Kroner: Seeber 'just needed a chance'

WASHINGTON, D.C. — There are things Layton Seeber doesn’t have.

Hearing is the most prominent.

He takes a philosophical approach to his fate.

“I’ve always looked at the bigger picture,” Seeber said. “Things could be worse.”

There are things the Centennial graduate is working on acquiring.

An understanding of people’s insensitivities is on the list.

Seeber remembers a note a student once passed to him saying that “a classmate felt so bad for me because it would take me 45 seconds between the teacher telling a joke, the class laughing at the teacher’s joke and me finally laughing at the joke when I get the information relayed to me via the interpreter.

“I was dumbfounded because the only important thing to me was that I actually got the information, regardless of the time period. When I look back at my childhood, I wish I could take those people who didn’t understand and bring them to a deaf gathering where no one talks and everyone signs. They would definitely get a better recognition of how I felt every day for 21 years.”

Seeber soon will have something that has eluded all but a handful of Centennial graduates. He was chosen for an Olympic team and will represent the United States this summer in men’s basketball at the 22nd Deaflympics, to be held July 27 to Aug. 4 in Sofia, Bulgaria.

“This will be one of the biggest highlights of my career,” Seeber said. “I’ve never been out of the country. I get to represent Team USA playing the game I love, and this could create future opportunities for me.”

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Seeber is the youngest of three sons born to William and Vicki (Silver) Seeber, both of whom are deaf and have been since birth. He is the only sibling with a hearing loss.

He attended public schools, starting high school at Central where his father and brothers Chad (now 31) and Nik (29) graduated. As a sophomore, he transferred to Centennial because “they had a deaf program.”

Coping in a hearing world was tedious and, at times, virtually impossible. Seeber found an escape in sports. He had a pitching mound in his backyard and a basketball hoop that he put to good use.

“Sports were my getaway drugs,” Seeber said. “Sports always made me come to life.”
Seeber’s biggest challenge was getting those around him to relate and treat him as an equal.

“I feel like a lot of people didn’t understand me as a person,” Seeber said, “that I was always the one who got into trouble, who has no discipline and a bad attitude.

“But they aren’t in my shoes every day. They don’t have to go through worrying about, ‘I hope I can understand what someone says. Can someone understand what I’m saying? I hope nobody makes fun of my speech or hearing today. What are the people behind me talking about? Are they laughing at me?’ ”

Seeber played basketball as a freshman at Central and as a sophomore at Centennial. As a junior, he was cut from the Chargers’ varsity team.

“We had a lot of athletes during my time (at Centennial), but I’ve always felt I was discriminated and overlooked due to my lack of hearing,” Seeber said. “People may deny it, but it is what it is.”

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Some might consider the decision to cut Seeber as a junior as the end to his lofty aspirations. For Seeber, it represented a beginning. He sought to put himself in a position that the Chargers’ staff would have no choice but to keep him as a senior.

“Not making the team was a big disappointment, so it became a chip-on-the-shoulder thing. I felt like nobody believed in me except for myself, a few friends and my family,” Seeber said. “A lot of people acted like I was a disabled person, not wanting to have to deal with the extra work that they assume comes along with me being on the team.

“I knew I wasn’t the most athletic, the smartest or the fastest, but I knew I would become something if I kept working harder. You can’t get anywhere in life without a work ethic, and I fully believe that’s how I got to where I am.”

Seeber made Centennial’s varsity as a senior and was a part-time starter. He was fifth on an 18-11 team in scoring (4.2 average) and third in three-pointers made (20).

“The older I got, the harder I worked, and I noticed my work ethic pushed me ahead of others who were once better than me,” Seeber said. “That opened my eyes to a whole new level, and I never looked back.”

Seeber has a severe hearing loss. Without hearing aids, “I hear nothing,” he said.

Wearing the aids “helps me hear sounds,” he said, noting that his comprehension is not good unless “my eyes are focused on the source of the sound.”

He doesn’t wear the hearing aids during games. “They don’t help me hear much anyways, so I believe not hearing improves my vision and focus on the court,” he said.

Sometimes he doesn’t even use them during the day. “Hearing nothing can be really peaceful at noisy times,” Seeber said, “so I tend to turn them off. I often laugh when people say they wish they could do that.”

