MOUNT VERNON — The key word for Mount Vernon’s boys’ basketball team Tuesday night at Maquoketa was “patience.” There’s a different one selected for every game.
It would be a right thumb placed at the lips and pulled down to the chin, in this case. That’s “patience” in sign language.
Mustang players and coaches have learned quite a few symbols this season, along with invaluable life lessons, thanks to Jeff Dahle. He’s in his first year as a volunteer assistant coach for the program.
The 62-year-old Cedar Rapids man is deaf.
“It’s just a really cool experience,” said Mount Vernon guard Drew Adams. “I know he’s having a really good time. For us to be able to give him this experience is very cool, I think.”
A Minnesota native, Dahle played high school basketball at the Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs and dabbled in coaching upon graduation. For instance, he helped out the Cedar Rapids Christian School for a bit in the 1980s.
But raising two daughters and a son with his wife of 37 years, Cindy, took precedence over this coaching thing. Dahle retired from the United States Postal Service four years ago and got curious when his son-in-law, Kasey Smith, decided to take a coaching certification class at Kirkwood Community College.
“I thought ‘Oh, I can do that,’” Dahle said, through an interpreter. “The next year, I took the coaching class and was really excited. But I quickly started to get frustrated.”
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That’s because no one wanted to take on a 60-year-old deaf retiree with zero experience. After two years of fruitless searching, an exasperated Dahle called Ray Reasland, his teacher for the Kirkwood class.
Reasland immediately reached out to Mount Vernon Coach Ed Timm. They were colleagues at Cornell College at one point, Reasland the head football coach and Timm the head basketball coach, and they attend the same church in town.
“Ray said he was just looking for somebody to give him a chance,” Timm said. “That he’d be happy to volunteer, do whatever you want him to do. Long story short, he came over, we met with him, talked to him a little bit.”
And hired him. Dahle said Timm gave him a Mount Vernon T-shirt and hat on the spot.
He had never been so happy.
“It’s what makes Ed special,” said Mount Vernon assistant coach Matt Haddy. “Not many programs would invite this, a potential distraction. But Ed is not only one of the best basketball coaches I have ever been around, he’s one of the best people I’ve ever been around.”
“I have a lot of respect for Ed Timm, allowing me to volunteer here,” Dahle said. “He is a really great guy. The coaches have all been great and very accepting. They have very good discipline here, and I like that. A lot of hard work. Ed teaches very well. If it’s a close game or a blowout, he still makes sure that if they make a mistake, you teach them. I really like that philosophy.”
Dahle has a half-dozen different interpreters, hired through Hands Up Communications in Cedar Rapids. The company provides interpreters to the deaf for things such as doctor’s appointments, courtroom appearances and classrooms.
There is one with him at every Mount Vernon practice and game, though games are a bit more tricky because male interpreters are scarce and female interpreters are not allowed in the locker room.
“When I first got here, I was so nervous,” Dahle said. “I didn’t realize how much the coach talked during practice. I learned a lot with the interpreter there. Practices have changed a lot since the ’80s. The technology, there are a lot of philosophy changes.
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“But I can just stand in the background and learn. I feel like I can coach until I’m, like, 72, depending on how my body feels. I wish I could have coached 10 years ago. But with work and a young family, it was hard.”
During games, Dahle sits on one end of the Mount Vernon bench and constantly looks behind him to his interpreter to learn what Timm and the players are saying. The interpreter is part of the team huddle during timeouts and play stoppages, signing to Dahle what is being said.
It’s the same thing at practice.
“At first, it was kind of difficult,” Mount Vernon guard Austin Ash said. “You found him hard to understand. But he’s a really nice guy. It’s really not too hard to understand him once you get the hang of it. He’s got a person with him who translates, so that’s nice. He points out a lot of nice stuff that really just helps us as a team in general.”
“It’s just been a really good experience for him and our kids,” Timm said.
Dahle has created an all-deaf women’s basketball team called the Iowa Storm that plays against other deaf teams. He obviously takes coaching seriously.
Seriously enough that his ultimate goal is to lead his own program at some point.
“I’d like to be a head coach someday,” he said. “Not now. I don’t think I’m ready. I’m still learning a lot. Maybe two, three years down the road. I need that networking. Not a lot of people know who I am. I think that’s why there was a lot of frustration when I applied at other schools. But being with this team, having the interpreter with me, I’ve learned a lot.”
Dahle was not born deaf but said his mother told him he had an allergic reaction to penicillin as a toddler that took away his ability to hear. His wife also is deaf, though the couple was able to raise their children by teaching them sign language at a very young age.
Their six grandchildren also sign, and Mount Vernon’s players and coaches are learning to do so as well. One word at a time.
“We have a different symbol for every game,” Timm said. “The other night it was ‘compete.’ We have a word of the game, and we use the symbol.”
“I’m happy being deaf,” Dahle said. “I have no problem with it.”
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