The razzing began the moment Cal State Northridge forward Michael Lizarraga hit the basketball court. Fans of the home team, University of California at Berkeley, were all over the 6-foot-7 inch senior, chanting raucously whenever he set to shoot.
Lizarraga, who scored a career-best 15 points that night last November, never once got rattled although many of the fans never realized why. The 21-year-old is deaf, the nation’s only Division I college player who is unable to hear.
A star high-school athlete, he seemed an ideal recruit for Gallaudet University, in Washington, D.C., the renown liberal arts college for the deaf and hard of hearing. But Lizarraga didn’t want that.
“For me,” he told The New York Times, “the biggest dream was always to play for a Division I team. There were people who said I would never be able to do it. That made me more determined. I would say my favorite quote is, ‘Don’t tell me I can’t, because I will’.”
Lizarraga wasn’t offered a scholarship. He earned a spot as a walk-on, and fought hard to win a starting position during his junior year.
Bobby Braswell, Northridge’s coach, has come to be his greatest admirer. Braswell watched Lizarraga in practice, trying to absorb the intricacies of his position by sight alone, and marveled at his determination and iron will. When, in November, Northridge faced DePaul University—an opponent no team in the Matadors’ conference had defeated in five years—Braswell challenged his players to match Lizarraga’s mental toughness. They proceeded to beat DePaul, 88-66.
Afterward, senior forward Lenny Daniel told The Times, “When you’re around Mike, you realize you take a lot of stuff for granted. You can’t feel sorry for him because he doesn’t want you to. I’ve never met a guy like Mike in my life.”
Neither had Kendra Blessing, a fellow Northridge student with full hearing, who is majoring in deaf studies. She met Lizarraga last year at a bowling party. The two hit it off immediately.
Lizarraga proposed to Blessing in December. She didn’t need to sign her answer. He knew it from her loving embrace.