Billy Owens / For the Boston Globe
WESTWOOD — Most of the players running through the tunnel at Gillette Stadium Friday for the Massachusetts Shriners All-Star high school football game will imagine what it would sound like to enter the stadium as a New England Patriot on an NFL Sunday.
Leo Parnell, however, can only imagine what it feels like.
“You can feel the rumble and the vibrations and you know it’s that time,” said the East Boston lineman who is legally deaf in one ear and only has 10 percent hearing in the other. “When you come out of the tunnel and things start shaking it gets your nerves going whether you can hear it or not.”
Playing without a hearing aid because his was stolen several years ago and his family can’t afford a new one, the three-year starter for the Jets on both lines racked up a mantel full of awards during his senior year.
In addition to naming Parnell one of two Boston Scholar Athlete football players of the year, the BSA also awarded Parnell its Academic Excellence award this winter. Parnell was one of nine players to earn a Courageous Player Award from the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association.
Last month, Parnell was one of 34 local players to win the National Football Foundation’s Scholar-Athlete Award.
Parnell, who turns 20 on Friday, said the accolades serve as a reminder of all he’s endured, including scores of ear surgeries that caused him to be held back in elementary school twice. (Parnell received a waiver from the MIAA to play as a 19-year-old this past fall).
The South Boston native who lives in East Boston also says the awards stacked up in his “parlor” — what he quickly explains is his “old school Boston” way of saying living room — are a forewarning as well, “to make sure I’m always straight and narrow and I’m acting respectful to my peers, at a Shriners game and on other teams I will play on.”
This week Parnell’s Shriners teammates named him one of four captains for the South all-stars.
“From day one he’s been here every single day, he’s been working extremely hard in every single drill that we’ve been doing, he shows how to lead in each play,” Weymouth quarterback Cam McLevedge said during Tuesday afternoon’s practice at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood. “He’s 100 percent each time. After the whistle he keeps going.”
East Boston coach John Parziale said that’s often because he can’t hear the whistle.
Parnell also has a difficult time hearing the snap count, which offensive linemen are trained to listen for rather than watching the center snap the ball so they can get off the line of scrimmage faster than their defensive counterparts.
Wearing a helmet doesn’t help Parnell’s cause either.
Parziale’s predecessor, John Sousa, moved Parnell from left guard to right guard during his sophomore year because Parnell hears better in his left ear than he does in his right. Parnell also asks his quarterback to shout the snap count more clearly even though quarterbacks often bark it in a low grinding voice so linebackers don’t pick up on it.
A few months after he was switched to right guard, Parnell developed several tactics to make sure he didn’t jump off sides before the ball was snapped.
“The way I line up I have a peripheral of the ball at all times,” Parnell said. “If I don’t understand [the snap count] I just make sure I keep paying attention to the ball. I line up an inch or so off the [center’s] heel. I line up a little bit farther back so when I look forward I can see the middle to the end of [the center’s] forearm and I can always see the ball.”
Parnell had perfected those tactics so well by his senior year that he made 83 percent of his blocks on the offensive line for the Jets, who lost to Blue Hills by a field goal with 3.7 seconds left in the Division 4A semifinals.
The nose guard and defensive tackle was also the team’s leading tackler, collecting 72 tackles, including 22 for a loss and 9 sacks.
“It’s been a big year for him and it’s been good for East Boston in general,” Parziale said.
As accomplished as he is, Parnell is always overcoming obstacles.
Working with a lot of different quarterbacks this week in the Shriners game is difficult for Parnell because the quarterbacks all have different cadences at the line of scrimmage. Nevertheless, Parnell will still start for South coach John Bartlett on Friday night.
Parnell also filled in at left guard during practice this week even though he doesn’t like to play on that side of the center.
“It shows you the type of character he has,” said Bartlett, who is also the Boston College High coach and athletic director. “He doesn’t complain about it. He just goes right after it. He’s a real inspiration to his teammates.”
On top of all his football accomplishments, Parnell also graduated from East Boston High this month.
“I’m like speechless of everything he’s gotten so far,” Parnell’s mother, Margaret Parnell, said of all her son’s awards. “I’m just in shock to be honest with you. It didn’t hit me till he graduated the other day and I started crying and I realized how much he overcame.”
Six months after Parnell was born he had constant ear infections that didn’t subside no matter how many times he had new tubes put in his ears.
After years of suffering, he was eventually diagnosed with cholesteatoma in both ears. An abnormal skin cyst located in the middle ear behind the ear drum, cholesteatoma can cause dizziness, drainage from the ear and hearing loss.
Over the years Parnell has had 15 surgeries, including one to remove a benign tumor that left a large scar behind his right ear and inflamed part of his head.
“The scar was horrendous, it was really bad and he always thought he looked ugly,” Margaret Parnell said. “He also had to become a lot stronger because of that.”
