Unfazed by disability, Lopez thrives for Storm

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BENNINGTON — As long as football has been around, coaches have preached playing to the whistle — finishing the play.

Even though Joanel Lopez can't hear the whistle, it hasn't stopped him from becoming a force on the Southern Vermont Storm defense.

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Lopez, 32, is deaf and cannot speak. He was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and attended the St. Francis School for the Deaf in Crown Heights.

A couple of years ago, Lopez moved to Vermont and found work at the Vermont Veterans Home and at Home Depot on Northside Drive.

It was at Home Depot that he met Josh Purvinis, a former Mount Anthony football player.

The two worked together in the Garden Center and became friends. After a year, Purvinis, who played for the Storm before 2016's cancelled season, thought it would be a great idea if Lopez joined the team.

"I have been a football fan for some time," wrote Lopez. "Josh convinced me to try joining the Storm, even though I have never played football before. He thought I would be good if they taught me how to play football."

Lopez played rugby for a little while, but had no experience with American football. But he liked the idea and decided to sign up for this year's team.

"While talking with him I figured out he did shot-put and went to the gym," said Purvinis. "I was born half-deaf in my left ear so I knew some sign language. I told him to try out and see how it goes. He's a smart person in general and always works hard at everything he does."

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Lopez lost his hearing at the age of 2 after a bout with meningitis. In 2009, Lopez graduated from Binghamton University with a degree in environmental science. While going to school, Lopez was training to compete in the Deaflympics and ended up taking gold in the shot-put at the event, throwing the shot nearly 54 feet. He was even training for the 2012 London Olympics but didn't qualify.

Eventually, his work in the environmental sciences led him to Montana, where he founded a conservation corps, and then to Vermont, where he found a full time job as a Forestry Technician in the Manchester Ranger District of the Green Mountain National Forest.

Lopez leads a busy life, but even with a packed schedule, he believed playing football would be a great idea.

"Football keeps me looking young and helps me balance work and life better," Lopez said. "It is nice to know more people here in Vermont through sports."

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Even though Lopez has become an important piece in the Storm's suffocating defense, there were communication barriers when he first tried out for the team.

"Teammates and coaches speak English while I use American Sign Language," Lopez wrote. "We have had communication barriers since I joined the team. We have to find ways to break the barriers."

Early in the season, quarterback Mike Stephens found a good way to do that. On short notice, he called his girlfriend, Jennifer Poirier, to come volunteer and help out at practice because she also knew American Sign Language.

"I was at the gym when Mike called me and told me that the team needed me," Poirier said. "I asked him what they could possibly need me for. They told me that there was someone [joining the team] who was deaf and that they wanted me to talk to him."

Over a relatively short period, Poirier and Lopez have worked well on and off the football field. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Poirier comes to practice, communicating with Lopez and also helping him communicate with coaches and players.

"I've been right there to relay any drills they have been doing," Poirier said. "I've even gotten into a stance a few times to help him out."

Learning American Sign Language in first grade, Poirier didn't use it too much until she moved early in life. There she found out her neighbor was deaf and they have become best of friends for 17 years, communicating by using sign language.

Whether it is scheme, or just teaching him how to improve his swim move, she has been more than willing to help out.

"I am very fortunate for her," Lopez said. "I would be unable to understand football plays without decent team communication. My teammates have been very supportive."

Linebacker Gary Hewson has been impressed with Lopez's ability to pick up the game in such a short time. The defense has also implemented techniques to communicate during the game.

"It has actually been a lot easier than you may think," Hewson said. "It definitely has been a challenge, but the veterans have come up with a system to communicate with him. We can tell him where he has to go on a blitz and on a regular play just through where we touch him on the

back while lining up for a play. He's picked up everything crazy fast, he's retained everything and has been a beast for our defensive line."

Assistant General Manager and defensive coordinator Chris Cipperly said it has been cool to see the team rally behind Lopez.

"Anytime he is on the sidelines, someone is coaching him up, it's just amazing," Cipperly wrote in a text message. "It shows that we have a lot of guy who care about him and the team. It's a special group."

"I never thought I would be an asset to the defense," Lopez wrote. "It feels good to be part of the team. My teammates are very supportive. They show their motivation, effort, positive attitude and patience to learn and teach in practice and during games. I still have a lot of football things to learn."

Storm head coach Guy Changa has been coaching organized football for more than 30 years and is more than impressed with how quickly Joanel has found a spot on the defensive line.

"To coach a handicapped player is not beyond my realm," Changa said. "My daughter, who is 30, lives with me and has autism. I have also helped in challenger leagues and things like that."

Challenger leagues are flag football leagues created for people with handicaps that want to play football. As a division of Pop Warner, the league allows kids and young adults the opportunity to play football, regardless of disability.

"The guys that go up against him in practice, on both sides of the ball, help him out visually," Changa said. "They understand what they can do to help him get better. I have to tell you, he is probably the strongest player we have on the team. What has impressed me is how coachable he is. He is willing to stop and observe to figure out how he can get better."


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