She’s a national champion now. One rating service has spoken and given a share of the Deaf Schools national championship to the Louisiana School for the Deaf football team and its coach, Susan Gremillion.
But it’s not the title or the championship rings the team will order that Gremillion, Louisiana’s only female head football coach, will remember. The story behind LSD’s 8-0 eight-man football season is pretty incredible.
“This is the 20th year that coaching has been my profession, and things happened that I’ve never seen,” Gremillion said with more than a hint of emotion in her voice. “As soon as the horn sounded at our last game, every single player on the team came straight to me. They all hugged me, and they all said ‘Thank you.’ It was amazing.”
Since the War Eagles beat Carolinas School for the Deaf in their final game Nov. 5, they’ve played a waiting game. Deaf Sports Zine, a deaf-school sports website, named LSD and Kansas School for the Deaf co-champions in its poll, though LSD was unbeaten and KSD was not.
It is the first national title for LSD since 2005 when the War Eagles also went unbeaten. A group of deaf school athletic directors from across the country are set to cast their ballots for a national champion this week.
The time since that final game has given Gremillion time to ponder an LSD story that is part raw emotion and part tough love.
I'm sure some people viewed LSD’s decision to hire Gremillion as its football coach in May 2015 cynically. She did succeed her husband, Darren, who moved into administration. And after all, this is eight-man football, right?
It was news when Gremillion was hired. At the time, she was believed to be Louisiana’s first female head football coach. However, a couple of avid readers provided their stories about Mary “Mary Mac” McMichael, who was head football coach at Amite High during World War II. The fact that McMichael once taught at LSD added just a bit more to the story.
The story of this LSD team stands on its own merit for several reasons. The death of Gremillion’s mother, Anne Castle, over the summer provided equal parts emotion, motivation and spirituality.
“The kids knew that when I missed some summer workouts there was a reason for it,” Gremillion said. “They liked it when I came back with a fire in my belly, and I told them they were going to be pushed like they never were before.
“For us, it wasn’t about winning the day or winning a game. We wanted them to win at every rep and everything they did at practice or in the classroom. They didn’t always like that push, but they knew they were being held accountable.”
Accountability is a big issue for athletics in general. Gremillion concedes that some view her players with a sense of pity because they cannot hear. She sees her job no differently than any other coach. Rather than being enablers, Gremillion and the other LSD coaches were motivators and taskmasters who demanded the best.
“We wanted their best," Gremillion said. “And if we won with that, it was great. It would have been the same if we lost a game because I know they gave their best.”
The season was loaded with symbolism. Gremillion said her mother and a “higher being” played a role in lightning delays at the first two LSD games. The delays gave the War Eagles the chance to find their motivational rhythm through thigh and shoulder pad slaps.
A yellow butterfly flew into a pregame huddle for a game with Georgia School for the Deaf. Yellow was Anne Castle’s favorite color. Eagles flew over the field during a couple of games. There was even a hawk that watched the team practice daily for nearly two weeks.
“The butterfly and eagle you can understand,” Gremillion said. “Maybe the hawk was meant to be a reminder that I was always watching them too. When I think about it now, it was surreal.”
Yes, the story is surreal. But the War Eagles were for real and are the first local team to win their title. Their story is one I hope other Baton Rouge teams keep in mind as they play for their own titles in the days ahead.