LINCOLN, Neb. — There are days when it’s like trying to read through a paywall, only the paywall is everywhere. And every_ne. The w_rds come, but the v_wels are t__ch and go, lost to the m_rgins.
“The best way I can describe it,” Nebraska Cornhuskers wide receiver Todd Honas said, “is if you see a word, and the letters aren’t filled in.
“If you’ve seen those pictures [where] it might say a word like JAGUAR. And maybe the A isn’t filled in. Or the U.
“You have to fill it in with your brain. That’s how it is with hearing loss.”
Don’t expect people to understand your dreams when God didn’t give them your vision.
— Todd Honas (@ToddHonas) April 25, 2017
No. 43 in your game program is 80 percent deaf in one ear and more than 90 percent deaf in the other. Honas was fitted for his first set of hearing aids before he’d turned 1.
He’ll celebrate birthday No. 20 on Saturday. The eyes are schooled to be two steps ahead; the brain, three.
“I’m constantly processing,” explained Honas, who at Aurora (Neb.) High School, set Class B state records in career receptions (144) and receiving yards (2,353).
“And I’ve been doing it for so long, that I can pick it up easily. But it’s taken a long time for me to talk as well as I do now. It took a long time for me to get to this point.”
At Aurora, the Huskies ran a spread, no-huddle attack that relied on hand signals — football’s own sign language. Mike Riley’s pro-style approach presents a different, more traditional walk-up. A different, more traditional challenge.
“We huddle and stuff like that, so I’ve really got to tune in,” said Honas, a redshirt freshman who walked on last year. “I read people’s lips — that’s usually how I talk to people.
“So the quarterbacks, I tell them to take out their mouthpieces so I can read their lips. We do signal some things in when we’re in our hurry-up offense, our no-huddle, but I really just try to be tuned in. I’m always trying to take in as many things as I can, but I do have to rely on my eyes reading people’s lips.”
And everywhere Honas looks these days, it feels like another teammate is dropping out of the picture. The Huskers came out of Thursday’s practice with just six scholarship receivers to work with. Gifted freshman Jaevon McQuitty is out for the season with a knee injury. Keyshawn Johnson Jr. is home in California. Keyan Williams and JD Spielman, two more beacons of hope, are sidelined with muscle pulls. If Big Red Nation could swaddle freshman Tyjon Lindsey in bubble wrap for the rest of the month, they would.
“Talking to the older guys, I was asking them, and they said it happens to everybody,” said Honas, who recorded 73 catches as a senior in the fall of 2015, another Class B record, to help Aurora reach the state title game. “Every year, somebody’s going down, and you never know who it could be.”
Every season, somebody else has to pick up the flag, and we don’t always know who that’s going to be, either. The 5-foot-11 Honas was targeted at least three times in the spring game in April but didn’t register a catch in the box score.
“When somebody goes down like that, you’ve got to get ready, get prepared. And we’ve got something [hanging] up in there that says, ‘Every battle is won or lost before it’s ever fought,’ ” Honas said.
“And that applies to everybody in that room. So for me, personally, I’m not getting a ton of reps, [but] I’ve got to stay ready no matter what happens. So if somebody goes down, I’ll be ready to get those reps and get those plays in.”
Some people will read the chapters of your book, but the right people will help you write them.
— Todd Honas (@ToddHonas) January 12, 2017
The eyes. Always the eyes. It didn’t sink in until sports, or traveling for sports, when Honas noticed the kids from other towns staring at his ears, gaping at the tiny pieces of plastic that helped tether him to their world.
“And then people would look at me, and the first thing they would look at was my ears,” he recalled. “I could see that right away. And so from then on, growing up, I was like, ‘OK, there’s something a little different.’ But the great thing about where I grew up was that I never got treated any differently.”
Normal is relative. Honas grew up in a house of sign language, lip-reading and captioned television broadcasts. His mother, Michella, was born with hearing loss, as were Todd and his older brother.