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Seeber’s senior year at Centennial (2006-07) marked the only one in a four-year period where he played much on competitive basketball teams. After graduation, he worked at Kraft for a year before deciding to pursue his education and his basketball career.

“I played basketball (recreationally) a lot in my free time,” Seeber said.

A friend, LaDarius Powell, asked him to come along as he visited Spoon River Community College in Canton.

“I was reluctant but in the end decided to go,” Seeber said. “Within the time span of me arriving at the college, playing six pickup games and the ride back home, I had an athletic scholarship.”

Seeber’s first game at Spoon River was against Mattoon’s Lake Land College, where he wound up transferring for the 2009-10 school year.

Seeber played sparingly at Spoon River due to what he called “discrimination issues,” which prompted his move to Lake Land, where coach Cedric Brown was warm and welcoming. In fact, Seeber played so little at Spoon River that he was ultimately granted a fifth year of collegiate eligibility.

A connection from Centennial was responsible for coaches at Gallaudet University, in Washington D.C., starting to recruit Seeber. Two of Lake Land’s games in 2009-10 were against a team from Millikin, where former Charger (and current Parkland College head coach) Anthony Figueroa was on staff.

“When I was a student at Centennial, I would play pickup games, and Coach Fig (Figueroa) would be there,” Seeber said. “We were familiar with each other, but I never would have expected him to reach out to somebody about me.”

Figueroa had played collegiately at Lackawanna College (in Scranton, Pa.) and was aware of the program for hearing-impaired students at Gallaudet. He put in a good word on Seeber’s behalf.

“It was a conversation that changed my whole life path, just like that,” Seeber said.

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Figueroa, however, said he didn’t do anything different than what others in his profession would do.

“I did what most coaches do, threw a name to a coach about someone that could help,” Figueroa said. “Layton could always play, no doubt about that. He had a different pace to his game. It wasn’t the usual game for a high school kid.”

The Gallaudet coach at the time, Jeb Barber, scouted Seeber in person at a postseason junior college game. Everything he saw confirmed Figueroa’s recommendation. Barber couldn’t believe Seeber was available.

“He is a good ballplayer who could have played low Division I, not just sat on the bench,” Barber said. “He is a heckuva scorer and to see a kid his size (6-foot-4) run the point guard position, you don’t see at this level.

“If he had been given the opportunity to play more in high school, I don’t think we would have been able to get him. We were lucky to get him.”

Seeber considers himself the fortunate one. He remembers the day he met Barber. It was one when the bleachers included Division I head coaches, including those from Alabama, Kansas and Texas.

“It’s funny,” Seeber said. “You have all these Division I coaches in the stands, but I was really more excited to meet the Division III head coach from Gallaudet University because he could both talk and sign.

“He could understand me. I could understand him, and best of all, my parents could understand him. Gallaudet opened all kinds of doors for me.”

During the next three years, Seeber would start all but three games that the Bisons played. It was vindication, he said, “proving to everyone I could do what I knew I could do all along. I just needed a chance and the trust of my coach.

“Gallaudet changed my life on and off the court. The fact that the whole team could communicate in ASL (American Sign Language) was indeed a breath of fresh air for someone like me. For the first time in my life, those wavering, wondering, paranoid thoughts evaporated.”

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Seeber’s berth on the 12-player USA Deaflympic team didn’t happen by default. It was the result of his diligent transformation as a person and as a player.

“He is a pure shooter, one of the best shooters in the Mid-Atlantic region actually,” said Brendan Stern, who replaced Barber as the Gallaudet head coach this season. “It is the result of his hard work.

“Layton is a gym rat and has spent thousands of hours mastering the jump shot. It’s a Horatio Alger story.”

Alger is the 19th-century author who wrote numerous books about boys who led a rags-to-riches existence. Seeber qualifies for inclusion with his rapid ascension as an athlete.

Seeber’s message, however, doesn’t center on what he has accomplished in basketball.

