Commentary

Kansas' Cressy defies life's challenges to find success on, off field

Updated: September 23, 2008, 12:43 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- If Emily Cressy is most easily defined by what she cannot do, it's only from a distance. She already has defined herself by what she loves to do.

In her first season on the field for the University of Kansas women's soccer team, Cressy is the primary attacking catalyst for an improved squad that has aspirations of capturing its second Big 12 title. Just more than an hour into her first collegiate match, Cressy found the back of the net to help propel the Jayhawks past a nationally ranked Purdue team. She leads the Jayhawks with five goals through seven games, a big reason for the side's 6-2-0 start. She already has scored as many goals as last season's most prolific scorer, Nicole Cauzillo, did in 21 games.

"Goal scoring," teammate Rachel Morris said of what sets Cressy apart. "She's an amazing finisher. We just play her balls over the top that we might not play another player because that's like her specialty. She always finishes that. She's a goal scorer."

[+] EnlargeEmily Cressy
KU Athletics/Jeff JacobsenEmily Cressy, center, lost the last of her hearing when she was a sophomore in high school, but that didn't stop her from becoming a power scorer at KU.

Cressy isn't the fastest forward, nor is the 5-foot-5 Californian blessed with unique size or strength. But even as she warms up before a game, it's easy to see the instincts that make her successful. The ball glides easily in front of her, content to stay at her feet until the moment she commands otherwise. Some strikers shoot the ball with all the scattershot accuracy of a smoothbore musket; Cressy's shots are rifled on more precise trajectories.

But warm-ups also reveal another side of Cressy's story. As she stands with her back to the sideline, eyes focused on the goal during drills, two people approach from behind. With a tap on the shoulder, Cressy turns and receives some last-minute instructions from an assistant coach -- instructions relayed to her by the team's sign language interpreter.

Cressy is a goal scorer; she also is deaf. Her perseverance in reconciling those two labels is a reminder that the latter is less a life story than a chapter thereof.

"I had never played with anyone deaf or even seen anyone deaf play," said Morris, who arrived with Cressy last year and shared a dorm suite with her. "We were all just kind of curious on how she could play, being deaf, and how good she was going to be and whatnot. And then when we met her, she had a really cute personality, and we all just kind of fell in love with her."

Although Cressy has been hearing-impaired since birth, her worldview changed dramatically one morning during her sophomore year in high school when said she woke up to a strange noise in her right ear. Subsequent tests confirmed that what limited hearing had existed in her right ear was gone. Before, hearing aids had allowed her to learn to speak and to hear and understand conversations -- even conversations going on behind her. But she suddenly found herself all but cut off from the audible world around her.

"I couldn't handle it at first," Cressy said. "I didn't go to school for a while because I was just so upset about it. I was embarrassed, too, because I wasn't used to being like that."

After a few days, she returned to school and gradually grew more accustomed to her new reality and more comfortable with herself. But acceptance of the idea that only her perception of the outside world, and not the person perceiving it, had changed didn't mean that new challenges vanished. There had been sign language interpreters in Cressy's high school classes before she suffered the additional hearing loss, but she admitted she had never paid them much attention as long as she could hear the teacher. Now she relied on them.

"I would talk really loud because I couldn't hear myself," Cressy said of her initial adjustment. "And then I had to depend on my interpreter, which was really hard for me. I didn't really know sign language at that moment, so I was learning."

Through the ensuing ups and downs, soccer remained a constant in her life. She played basketball, volleyball and softball with varying degrees of interest. Volleyball, in particular, was difficult because of the constant vocal communication to sort out individual responsibilities when the ball was in play. But soccer always mattered most. And it was there, as a soccer prospect atypical only in her goal-scoring ability, that she came to Kansas coach Mark Francis' attention.

Aware of her outstanding record in club and regional soccer -- she subsequently won Golden Boot honors as the top player at the 2007 U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships -- Francis took time out during a team road trip to San Diego three years ago to watch Cressy play for Buena High School. Although it was apparent to him from the outset that she was deaf, what he saw with the ball at her feet was what registered.

"I don't think [her deafness] really had any influence, to be honest," Francis said. "She was a good player, a good kid. Those were really the main things we were looking at. We figured that part of it, it was going to be something new, but we'd figure it out."

Doing so meant seeking out Kim Bates, the interpreter coordinator within the Office of Disability Resources at the University of Kansas. And when Cressy committed to Kansas, Francis handed her a folder full of material about the support network that awaited her.

Providing sign language interpreters for all students who need them, as well as other accommodations for students with lesser hearing impairments, is required under Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. But making any program a functional reality at an individual level depends on people like Bates acting more as tireless advocates than tired bureaucrats. Cressy is one of seven students for whom Bates is coordinating interpreters this fall. It's a task she likened to assembling a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without a picture. She has to take into account disparate class schedules and must ensure that interpreters in advanced-level courses have at least some knowledge of a subject's basic vocabulary. In Cressy's case, it also meant working with the athletic department to find an interpreter who could be there -- home or away, practice or game.

