In a sport like football, where communication is one if the keys to a team’s success on and off the field, one Saskatoon Hilltops‘ player isn’t letting his hearing impairment stop him from playing the sport he loves.
Riley Keating was born deaf and when he was three years old he received a cochlear implant. However, the fourth-year linebacker still lives with a hearing impairment.
“It’s always been my dream but there was times when I never thought I would make it at this level, because of my hearing. That’s just who I was, I thought I was never good enough,” Keating said.
“But I’ve always wanted to play this but I just worked hard and my family continued to support me and when I figure out that I could play for this, I just strived for it because that was always my goal.”
The Hilltops’ coaches have been supportive of Keating, adapting their coaching styles to make sure Keating is always on the same page as his teammates.
“We need to be clear and concise, we need to make sure we get good eye contact. Riley’s great at reading lips. So you know, we try to do a good job of being expressive, he asks good questions and we just make sure,” said head coach Tom Sargeant.
“When we’re getting plays and stuff like that, they do single calls which makes it a lot easier for myself cause when they do a single it’s not like I have to listen or anything it’s just more of an eye contact and that makes it easy for me,” Keating said.
“For practice and stuff, they focus on a lot of players individually so I get lots of time with the coach one on one. He makes me a better player, also a better man. It’s just a really good program here,” he added.
Both Sargeant and linebackers coach/defensive co-ordinator Jeff Yausie have seen improvements in Keating.
“I’ve seen a lot more confidence, Riley’s in his fourth year now, he’s asking questions, he’s talking in meetings, he’s being out front so he’s not bashful or shy just because he can’t hear as well as anyone else; he knows the game of football, he knows what he needs to do,” Sargeant said.
“Like most players when he came out he was just trying to fit in and be a player and he’s worked hard on his size and strength and his speed,” Yausie said.
Keating’s inability to hear everything he’s told, has actually made him a better player according to his coaches.
“Because of his hearing disability he has really good instincts and he doesn’t hear everything I say to him, which is good because he trusts himself and what he’s doing on the field and that’s one of the things we see with some players, they think a little bit too slow, they think a little bit too much, where as in football you need to make quick decisions, especially at linebacker,” Yausie said.
“One of the reasons we really like him on our football team is he just has a natural instinct out there. It almost seems sometimes the less we coach him the better he is,” Sargeant stated.
And Keating’s teammates have fully embraced him.
“I’m pretty open about it, I tell my teammates about it. They make fun of me sometimes but that’s just cause we’re guys, we’re just having fun with it, but they help me with it, so if I didn’t hear a play I’ll ask them, they’ll repeat it for me,” Keating said.
“They’re pretty good with it, they’re all my buddies now and I think they’ll be my lifetime friends too.”
Keating is now vying for a starting spot with the Hilltops defence.
“My main goal this year was to get a starting spot for defence, but obviously I have three older guys in front of me so I’m just waiting for my opportunity.”
And while he continues to put in the work to become a starter, he is also making an impact on special teams.
“I’m trying to get him on the field more with a starter in front of him. He’s a leader on special teams, he plays on every one of our special teams and we’re hoping to get him on the field more and ready for his starting role next year,” Yausie said.
“For special teams I know I’m the leader so I just continue to show younger guys what it takes to play special teams and make them better. It’s a team sport so everybody around me, I try to help and make them better,” Keating said.
There is no doubt in the coaching staff’s minds Keating serves as an inspiration to others.
“I remember seeing videos of him when he was four years old, and to see how far he has come, the determination, the intensity he’s needed to overcome some of the obstacles in his way,” Sargeant said”
“Riley didn’t want to be treated any different and nor have we or would we and so he just comes in here and rolls up his sleeves and gets to work.”
“He plays football, that’s the universal language.”
Keating and the rest of the Hilltops will be back in action Saturday when they take on the Colts in Calgary.