Unable to hear clearly on the field, this college kicker uses his other senses to succeed

William Holmquist can’t hear his teammates calling out signals. He can’t hear his coaches shouting instructions from the sidelines, and he can’t hear what the screaming crowd surrounding him is yelling while he’s on the football field.

When he punted for Tufts, the play clock – not the snap count – dictated everything his special teams unit did. Holmquist, who was born almost deaf, only knew the ball would be snapped when the clock hit a predetermined time.

Holmquist has found success in that quiet world. Last season at the Division III school, he made field goals from 48, 46 and 45 yards.

This season he may be the answer to Duke’s kicking woes.

Holmquist, a graduate transfer walk-on who wears hearing aids that allow him to hear and speak, prefers the quiet that comes with not wearing them while on the football field.

“I’m kind of just in my zone,” he said. “When I take them out, it’s my signal that I’m ready to go.”

Holmquist is one of three deaf athletes playing at college football’s FBS division this season, according to deafdigestsports.com.

A kicker and punter for three seasons beginning in 2013 at Tufts in Massachusetts, Holmquist routinely booted field goals beyond 40 yards.

“He’s a great placekicker, great at field goals,” Tufts coach Jay Civetti said. “He’s very consistent. Automatic is how we felt in terms of how he could perform.”

It was during his junior season in 2015 that he decided to remove his hearing aids while kicking.

“It was something that popped into my head as something to do,” Holmquist said. “It muffles everything so I don’t hear anything as well. It also definitely narrows my focus.”

Not wearing the hearing aids, however, has created communication issues that he’s worked to overcome.

“I can hear the whistle and the set count for field goals,” Holmquist said. “While I can still hear it, the crowd noise ends up being pretty muffled so it’s not as much of a distraction. I’m still able to have a one-on-one conversation with my coaches and teammates if they’re speaking directly to me. I just have to be paying all my attention to them. I’ll try and read lips to fill in the blanks if they aren’t loud enough for me.”

Learning to talk

Holmquist ran and skipped before the age of 2, a glimpse of the athleticism that eventually made him a two-sport college athlete.

After his second birthday, he rarely looked people in the eye and his only clearly spoken word was “no.” A hearing test showed a significant deficiency he’d had from an undetermined cause.

Fitted for hearing aids to boost the faint sounds he naturally could hear, he finally produced a new word.

“Ball,” Maria Holmquist, his mother, said. “Other than no, it was ball. Not even mom. That’s OK. I was willing to take whatever he could say.”

Maria Holmquist found a speech therapist to help young Willie when his hearing issues were diagnosed. The approach wasn’t to teach him sign language but to build on what he could hear and amplify that with hearing aids.

“We wanted him to maximize Willie,” Maria Holmquist said, “to be the best Willie he could be, whatever it was.”

He initially hated his hearing aids so much he would ditch them in the bushes around his Long Island home so no one would see him wearing them. But he eventually grew comfortable with them.

Maria Holmquist put 50,000 miles on her Ford Windstar van in six months, driving her son back and forth from their Dix Hills, N.Y., home to Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx for specialized treatments.

Already smart enough to manipulate a VCR to get to the scene he wanted to watch, Holmquist quickly caught up. He started talking like other kids his age and taught himself to read.

“Hard work and focus,” Maria Holmquist said. “That would be the defining things for Willie.”

Duke’s kicking struggles

Last season at Duke, David Cutcliffe’s team struggled with kicking. Other than a game-winning field goal in a 38-35 win at Notre Dame in September, then-freshman AJ Reed made just 3 of 10 field goals.

Austin Parker, the team’s punter last season, came out of spring practice as the No. 1 kicker with Reed as a reserve. Cutcliffe brought in two recruited walk-on freshman kickers – Jack Driggers and Jackson Hubbard – this summer as part of an open competition for the starting job.

Holmquist transferred from Tufts to Duke this summer with one year of eligibility remaining, enrolling in Fuqua School of Business as a graduate student.

He became a late addition to the team, and he’s quickly impressed Cutcliffe on and off the field.

“He’s a great conversationalist,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s a mature young man, really bright person. He has no fear of any form of communication, which is inspiring. He’s a focused student. He’s over there at Fuqua working his read end off. He comes out here, and he’s a focused football player. He is an absolute joy to be around. If you are looking for inspiration in people who’ve had to deal with hardships, he’s a great guy to study. I’m really, really happy he’s here.”

Leaving Tufts for Duke

Holmquist loved playing sports as a kid, starting off in soccer and eventually playing lacrosse and football. He kicked on the high school football team. After initially heading to Tufts as a lacrosse midfielder, he tried out for the football team as a kicker and punter.

He missed his sophomore season in 2014 with a quadriceps injury in his right leg. He healed and returned to football in 2015, making 11 of 16 field goals, including a 43-yarder, and 20 of 22 extra points.

Last season, he averaged 38.5 yards per punt and dropped 15 of his 49 attempts inside the 20. He made 8 of 11 field goals and 28 of 31 extra points.

Because he’d missed one season at Tufts, he had one year of eligibility remaining after graduating from the school last May. Civetti, a former assistant under Tom O’Brien at Boston College and N.C. State, was confident Holmquist could kick at the Division I level.

Holmquist wanted to study business at a top graduate school. While he’d have been grateful to have Holmquist kicking for him again this season, Civetti pushed his player to give Division I a shot.

“We’re really proud of him,” Civetti said. “I encouraged him. I kind of had it in the back of my mind. We sat and talked. I told him why not take advantage of this opportunity. See if you can go kick and make a team.”

Holmquist said he reached out to between 40 and 50 schools but Duke and Boston College were the only schools to express interest. Because Civetti worked with Duke special teams coach Jim Bridge at N.C. State and Boston College, the Blue Devils had an edge.

He started classes at the Fuqua School of Business in July and joined Duke’s kicking derby, where he’s working to be a reliable contributor this season.

His hearing condition has meant he’s needed a sharper focus than others throughout his life – especially on the football field. Be it playing sports or completing his classwork, he’s shown the ability to overcome.

“I don’t look at it as a disability,” Holmquist said of his condition. “It’s more of an inconvenience. It’s something I deal with day to day. Mostly I just have to ask people to speak up. I’ve learned to deal with it. It’s a part of who I am, but it definitely isn’t something that defines me.”

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC