Commentary

Michael Lizarraga inspires 14-year-old

Deaf player at Cal State Northridge overcomes disability, serves as teen's role model

Updated: February 16, 2011, 11:35 AM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

NORTHRIDGE, Calif. -- He received the e-mail only a few weeks ago, but already Christopher Caulfield has big plans for the missive.

"I'm going to keep it for the rest of my life,'' the 14-year-old said.

Chances are you've never heard of the author.

Michael Lizarraga isn't famous. He isn't an All-America candidate or future NBA draft pick, and he isn't dating a supermodel.

[+] EnlargeMichael Lizarraga
Jeff Golden/Getty ImagesMichael Lizarraga is averaging 6.0 ppg and 4.1 rpg for the Matadors.

He plays for the third-place team in the Big West, Cal State Northridge. Bonus points if you know the school nickname is the Matadors. He is the team's sixth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder.

In other words, just another guy toiling in the Division I ranks, far removed from the world of one-and-dones, Top 25 rankings and Bracketology debates.

Yet to a kid who lives 2,000 miles away in Illinois, Michael Lizarraga is a hero. Caulfield watches Cal State Northridge games faithfully on his computer, and on the rare occasion he can't, he pores through the box scores the next day to see how Michael played.

"I want to be like Michael,'' Caulfield says, without a hint of irony, failing altogether to realize he's just echoed one of the most famous basketball catchphrases about the world's most famous basketball player to talk about a guy no one has heard of.

To Christopher Caulfield, Michael Lizarraga is Michael Jordan.

He's a superstar, doing things Caulfield never thought possible.

He's living the dream, playing Division I basketball, just like Caulfield always imagines.

And just like Christopher Caulfield, Michael Lizarraga is deaf.


The initial diagnosis sent Tavo and Cari Lizarraga into a tailspin. Their first child babbled like other toddlers but chronic ear infections ultimately sent the family to the doctor, where they learned Michael was profoundly deaf.

"Blindsided,'' Cari said. "Extremely blindsided. We had all of those thoughts. What's going to become of him? How will he communicate? What kind of job can he have? What about his future?''

When the shock wore off, the Lizarragas decided their son would be raised no differently because of his disability. They went through interpreting programs so they could learn sign language, mainstreamed Michael in school immediately and introduced him to sports.

He was good enough to play travel basketball, where he made friends and fit in with the hearing kids.

Everything was fine.

And then one day when Michael was in the sixth grade, he came home in tears.

"He said, 'Why am I different? Why did God make me this way?'" Cari said. "It broke my heart. He was so down on himself. I knew we needed to do something.''

He said, 'Why am I different? Why did God make me this way?' It broke my heart. He was so down on himself. I knew we needed to do something.

-- Cari Lizarraga

A few weekends later, the family drove 80 miles from their Dixon, Calif., home to Fremont and visited the California School for the Deaf.

Cari cried all the way home, realizing her middle-schooler would be living away from home five days a week.

Michael found his niche, the utopia he was looking for even though he didn't realize he needed it.

"He found his identity,'' she said. "I've taken numerous signing classes and I sign well, but I'm not a deaf-adult role model. I can't be that person. Michael needed to be around his peers, deaf adults and kids his own age.''


Tom Caulfield has never met Cari Lizarraga. Cari, in fact, had no idea her son was Christopher's new cyber pen pal.

Yet Tom practically echoed Cari's sentiments when he talked about Christopher, of a parents' desperate desire to make his child believe he is invincible and the painful recognition that sometimes he just can't sell the message.

"I can tell him all sorts of things to build up his self-esteem,'' Tom said of his son. "But it's not the same. I'm not the same as him. When he hears it from Michael, it means so much more.''

Christopher Caulfield, like Michael, was born to hearing parents with no history of deafness in their family. Tom and Jennifer learned their son was deaf when he was 13 months old. They noticed he wasn't reacting to loud noises -- sirens outside or pots and pans crashing to the floor. Doctors told them Christopher basically had no hearing whatsoever.

[+] EnlargeChristopher Caulfield
Courtesy Tom Caulfield"Mainstreamed" by his parents, Christopher plays basketball for his high school in Illinois.

They immediately decided to fit Christopher with cochlear implants. (The implants received FDA approval for children only in 1990 and were not nearly as popular when Michael was a child, so his family elected to use sign language.)

Through intensive speech therapy -- it took 30 days just to teach Christopher how to make the sound 'ah' and more than 1,500 hours of therapy altogether -- Christopher can now talk and hear so long as his implants are in.

