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October 20, 2011

Putting 'The Hammer' Down

Inspiring true story of deaf wrestler/fighter hits limited theaters next week

I'm not a fan of UFC fighting, so I had never heard of Matt Hamill before I recently watched The Hammer, a drama about his life story that opens in limited theaters on Oct. 27. Turns out you don't have to be a fan of UFC fighting to appreciate Hamill's story and this movie, winner of numerous film festival awards, including a Crystal Heart Award from the Heartland Film Festival.

Hamill, who recently retired from the UFC circuit, was the first deaf person to win a national championship in college wrestling. In fact, he won three NCAA titles while competing for the Rochester Institute of Technology in the late 1990s -- an amazing feat for anyone, much less a deaf man.

The film, starring deaf actor Russell Harvard in the title role, follows Hamill's story from childhood, from his diagnosis as a toddler, through his boyhood -- when his mother wanted to send him to a school for the deaf, but his grandfather, who helped to raise him, insisted on Matt going to a "regular" school -- and then through high school, where he excelled at the sport. He won a full scholarship to Purdue, but flunked out.

After taking some time off, he then enrolled at RIT, which has a large population of deaf students. Hamill initially had trouble adjusting to an environment of almost solely deaf people; having grown up in a hearing world, he preferred to talk and read lips, but at RIT, most of the students preferred to communicate by sign language. For a viewer with hearing, the film doubles as a fascinating look into their world, and director Oren Kaplan uses some nifty editing and audio tricks to help the viewer to better appreciate what it must be like to be deaf.

But what stands out most in the film is Hamill's perseverance and determined focus; he arrived on campus determined to win a national championship, and doggone if he didn't end up winning it not just once, but thrice. If it's coming to your neck of the woods, it's worth checking out -- or at least renting some day on video.

Here's the trailer:


Thank you for your review of this film, but I'm mystified by your comment, "...an amazing feat for anyone, much less a Deaf man." How does being Deaf make it more difficult to wrestle? Barring any physical barriers (like being an amputee, or having severe asthma), being Deaf would not be a problem for a wrestler.

I am not a wrestling expert, but my son wrestled for two years in high school. If he were deaf, he would not have been able to hear instructions from his coaches on the sidelines, instructions/warnings from the referee, the referee's whistle, etc. All of those things are challenges that a deaf wrestler would have to overcome and/or adapt to. Sign language alone is clearly helpful, but in the split second it would take to look to your coach for instructions in sign language, your opponent could take you down and/or get you in a position to pin you. Being deaf wouldn't limit a wrestler *physically,* but there would obviously be other hurdles to overcome. Less mystified now?

Having wrestled at RIT 20+ years before Matt was there, us hearing wrestlers would joke about it being an advantage to not have to hear the coach yell.
But on the serious side my experience was that Deaf Students who purposefully integrated themselves with the hearing population, did remarkibly better than those that who did not. The critic, Mark seems to imply that Matt only had a community of deaf students to mingle with. If the film depicts that to be the situation, I would have a hard time believing that to be reality. RIT has 3 to 4 times as many hearing students as there are deaf students and encourages there be an integration of both populations. That is why there are deaf students on the athletic teams. Since I don't know how Matt approached his life on the RIT campus it would be hard for me to believe he only had deaf students to interact with.
With all that said, and having first hand experience with deaf wrestlers (and blind wrestlers) and seeing the challanges they faced in just getting through college, it is an amazing feat to rise above all the obsticles and acheive what Matt has.