“I’m always trying to encourage myself to talk and sign,” he said. “I’ve been talking since I could walk, so the action of talking is already memorized in my brain, but I’ve greatly improved in American Sign Language, which is the main dialect at Gallaudet.
“I sign and talk to different people on campus as well as around the city wherever I go. The areas closer to campus in D.C. are more deaf-friendly, so communication is easier. That’s the knowledge I’d like to spread: Communication with deaf people isn’t difficult as long as there is effort from both sides and better understanding of how to figure out messages.

“Writing on paper or typing on technological devices are great sources as well as hand gestures to point at objects, items and words.”

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As he has grown older — Seeber will turn 25 in November — and matured, he recognized the need to implement changes in his life.

“I could always understand sign language when someone signs it, but for me to sign myself, it was very uncomfortable and embarrassing to me until I arrived at Gallaudet,” Seeber said. “Now, I feel ashamed that I was ever embarrassed to sign in the first place. Communication with my parents and I are better than ever because I’ve learned to be comfortable to sign to them.”

Seeber will earn his bachelor’s degree in December. He would love the opportunity to play basketball professionally overseas but looking to his future said, “I see myself as a chef in 10 years because I just love being around food. Food brings out creativity, appreciation and joy in people.”

Seeber believes he is better prepared to play basketball with teammates and coaches who are not hearing impaired.

“Playing with hearing teams now would be a huge difference because I have more knowledge of how to help myself adapt to the team as well as helping the team adapt to myself,” Seeber said. “I don’t see it as a struggle because the game of basketball is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical.

“Communication is a big key of those percentages. I felt like I didn’t help my team and coaches in the past. It has been a long process, but knowledge and experience helps improve the progression of communication.”

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The resentment Seeber harbored during his younger years is now a part of his past. The previous experiences, he said, helped form him into the person he is now.

“I’m happy that the coaches who cut me cut me,” Seeber said, “because if they didn’t I wouldn’t have the focus, work ethic, mental strength and passion of life that I do now.
“I’m happy the people who made fun of me made fun of me because that helped me realize two things. People can be dumb when they are not educated, and making fun of other people for something they have no control over is a waste of breath, time and space.

“I’m happy that I competed with everyone that I competed with because I wouldn’t have the talent and experience that I have without them. Most of all, I’m happy that the people who supported me supported me because they believe and care about me.”

Though Washington, D.C., is more than 600 miles from his hometown, Seeber said experiences from each community have helped shape him.

“I’ll never find Washington, D.C., in Champaign, and I’ll never find Champaign in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “You learn to appreciate where you are now from where you once were, and that leads to appreciating where you once were from where you are now.

“I grew up in a hearing community where my main source of deaf interaction were my parents, interpreters and, occasionally, a few deaf members in the area. I would feel left out growing up because of my lack of ability to catch spoken information at all times. People were quickly tired of relaying information to me.

“If you ask, ‘Would you change the location of where you grew up?’ I would say, ‘No,’ in a heartbeat.” Seeber said. “Growing up in Champaign has led me to where I am as a person right now.”

For where he is, he owes a debt of gratitude to the Parkland College men’s basketball coach. And while Figueroa downplays his role, Seeber is lavish in his praise.

“If it weren’t for Coach Fig, I would never have been in this position that I’m in,” Seeber said.

Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column during the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at fkroner@news-gazette.com. Follow him on Twitter @fredkroner.

Want to help?
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Deaflympics, which have been in existence since 1924, are under the auspices of the United States Olympic Committee, with one notable exception.

It does not fall under the umbrella of financial support that the USOC provides. Those monies are reserved for Olympians and Paralympians.

Centennial graduate Layton Seeber and the other 11 athletes who will represent the USA (the defending champion) in men’s basketball July 27 to Aug. 4 in Sofia, Bulgaria, are required to pay their own expenses.

“The players are responsible for fundraising the money to participate,” Seeber said.
People interested in contributing can do so by mailing a check or money order to the program coordinator or by donating at a website Seeber established 12 days ago: http://www.gofundme.com/ContinueDreams.

The mailing address is: USADB International, % James DeStefano, Men’s/Women’s Program Coordinator, P.O. Box 1303, Olney, Md., 20830, with Layton Seeber’s name mentioned in the memo line. Checks or money orders should be made out to USADB International.

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