Another surgery temporarily removed the bones in Parnell’s ears.
“I held onto those tiny bones for a year until they could put them back in,” Margaret Parnell said. “It was pretty cool to have his hearing bones in the cabinets.”
Parnell missed so much school that he was held back in both the first and third grades, his mother said. He was often bullied and made fun of for wearing hearing aids on both ears. His hearing loss also affected the pitch and clarity of his voice. He struggled to pronounce some words as well.
“It’s very nerve racking, people are very judgmental and often times associate hearing loss with speech impediments,” Parnell said. “They think you sound funny or illiterate or stupid.”
His mother would tell her son, “‘don’t worry, blow them off, someday you’ll be something’ … I started to tell him how big he was.”
Parnell started to play football for East Boston Pop Warner when he was 12 years old and then for the Clearance R. Edwards Middle School in Charlestown.
Today Parnell shows few signs of being hearing impaired, and amazingly, he said he never had help from a speech therapist.
Instead, he would retreat to his room with his favorite heavy metal albums, namely Godsmack, and teach himself how to talk properly.
“I would sit there and practice doing what they did vocally and singing and watched myself,” he said. “So I kind of trained myself. My family and my mother was very adamant about it too. She would tell me, ‘You have to speak up, you have to speak louder. Slow yourself down’ and I would take hints from what they did as well as practicing in my room myself.
“I got sick and tired of using the excuse that I couldn’t hear anything.”
He also learned how to read lips, something he mostly relies on now since he’s developed shadow hearing, which means he can’t hear what someone says unless he’s looking at their face.
His ability to read lips has been especially important since he’s been without a hearing aid for almost two years. Parnell and his mother said one was stolen while they were camping in New Hampshire and the replacement went missing as well.
Both cost more than $1,000, according to Parnell’s mother.
“It’s disgusting, she said. “I didn’t think there was a big racket out there for them but I guess where there’s a will [there’s a way] … I have five children and each one we pay for out of pocket. We just haven’t had the money to pay for it.”
Parnell has no problem hearing his heavy metal music, which pumps full blast from his iPod and car stereo. The running joke among his teammates and coaches is that the music caused his hearing loss.
“I don’t really care,” he said of annoying people with his loud music. “I have to deal with people when I’m on the train going to work. Everyone has their own flaws. I just try to be respectful. If there’s a crowd full of people at 6:45 in the morning I may not have it all the way up.”
Cholesteatoma is something Parnell will have to deal with for the rest of his life. He will have to continue to have doctors scrape off the cyst when it grows back every so often and he might have to have new tubes put in soon.
In the fall, Parnell will attend North Shore Community College with the hopes that his grades will improve enough so he can study biology and play college football at a four-year university in a few years. He said both Curry College and Mount Ida College are interested in him and he is also going to look into playing for Gallaudet University, a school in Washington D.C. for the deaf and hard of hearing.
“The schools I narrowed it down to wanted me for both reasons, not just one,” he said pursuing a degree in biology. “I wanted to feel like I was still an everyday student and an athlete at the same time.”
With football on his backburner for the time being, Parnell will make the most of playing his first game at Gillette Stadium on Friday. But he’s trying not to focus on what it will feel like to run out of the tunnel for the Shriners game.
“I can’t even imagine, I don’t even want to know because it’s going to make me so nervous,” he said. “I can’t even imagine how many people are going to be there and the atmosphere and I’m not going to think about it because I don’t want to psych myself out.
“I’m going to go there like a pro player and have the right attitude and focus on the game and kind of take the crowd out of it.”
Several reporters and editors contribute updates, news and analysis to the High School Sports Blog.
- Bob Holmes: A Reading resident (Go Rockets!) and Boston College graduate, Holmes is the Boston Globe High School Sports Editor. We remind you now that his weekly picks are often made in jest so everyone just calm down when he picks against Everett for 11 straight weeks. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHolmes.
- Craig Larson: A native of West Springfield (Leo Durocher anyone? Tim Daggett?) and Curry College graduate (a proud Colonel!), Larson is the sports editor for the Globe's regional sections: South, West and North, as well as a frequent contributor on the college beat. Abington to Xaverian: it all starts with the schools. Have a compelling story idea? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeLars.
- Zuri Berry: Berry attended the same high school as sports legends O.J. Simpson and Joe DiMaggio. (Guess which one is his hero.) He's a South Boston resident (formerly of Eastie) and the editor of the High School Sports blog as well as the go-to-guy for everything high school sports on Boston.com. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ZuriBerry for all of the latest updates.
Then there are our winter correspondents:
- Alex Hall | @AlexKHall | Baseball
- Colleen Casey | @ColleenCasey226 | Softball
- Mike Giesta | Boys lacrosse
- Catherine Calsolaro | @catrenee13 | Girls lacrosse
- Liz Torres | @etorres446 | Boys volleyball
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