Ending his father's sounds of silence led Andrew Drone to Rice

Same coin, two sides. The roar when his son takes the floor? For Jeff Drone, it’s the best dang feeling in the world.

And the worst.

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“Crowds are very tough,” Andrew Drone, a junior center with the Rice men’s basketball program, said of his father, who’s nearly 100% deaf in his right ear and roughly 30% deaf in his left. “When we would go out for dinner or with friends, or when we would go to a basketball game when I was playing, my dad couldn’t really talk to us.”

Jeff could lip read well enough, assuming there was a clear view of the other party’s mouth. If not …

“He couldn’t understand, he didn’t have a clue what was being said. It was really a struggle for him,” said Drone, whose Owls visit UTEP Friday on ASN to open Conference USA play. “It was tough just being out there with your friends, doing something or taking your son to his first college basketball game. I just remember how much that hurt him.”

Deep down, it hurt Jeff and Toni’s only son, too. So much so, in fact, that when schools came courting the 6-10 big man, one of the first points of discussion wasn’t the food or the campus, but rather: Do you have a serious audiology program that I can pursue?

“It just got to me,” Drone recalled, “that maybe I could help someone else so that they wouldn’t have to go through some of the problems (that) he did.

“When I signed, the school had a linguistics program that specialized (in hearing issues). There was a specialized path to go through for audiology, so that was a draw.”

A draw that went two ways. After they’d spotted Andrew at an AAU tourney in St. Louis, the Owls’ staff fell in love with the frame (260 pounds) and the smarts, the total package. Drone — a downstate Illinois farm kid who was one of 48 in his high school graduating class — fell in love with the vibe of a small campus, an intimate hub nestled in one of the largest metro areas on the continent (Houston).

“And when I got to Rice and met the players, I just knew that was where I was supposed to go,” said Drone, who came out of Christmas weekend averaging 7.0 points and 19.1 minutes per contest. “I just felt at home. And as soon as I got to campus, it was like I was meant to go there my whole life.”

The plan is devote as much of the rest that life to helping those with hearing loss — especially hearing loss among the young. Given the benefit of hindsight, the Owls center noted, Jeff Drone’s deafness could be traced early on to nature or nurture. Andrew’s grandmother battled an illness while she was pregnant that could have potentially affected Jeff’s hearing at birth. Plus, Andrew’s father grew up working on a farm, the fourth generation of his family to do so, tending to corn and soybean crops; noise from years of heavy equipment use might’ve worsened an already sensitive condition.

“Yeah, just any time I see a person that’s around that has a hearing aid and is younger than me it just really breaks my heart," the younger Drone said.

Equally frustrating was the recurring theme of hearing aids that never quite seemed to last, Andrew recalled, especially given the strain put on the “good” ear. One device, attempted five years ago, even caused an infection so serious that his father lost 20% of his hearing.

“And stuff like that just really hurt me,” Andrew said. “Just seeing how many issues my dad had. Whenever they turned on the hearing aid, and he scratched his neck, he heard it for the first time. He’d never heard himself eating chips. He said he’d never heard the sound (of the water) when he turned on the shower. Just (going through) that made me want to help him out.”

It gave him a path, a purpose: The betterment of others suffering in silence, or partial silence, for so long. A beacon and a bridge. A chance to light the way.

“A lot of times, you run into where the (specialists) have a lot of “clinical” knowledge, but they don’t have personal knowledge of how hard the struggles can be,” Andrew said. “So they see everything from a scientific standpoint. I just want to be able to go in where I can work with the people and help them where I actually know and can understand (their feelings) and can help them.”

There’s a word for that: Empathy. And a mission to make sure hope never falls on deaf ears.

Above: His father's deafness led Andrew Drone to play basketball at Rice. (Courtesy Erik Williams/Rice University)

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