Braden Anderson posed for photos Monday like hundreds of other players at the Idaho State Cup, holding his team’s state title trophy aloft for friends and family and throwing in an extra bicep flex or two for the camera.
He’s just like every member of the Boise Nationals U-16 boys team, grinning from ear to ear after rallying to beat CGA Academy of Idaho Falls 1-1 (5-4 on penalty kicks) for the state title. Except for two differences.
He’s 100 percent deaf. And he’ll spend the summer trying to make a U.S. national squad.
“You’d never know that he has a hearing disability,” Boise Nationals coach Matt Billings said. “He’s fantastic on the ball, really highly skilled technically and plays well with the other players around him. Hearing has never been an issue.”
The incoming junior at Centennial High earned an invite last summer to train with the U.S. men’s deaf national team. And despite entering as the youngest player in the camp, then 15, Anderson survived the first round of cuts and will train again with the team this summer.
Born completely deaf, Anderson received cochlear implants when he was 3. The surgically implanted electronic device bypasses the traditional hearing process with electrical pulses into the inner ear. Those pulses allow him to hear, carry on conversations and, on Monday, call over teammates to pose with the state title trophy.
“I don’t really care if they call it a handicap,” Anderson said. “I just want to show them what I have, and they will understand.”
The implants come with limits. They don’t work in the rain, and a strong breeze can render them ineffective. But Anderson has more than made up for the limitations to become a starting striker for the Boise Nationals and a starting midfielder at Centennial during his sophomore season.
He relies on his other senses, including a peripheral vision that extends to nearly 180 degrees. He can feel the rumble of the grass or the wind shift as an opponent closes from behind. He can even smell an oncoming defender.
“He’ll smell fabric softener, sweat, whatever it is,” said Eric Anderson, Braden's father. “His nose is kind of like a dog. We tease him a little bit about it. He has a very, very sensitive nose.”
It all adds up to a superior feel for the game, allowing Anderson to spot opportunities and danger before anyone else.
“He has a chip on his shoulder, so he just outworks everyone,” said Bill Taylor, one of Anderson’s former coaches and the president of the Idaho Youth Soccer Association. “You don’t want the ball on your foot when he’s coming in to tackle. I know that as a coach out on the field. I get the ball off my foot whenever he’s within five feet of me.”
Opposing coaches have tried to use Anderson’s deafness against him, only to learn he’s also an expert lip reader. Three years ago in a sleet storm that forced him to remove his external battery in Jackson, Wyoming, a coach tried to spring a trap with four defenders.
“Don’t worry, he can’t hear me,” he yelled to his defenders.
Anderson couldn’t, but while dribbling and bombing down the sideline he read the coach’s lips, deked into the trap to suck in the defenders and then broke free to score the game-winning goal, lifting his team into the championship game.
As he ran back up the field, he turned to the coach and said, “I read your lips. Thank you.”
“When people say weird stuff, I just don’t care and move on,” Anderson said. “I just play and do what I need to do.”
The lip-reading skills also extend to Anderson’s duties as a referee. He couldn’t hear everything in a local referee class, so he enrolled in a tougher one online from FIFA. That allowed him to start refereeing U-18 and adult games at 14 years old. And he soon put coaches in their place.
Anderson turned off his implant one windy day but quickly noticed two coaches arguing. He ran across the field to put a stop to it, only to have one coach snap back, “You don’t even know what we were talking about.”
Anderson replied he read their lips across the field, repeated their argument and then informed them it was over.
“He has the personality to walk straight up to a coach or players older than him and tell them, ‘This isn’t right. You’ve got to change this,’” said Skyler Bell, the state technical director for Idaho Youth Soccer.
Anderson first caught the eye of the U.S. national deaf team while working out with the Portland Timbers Academy last year. The captain and president of the deaf team spotted Anderson and his implant, then tracked down his family for an invite to the national training camp.
Eric Anderson admitted he expected the 20- and 30-year-olds on the roster to deliver his son a wakeup call. But Anderson more than held his own and will train with the team again in July.
“I took him there, actually, to let him get his butt kicked so he’d want to go to college, because all these guys had been playing college ball,” Eric Anderson said. “And the next thing I know, he’s playing at a level with them. I’m like, ‘Wow, maybe this is an avenue that’s going to help him get to college.’”
Alan Casey, Anderson’s best friend on the Boise Nationals, said Anderson hasn’t stopped talking about the national deaf team since he returned. The next Deaf World Cup is in 2020, and Anderson plans to be a part of it.
If he does, Casey said he’ll have plenty of fans cheering him on from Boise.
“It’s really amazing what he does,” Casey said.
STATE CUP CHAMPIONS
U-19: FC Nova Elite (won pool)
U-18: FC Nova 3, Coeur d’Alene Sting 1
U-17: FC Nova Elite 4, Idaho Rush 0
U-16: Indie Chicas 3, Idaho Rush 2
U-15: Idaho Rush 4, Indie Chicas Lime 0
U-14: FC Nova Elite 1, Idaho Rush 0
U-13: FC Nova 2, Idaho Rush 1
U-19: Idaho Rush 3, CGA Academy 2
U-18: Boise Nationals Blue 8, CGA Academy 1
U-17: Boise Nationals Blue 3, Coeur d’Alene Sting 1
U-16: Boise Nationals Blue 1, CGA Academy 1 (Nationals 5-4 on PKs)
U-15: Boise Nationals Blue 1, Coeur d'Alene Sting 0
U-14: Idaho Rush 4, FC Nova 0
U-13: Boise Nationals Blue 2, FC Nova 1