Kris Martin’s story deserves to be heard
Derrick Coleman is going to the Super Bowl this weekend. The Seattle Seahawks’ little-used fullback is making plenty of press for the right reason: he’s got a good story. Coleman is legally deaf, losing his hearing from the age of three. He wears two hearing aids under his NFL-proscribed helmet and hears his quarterback’s instructions loud and clear, as do the balance of his offensive team, even with Seattle’s vaunted “12th man” screaming furiously for the team.
Coleman is the first legally deaf offensive player in the National Football League. He inspired a 60-second spot by battery provider Duracell that tells his story with drama and also with sensitivity. To be blunt, the spot is inspiring and uplifting even as it tells how Coleman was shunned throughout his life because of his disability.
I understand the chiding and bullying because, I, too, have been wearing hearing aids since childhood. In my early years, the instruments resembled an iPod Classic; they were so large they barely fit into a shirt pocket and the cord to the earpiece was similarly bulky. To be honest, until they got smaller I didn’t wear them because I’d rather be ignored than bullied for the contraptions.
Kris Martin gets it too. Martin, a 27-year-old from Ontario, Canada, has been deaf since birth – but it hasn’t stopped him from racing. “I’ve been a race-car driver since I was 10 years old; it’s my passion and I love it,” he says. Martin, who wears a single cochlear implant, was introduced to the sport by his racing grandfather, who has been a mentor. He started in karts, moved up to FF2000 and then transferred to stock cars. The last step he made was the one that’s got Martin absolutely hooked on motorsports.
Now he wants to be in NASCAR, after winning rookie of the year in the late-model All American series in 2010. “We started going really well, had a couple of sponsors but at the end of the season they shut the door,” he shrugged. “It happens.” Martin didn’t have very good years without backing in 2011 and 2012 but continued to push himself hard.
Last year he went to a combine in North Carolina and “tested really good, but unfortunately there was no sponsor so I couldn’t keep going.”
The problem isn’t Kris Martin’s talent, just as the problem for Derrick Coleman isn’t his capabilities. The problem for both of these athletes is the perception of what a deaf person can and cannot do. NASCAR was very concerned about Martin’s ability to hear his spotter high above a racetrack, but the driver has already got that part of the equation handled, using a Phonak FM relay system that allows him only to hear the spotter and/or team crew chief on the stand in the pits. Thus far the system he’s chosen is working extremely well in practical application.
But still, the road to NASCAR is a tough one for Kris Martin, just as it must have been extremely difficult for Derrick Coleman to make the jump from college to professional athletics.
This past December, Martin was part of a group that came to Daytona International Speedway to test ARCA stock cars, a recognized stepping stone to NASCAR’s touring series. One of nine drivers invited to test ARCA cars, Martin wasn’t able to get into the racecar until the second day, which enabled him to watch the Roger Carter Racing team and learn, even as he gnawed at the fact that he wanted to be in the car.
“Finally Saturday morning is here,” he recalled. “There they were setting the seat up for me and I felt right at home behind the wheel, making sure my Phonak FM is working. My crew was amazing (and wore the Kris Martin t-shirts he gave them). The team made sure I was comfortable and ready to go. The crew chief said, ‘Put your foot into it and don’t let off.’ I thought, okay, I can do this, this is what I have been waiting for.”
The experience was “awesome,” Martin said afterwards. “Every lap I was getting faster, passing cars and drafting (so much fun). Quickly I was told no drafting so I backed off… “ During his test, Martin worked with the crew as they made adjustments to the chassis and tire pressures to set up the car to his liking.
The Phonak FM technology he uses for communication picks up the voice of a speaker through Kris Martin’s body-worn transmitter microphone, which connects to his helmet and transfers to his cochlear implant. It uses radio waves to send a wireless signal to the receiver-wearing listener. It all worked perfectly for Martin. He could hear his crew chief and spotter precisely and clearly and tell them what he was experiencing.
Even more important, he improved every time he went out in the car, completing between 30-50 laps with a best of 50.158 seconds at over 178 mph. He was less than one second behind the best lap of the test overall amongst nine participants.
Since the test, Kris has been back at work at his “day job” as motorsports sales agent for Johnston Research and Performance (JRP) in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. While the job keeps him close to racing activities, it doesn’t put him in a car and on a track. And that is the next step this very talented young man is yearning to take.
As NASCAR announced its Drive for Diversity (D4D) program for the 2014 season at the end of January, it was disappointing not to see Kris Martin’s name on the list, one that encompasses persons of varying colors and sexes. I’d like to see NASCAR accept Martin’s disability – even though it’s not much of one behind the wheel – and allow him to prove himself in the discipline he chose so many years ago.
Although NASCAR’s Race Hub television program did a heart-warming story on Kris Martin in March of last year (http://youtu.be/Gz6xBSTg9Lw), there’s been little follow-through to see this athlete make his mark in our sport. His capabilities behind the wheel should speak for themselves.
Words and Photo by Anne Proffit