High school football coach hears for first time in 70 years
JUNIATA, Pa. – He’s never heard the sounds of Friday night football.
Juniata High School head coach Gary Klingensmith has been legally deaf for almost 70 years. The longtime coach started to lose his hearing when he was just 5 years old, after developing a high fever from a case of measles and mumps.
“I think it was something that got gradually worse as the years went by,” said Klingensmith. “For a while there, I was hard of hearing a little bit, and it kept getting worse and worse. By the time I was in the upper grades in elementary school, it was pretty bad.”
But even that couldn’t keep him away from football.
A running back in college, he played for Penn State in the early 1960's. And the Nittany Lions treated him just like everybody else.
"When I went to Penn State, I was told they won't hold back for me," Klingensmith remembered. "You have to make it on their terms, I couldn't have anything special, and I was glad. But there were lots of line calls and adjustments you had to make on the move, and it's just something I had to work out myself."
After Penn State, Klingensmith went into coaching, His career now spans over 50 years, with 49 of them at Juniata.
Over the years, he's gotten really good at lipreading. And the players on his team, like senior tight end Ben Lauver, have learned to adjust.
"It wasn't too bad," said Lauver. "We all know him, we've all talked to him before. It's just mouthing our words really clearly so he can hear us and understand us."
Then things took a turn for the worse last December, when Klingensmith needed heart surgery. After that, his hearing deteriorated even more.
The decline was also taking a toll on his wife Linda. "It was getting to the point where he couldn't understand anything," she said. "It was isolating him because he didn't want to go anywhere and do anything."
Finally in July, he decided to get a cochlear implant.
Linda recorded the moment they turned the device on for the very first time, calling it "one of the happiest days in our family's lives."
Klingensmith compares part of the implant to "a refrigerator magnet" that sticks on his head.
The medical technology works by going around the damaged part of the ear and stimulating the nerve that sends sound signals to the brain.
Gary's doctors say it usually takes 6 months to a year to get the full benefit of a cochlear implant. But even after just the first week, the results have been phenomenal.
"It's amazing how much I can hear," said Klingensmith. "I have to identify a lot of sounds, some sounds I don't know what they are. I thought I heard crickets here at practice, but it was just the keys jangling in my pocket."
Skeptical at first, his daughter Kim Hart was worried that the implant would be a letdown for her father. But she gets emotional when describing the first night she talked to him after the procedure.
"When he said he could hear my mom's actual voice and my actual voice, I couldn't believe it," marveled Hart. "I waited for him to come home from football practice that night, and we were all sitting in the kitchen. He told my mom to turn down the TV, but the TV wasn't on. He was chewing like crazy because he was starving after football, and he could hear himself chewing!"
As far as football noises, the coach has no trouble with the sounds at practice. But some of his friends were concerned that he might be overwhelmed by all of the sounds at a game.
"Knowing that he can hear all these things now, with the band, with the fans, all the commotion going on around us, I didn't know how he'd respond to that," admitted Juniata defensive coordinator Kurt Condo. "But apparently he can adjust it and focus on what he needs to hear, and he won't be distracted by those things."
When you've been coaching as long as Klingensmith has, the topic of retirement often comes up. But this 74-year-old has no intention of slowing down.
"Things are getting better for me, you know," said Klingensmith. "I had a heart bypass operation 7 months ago, I've had 2 artificial hips, an artificial knee, back surgery, now I got this ear fixed ... I got everything fixed, so I'm good to go. I'm like the bionic man!"
He doesn't like all this attention, but hopes that by sharing his story, he might inspire others with a similar condition to get the implant that has made such a huge difference in his life.
"It's a miracle," Klingensmith declared. "I think now if some people see me, they can be encouraged to get one."
Juniata's season starts on Friday, August 25th.