“That’s his norm,” said Aurora High School football coach Kyle Peterson. “Every kid and every family has their own norm, and his norm is that. And so that’s why I don’t think he’s ever viewed it as a disability.
“Had you treated Todd any other way than you would treat any other student, it would easily offend him. My first impression was that he was an athletically gifted kid, and unless you saw the hearing aids, you would never know that there was a disability there. Because he would never tell you about it. He would hide it as much as possible. And, also, he played above it in a lot of ways.”
The drive, the spirit and the pride came from Mom, too. A psychology major, Honas was named to Nebraska’s Scholar-Athlete Honor Roll last fall and became a member of the Tom Osborne Citizenship Team.
And he did it solo.
“I don’t have a [signing] interpreter, or anything like that,” Honas said. “I mean, I tried that in high school, having someone out on the field with me.
“But I think I’m too independent. I’d rather figure it out on my own. That’s just how I am … personally, I’m just too independent. Maybe too much of an ego. I just want to figure it out on my own. That’s just the way I am.”
Be somebody that makes everybody feel like a somebody.
— Todd Honas (@ToddHonas) April 6, 2017
He also knows what he represents, who he’s playing for, even if he never sniffs the two-deep.
Todd Honas grinds for the kid who’s on an IEP.
For the father of an autistic child.
For any family swimming in the shadows of can’t and won’t, hope for the heartbroken.
Over the summer I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know James. James was born deaf & has overcome countless obstacles to do the things he loves. He is the epitome of courage, resiliency & perseverance! It has been a blessing to share our experiences of the world of silence together…. I am proud to call James my friend! Look for James on the gridiron, hardwood & pitch this year at Mount Michael!
— Todd Honas (@ToddHonas) March 19, 2017
“And I think he embraced that,” Peterson said. “That’s one of the things that him and I actually sat down and talked about.
“When he was given the opportunity to go to Nebraska to play, now, all of sudden, the audience for his message is going to be enormous. And the opportunities to share his message and really positively influence so many people — it’s grown exponentially now that you’re on that scope, you’re on that stage. And I really think that he’s embraced that.”
He hopes to be a light, the way Kenny Walker was a light. Walker, who starred on the Huskers defense from 1986-90, blossomed into an All-American, a Big Eight Defensive Player of the Year, an Outland Trophy semifinalist and an NFL draft pick — all while being cheered in silence, having lost his hearing at the age of 2.
“I’ve read Kenny’s story,” Honas said. “I’ve got all his books, read all his books. And that’s from when I was a younger kid, and my mom would show me Kenny and stuff like that. But yeah, he’s been inspiring to me in my life.”
Kenny Walker taught him to dream big. The narratives of Andy Janovich and Jack Gangwish, both former Nebraska walk-ons, convinced Honas to dream red.
“Ultimately, he always wanted to play at the highest level,” Peterson said of Honas, who drew interest from Nebraska-Kearney, Northwest Missouri State and Wayne State, among others. “He wanted to challenge himself, to see if he could do it.”
He wanted to pick up the flag. Someway, somehow.
“I remember, he was coming off a junior year [at Aurora] where he had, statistically, a very good year, but we were 5-5 and got eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, and for us, that’s a very disappointing season,” Peterson recalled. “And he sat down with me [afterward] and basically, he wanted to know what he could do to push the team over the edge, what it was that he could do. It wasn’t about the stats with him, it was about the wins and losses, and the success.
“And we talked about leadership things and we talked about the intricacies and details that really make a team successful. And he was … a model for what he wanted [his] teammates to be and embraced that role. And I think, in so many ways, he almost drove us to the state final that following year. Just because of the character of the kid, his leadership, his [football] qualities, and also his ability to almost will a team to success.”
When it comes to the depth chart, conventional wisdom says the hill is too steep, the odds too bloody long. Then again, Todd Honas has heard that sort of line before.