"It does take more effort on everybody's part," Bates said of interpreter services in general. "Even with having an interpreter there, that helps alleviate some of the effort, but it's still a very team approach. So I take that team approach, whether it's in the classroom or out on the soccer field, that all parties involved have to be working together to have the best success and the best communication."

Cressy's experience was complicated when she had to redshirt last season to focus on academics, an area in which she had understandably slumped as a result of the turmoil of her sophomore year in high school. She could practice with her teammates, but she couldn't play in games and couldn't travel with them for road games. For a kid from California in a completely new environment, it was an isolating experience. Even in the classroom, she often waited for hundreds of pairs of eyes to settle on her as students looked around lecture halls to find the recipient of the interpretation accompanying a professor's lecture.

"When you're traveling, the team tends to bond and stuff," Cressy said. "So when they would come back, they would tell all these stories about how much they had fun, and I just couldn't laugh with them. I was always homesick because they were gone, so I would go home a lot. It was just really hard."

On one of her many trips home, Cressy reached a point when she didn't want to return to school. Only the encouragement of coaches and teammates -- especially roommate and fellow Californian Lauren Jackson -- brought her back. She had weathered the worst, their advice went, and things would only get better once she was able to play.

The tide turned, fittingly enough for a soccer addict, during the team's trip to Brazil soon after the close of the academic year. For one thing, Cressy had an opportunity to stretch her legs in game conditions during four exhibition matches. But just as importantly from her perspective, she had an opportunity to be part of the team away from the field -- challenging locals in impromptu soccer games on the beach or shopping in local stores.

Watching her these days, it's difficult to imagine that she ever could be anything less than cheerful. On a roster with no shortage of pregame amateur dancers, she's as likely as anyone to start moving to the music when she feels the vibration from the songs blaring over the public address system. She has a unique handshake with seemingly all the starters as they take the field, and most players have earned their own sign language nicknames. A chocoholic, Morris' is a combination of signs for the letter "R" and "chocolate."

The team's running coach is less fortunate, bestowed with the "devil" sign moniker.

"Emily's real goofy; she's a goofy kid," Francis said. "She has a good sense of humor. She has a lot of energy. … She's funny, like she says things that are funny to make other people laugh, so she has a really good sense of humor. She's always joking around; that's just her personality."

Contrasted against all it took to get her on the field, making things work once a game starts seems almost inconsequential. But from a soccer standpoint, it's no small matter.

"I think it impresses all of us," Morris said. "And we still are kind of shocked that she can play to the level she can, being deaf, because I know we use communication a lot."

One of the perks for fans of women's college soccer is that it's often possible to sit just a few rows from the field, a perspective that provides access to both the sights and sounds of games. And a lot of sounds are available for sampling. Whether it comes from a referee's whistle, a coach's barking out instructions, a player's pointing out open space or a defender's alerting other members of the back line, communication is a constant.

Early in a recent game against Loyola, Francis wanted to adjust to an opponent that was playing three defenders by pushing Cressy high and letting other players stretch the back line beyond its breaking point down the flank. With Kansas attacking at the end opposite its bench, he called out to junior Shannon McCabe on the near flank to pass the message along. At the next opportunity, McCabe got close enough for Cressy to read her lips.

"Usually you'd just yell that to the player, but you can't do that with Emily," Francis explained. "But the other players are great; you can tell one of them something, and they'll relay the information. And even in practice, if something's going on in the field that she doesn't understand what's going on because she's not close enough to read my lips, the players will always help her out."

There is also Catie Johnson, a Kansas alum who did her postgraduate work in an interpreter-training program and now finds herself doing her practicum work in a rather unusual setting. Johnson started working with the team as an interpreter last spring and is on hand for practices, home and road games and the occasional media interview. When Francis talks to his team before and after games or at halftime, Johnson is in the huddle to relay the details to Cressy. Even during the run of play, she'll sometimes sign in his instructions. It has been a process of trial and error between a coaching staff getting used to a new variable and an interpreter getting used to a new sport.

"I wish I was [a former player] now; I would have had a little more background knowledge," Johnson laughed. "But I started, I just watched everybody, I asked a lot of questions. … I watch as many games as possible and ask as many questions so I can kind of understand the game a little better so my interpreting would show that."

There are many ways to define Cressy. To say that deafness isn't one of them ignores the courage and commitment shown in overcoming obstacles and misconceptions.

"There was a lot adversity in her life, and she's toughed it out and found a way to make it to college," Francis said. "And now [she's] playing at a major Division I school and doing well. It says a lot for her character. "

But as much as she's defined by any disability, she's best defined by her abilities. Her ability to persevere. Her ability to make people laugh. Her ability to score goals. And nowhere is that more evident than in a setting that at first glance seems perhaps the most unlikely.

"Soccer sets my problems aside," Cressy said. "I feel like I'm just another one of the girls. … It doesn't really matter in soccer, which makes me happy."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.