Shaquillah Torres and her brother, Maurice, used to wake up at 4:30 a.m.
They had to catch the train, and their mother was a stickler for time. They couldn’t be late for school, which started at 7:30 a.m.
They would catch the 5:30 metrolink train from Riverside to Orange, Calif., for high school every morning.
It was a choice they made because they wanted to play volleyball at Orange Lutheran High School, one of the top prep programs in the area, and it was the only way they could get there on time.
The ride would take about 50 minutes, and Torres, now a junior outside hitter for the University of Arizona, would be silent for most of them. Maurice, sitting right next to her, too.
Silent as a lamb.
They would look at each other, though. She would bring her hands up, twist them, turn them, bring them together, take them apart. Maurice would follow suit.
They weren’t speaking, but they were talking.
“I miss having just a full conversation with no voices,” said Torres, “just complete sign language.”
It’s how her family communicates with each other. Sign language is their first language; English is second.
That’s what happens when both of your parents are deaf. Torres isn’t, but, sometimes, she’d still rather sign than talk.
Deafness is hereditary, but Shaq, her brother and two sisters aren’t deaf, because her parents weren’t born with it. Her mother, Shelly, had spinal meningitis and scarlet fever when she was 16 months old and “went completely deaf,” and her father, Michael, fell down a flight of stairs when he was 5 years old, hit his ear, struck a nerve and went completely deaf, too.
“Growing up with deaf parents it gives you another view on the world,” Torres said. “It makes you accept people more. Not judge them by what you first see. I get questions all the time about it, but I love sharing my experiences just because it’s such a beautiful culture and community.”
Talk to anyone on the Wildcats — player, coach, trainer, manager — and they’ll tell about how nice “Shaq” is. How caring.
“She’s the mom to our team,” said Taylor Arizobal, a junior outside hitter who played club volleyball with Torres in high school.
She’s been limited a bit by chronic pain in her knee — from an injury she suffered her junior year in high school — and she can’t play in the back row anymore because of it.
If she squats for too long, it irritates. Torres had surgery in December, but it did nothing. Still, she never complains.
“I haven’t played back row in more than a year; it’s weird but that’s the limitation,” Torres said. “I’ll feel pain, I feel it on a daily basis, but its gotten to the point where I’m so accustomed to it. You just get used to it, just have to go with the punches.”
But she laughs, she jokes, she tries hard, and, well, she signs.
She can’t help herself.
During practice at Mc-Kale Center or Richard Jefferson Gymnasium, when she’s not jumping at the net for a block or rising as high as she can for a spike, and kill, she’ll often forget to use her words.
She’ll turn to assistant coach Charita Stubbs. Or, Arizobal.
Torres will look at them, bring her hands up, twist them, turn them, bring them together, take them apart.
She’s seen her fair share of eyebrows tilted in confusion.
“She’ll be like ‘Taylor!’ ” Arizobal said. “Then, she’ll sign me something. I have to tell her ‘Shaq, I’m not your sister. I don’t know what you’re saying, stop it.’ ”
Stubbs is her most frequent victim.
“I’ll sign to ’Rita, just instinctively,” Torres said, “and she’ll say ‘you’re doing it again.’ ”
“I’m like, I’m sorry,” she added. “I feel like I have to sit on my hands because I try to sign to people, and they’re just like, ‘I can’t understand what you’re saying Shaq, stop it.’ It’s just so instinctual.”
That comes from 17 years of habit, and practice.
“It shaped me who I am today,” Torres said after Tuesday’s practice. “It’s funny because when people ask me ‘how is it growing up in a deaf family?’ it’s custom. It’s normal. For me, that’s normal.”
Torres said that she’ll often get questions. People will ask ‘but, Shaq, how did you have the moments where your family is listening to the radio, a song comes on and you all start singing?’
Short answer? They didn’t.
You probably won’t ever find the Torres family in the car belting out a “Step Brothers”-esque rendition of “Sweet Child of Mine.” Heck, her sister didn’t even know what a radio was until the eighth grade.
Torres wouldn’t have it any other way, and head coach Dave Rubio is happy to see that.
Plus, in the ‘it’s a small world, after all’ department — Rubio’s father trained Shaq’s parents in the Deaflympics. Her father played basketball, and her mother played volleyball.
“They’re terrific people,” Rubio said.
“Shaq is just a good, quality person, and she’s made an impact on our program,” he added. “She’s a terrific player, and I certainly don’t want to diminish her talent, because she’s good, but she’s one of those players that really makes your team chemistry really strong. She’s just somebody that I’ll always remember when I’m finished coaching.”