The Caulfields, too, mainstreamed Christopher immediately and were so thrilled with his progress that they threw a huge party when he graduated from kindergarten -- big enough to attract a local television crew from the family's Champaign, Ill., hometown.

Christopher moved along nicely and is currently a freshman at St. Thomas More.

But there have been moments, poignant moments that sting at a parent's heart. Tom and Jennifer, like the Lizarragas, have always told Christopher he is no different than anyone else, but of course they know it's not entirely true.

He is different -- and in the world of a child and of a teenager, there is nothing quite so difficult.

A long wire runs down the back of Christopher's head and the cochlear device is noticeable behind his ear. At school, teachers use a microphone directed toward his implants so he can hear clearly.

It's subtle, but it's enough.

"When his hair is long, you wouldn't even know he's deaf,'' Tom said. "But socially, it's still a struggle. Let's put it this way: We won't be setting any records for invitations to parties. That's something you learn to accept.''


Heaven is the basketball court. He can't hear the purely basketball sound of a sneaker squeaking on the hardwood, but he can feel the game -- the physicality of it, the seamlessness when a team works together to make the offense run, the adrenaline rush after the ball swishes through the net or the rebound lands firmly in his grasp.

Sports are meant to be the great equalizer, where nothing matters but the answer to the most basic of questions: Can you play?

Michael always could play.

So can Christopher, who as a freshman already has made his high school's varsity team.

[+] EnlargeMichael Lizarraga
Jeff Golden/Getty ImagesLizarraga and his Northridge teammates get by on the universal language of basketball.

"We don't need to talk to communicate,'' said Lenny Daniel, Michael's teammate and the leading scorer at Cal State Northridge. "It's basketball. We know what we're supposed to do. We understand each other.''

Michael grew up on the courts with hearing kids, playing AAU ball.

As he got older, his coaches and friends encouraged him to check out Gallaudet, the nation's only four-year college for deaf and hearing-impaired students. Michael dreamed bigger. He wanted to play Division I basketball and Gallaudet is only D-III.

He knew that meant playing with hearing people, attending a campus with hearing students, but after finding his comfort zone at a high school for the deaf, he was ready to stretch his reach.

"I always thought deaf people could interact with hearing people,'' Michael said through his interpreter, Erin Matthews. "That's what I was raised to believe. I also loved the challenge of seeing where my skills could take me.''

He decided on Cal State Northridge in part because the university houses the National Center on Deafness (NCOD), the nation's first postsecondary program to offer full-time, paid interpreters for hearing-impaired students.

More important, the coach already knew him. Bobby Braswell was recruiting in Las Vegas, watching another player, when he saw a 6-foot-8 kid with a pretty stocked frame.

"Then he went to the bench and he started signing with his father,'' Braswell said. "Afterward the coach told me he was deaf, but I saw him as a player first. So there was no hesitation to take him. I mean look at him.''

On Michael's first day on campus, one of the coaches reached out to him. There was an open gym that day and he suggested Michael ride his bike over to show what he had, make the first step to earning a spot on the team as a walk-on.

"I'm thinking," Cari said, "he doesn't know his way on campus, he doesn't have an interpreter, nobody knows how to sign. But then I just told myself to get it together and don't show my fear to him. So I signed the information to him and he said, 'Great. I'll be there.' And he went.''


A full-time interpreter for the NCOD, Erin Matthews met Michael Lizarraga on his first day of classes at Cal State Northridge. He told her how he was planning to play basketball and she asked him what sort of arrangements the coaches had made.

The answer? None.

"They hadn't even considered how they were going to do this,'' Matthews said.

So Matthews, a former high school basketball player herself, marched herself over to Braswell's offices and volunteered.

[+] EnlargeMichael Lizarraga and Erin Matthews
Jeff Golden/Getty ImagesErin Matthews has played an invaluable role in Lizarraga's adjustment to Division I basketball.

For the past four years, she has been Michael's ears.

At practice, Matthews is on the court or on the sidelines, signing whatever instruction Braswell offers. During games she has a chair right behind the bench, signing in play changes or instruction, and during timeouts, she stands behind Braswell and directly in front of Michael.

Because names take so long to sign, Matthews and Michael have developed their own shorthand, using unique signals for individual players.

"It took a little getting used to,'' Braswell admitted. "I'm a control freak and I don't like people in my practices that aren't supposed to be there. So we have this interpreter walking around on the court, standing behind me. I had to adjust a little bit.''

Now the two are so comfortable that Braswell will turn around and yell at Matthews when Lizarraga has done something wrong.

