicate with them. As he considered the Gallaudet job, he thought of them, and, he saw stories—lots of them. Gallaudet is in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.
“Everyone here has a story and I thought we could promote them, tell the great stories. I took the job.”
Soon, Sam was meeting presidents and vice presidents. The women’s basketball team started one season 20-0 and garnered national attention.
“We haven't won national championships here, but we have won many hearts,” he said.
When his college roommate wed, Sam signed with his parents, surprising and delighting them both.
Colgate, Army, then Kennesaw
The Colgate Raiders wandered through the Helmet Bowl I Conference play ending up tied with Georgetown. Then, like a wildcard team that suddenly seems to realize they have a shot at something special, they caught fire.
Now they faced Gallaudet. Did they overlook this DIII team? We may never know.
“Colgate was a really hard battle,” Sam recalls. “We really pushed. Our coach was emailing and sending out blasts to the football team. My wife was pushing it to her audiences, too.”
“In the end, we squeeked out a win against Colgate.”
Then, the Bison faced Army. The Black Knights easily won the Independent DI Conference—not giving Notre Dame and others even a sideways glance. Their camo helmets gave voters a sense of patriotism and honor.
Sam needed reinforcements, and he knew it.
“I reached out to the College of Idaho.”
This NAIA team, with its purple helmet and chrome outline of a howling coyote, was barnstorming through their side of the bracket. The ‘Yotes were making noise.
“We decided to leverage this David versus Goliath thing, both of us, and help each other out,” Sam said. “We were also the last, smallest schools in Helmet Bowl. It gave us identity.”
Gallaudet defeated Army to make it to the semi-finals against the Kennesaw State Owls, which had gained momentum and votes with every win. The College of Idaho beat the powerful Northwest Missouri State Bearcats, then surprised the Oregon Ducks with a score of 2,041 votes to just 1,460. They faced San Diego State in the Quarter-finals.
Sam, and some Helmet Bowl voters could foresee the two smallest schools facing off the national championship. Sports Information Directors from both schools saw it, too. Pushed for it.
But the Aztecs had another idea. Equipment Manager Sonny Sanfilippo, who created the Aztec calendar concept for the San Diego State helmet, started mustering support. It worked and just as quickly as the ‘Yotes were steaming along, it was over for them.
The Aztecs could see a National Championship on the horizon. But first they faced the undefeated Central Michigan Chippewas in the semifinal and throughout the week of voting the lead swung back and forth. In the end, the Chippewas fell behind, and SDSU won 6,647 to 6,408—a two percent victory.
Meanwhile at Gallaudet, Sam created graphics, hit the social media hard, and rallied the campus. The Bison beat the Owls of Kennesaw State by just four percent of the votes—about 500 tallies.
They did it, making it to Helmet Bowl I National Championship. (See our preview story about the Championship matchup here.) It was the week of that other game, too. Georgia would face Alabama for another title. Meanwhile, the Bison and the Aztecs began to build up votes against each other. Lots of votes. The hundreds of votes turned to thousands. A few thousand. Then 10,000. Then 20,000 votes. Neither team could get ahead by much, or hold a lead. The lead changed hands nearly hourly throughout the weekend. Neither team could get more than a hundred or a few hundred votes ahead.
“We knew we would need help against San Diego State,” Sam said. “We reached out to their biggest on-field rivals, but got little traction.”
Sam talked someone over at Channel 5 into a Monday morning interview, but when he awoke to prepare for it, the Aztecs had taken an 1,100 vote lead and there were just hours to go.
The Bison would have to run on their own again.
Read Part III of this series.