"The other night, Mike did something wrong and I turned to Erin and said, 'That's your fault,'' Braswell said. "She kind of froze for a second, but then she smiled.''

Not that Michael is always "listening." He tunes out Matthews just like plenty of players tune out their coaches. During a recent game, an animated Braswell was laying into his team during a timeout. While he yelled, Matthews signed frantically and Michael never looked at her.

She tapped on the hip to get his attention. Nothing.

She tapped him again. Nothing.

"It's funny because usually hearing people can look at the floor and still hear what the coach is saying,'' Michael said. "If he yells, through body language, I can tell what's happened and see the interpreter out of the corner of my eye with peripheral vision. But he always says, 'Look at her!'"

There are some problems he'll never overcome. Michael said the most difficult thing is when an opponent is coming up behind him to set a screen. Instinctively his teammates yell 'Screen' to warn him, but he can't hear them.

But he has earned his way onto this team. Michael has an almost intuitive sense when it comes to basketball. He anticipates as much as he reacts and it is his ability -- not his disability -- that matters.

The walk-on now is a regular part of the Matadors' rotation. He averages 19 minutes, 6 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.

"I know a lot of people think they should feel sorry for Mike, but really they should be jealous of him,'' Daniel said. "He beat the odds. How many people get to do that?''


Christopher Caulfield is an avid Internet surfer and when he stumbled on a story about Michael, it was like time stood still.

"My jaw just dropped, mouth open and I knew I had to talk to this guy,'' Christopher said.

He dug up Matthews' e-mail on the university website and she forwarded it along to Michael.

Immediately Michael wrote back.

"I never had a role model growing up,'' Michael said. "So if I'm helping someone else, I'm fine with that. It's very important.''

[+] EnlargeMichael Lizarraga
Chris Williams/Icon SMIChristopher Caulfield has learned plenty from watching how Lizarraga plays the game.

The instant attraction, of course, was basketball. Christopher already is 6-4 and spends most of his time in the paint like Michael.

The two talk tactics. Christopher asks about specific situations. For example, sometimes Christopher's teammates will yell who they're guarding after a substitution, but if they don't speak directly at him, he can't hear. Michael's solution: If you don't hear them, just tell them who you're guarding.

And Christopher watches and imitates Michael's moves on the court.

There is something, however, much deeper and more meaningful than improved post-up moves happening here.

In Michael, Christopher sees a deaf person who has been warmly embraced and accepted. He sees what he wants.

"I've always told my teammates, 'Don't treat me any differently,'" Michael said. "And they don't. I'm just one of them.''

During games, Michael laughs and chest bumps with his teammates. When he needs their attention, he lets out a loud, "Woo."

Some of his teammates have learned sign language on their own, and during practice, if Michael does something particularly well, they'll wave their hands above their heads, the sign-language version of a clap.

Best of all is the ribbing.

Because he can't hear the whistle, Michael always plays through the whistle. Braswell loves to point that out during practice, and Michael's teammates roll their eyes and call him a goody-goody.

After a recent game, Braswell was in the locker room going through the list of players who were needed to speak to the media. Daniel, who posted a double-double that night, was summoned. Freshman Aqeel Quinn, who played a strong game at the point, also was asked to come out.

And then Braswell mentioned that Michael was needed for an interview with a national media outlet.

"One of our players, Vinnie McGhee, is teasing him, riding him and calling him 'superstar,'" Braswell said. "And I just started laughing. I said, 'Vinnie, you've got to tap him, or he can't hear you.' They forget he's deaf because it doesn't even matter to them anymore.''


[+] EnlargeChristopher Caulfield
Courtesy Tom CaulfieldChristopher, seen here preparing for a recent school dance, has a renewed sense of self-confidence.

All of it, the basketball, the Division I school, the friends, the camaraderie, it's like seeing a whole new world unfold for Christopher.

"A miracle,'' Tom Caulfield calls it.

A dream come to living, breathing fruition is more like it.

Where once he thought of his limitations, Christopher now sees possibilities and opportunities. He's convinced if he works hard at his game, he can play college basketball; maybe he'll even look at Northridge.

He knows he can find friends, true friends.

His mother and father always told him it was possible, but mothers and fathers are supposed to do that.

Michael is proof, a person just like him who has done what he wants to do.

"Throughout my whole life, I thought I was the only deaf kid who was playing basketball,'' Christopher said. "I thought about playing in college, but I didn't think I could. I thought I wouldn't fit in. It was very hard. Now I think I'm like everybody else. I just have certain challenges. I just have to step up like Michael did and beat my disability. He can do it. So can I.''

He wants to be like Michael.

Shouldn't we all?

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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