LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Stefan LeFors grew up deciphering body language and expressing himself without words.
The Louisville quarterback doesn't remember when he realized much of his family, including his parents, were deaf. By the time he did, communicating with hand signals had become second nature - he was adept at it by the time he was 5.
Now, when his parents see him motioning to the sidelines during a game, they joke that he's trying to strike up a conversation.
"They try to guess what I'm trying to say," he said. "They laugh when they see me doing that."
Barely recruited out of high school, LeFors has developed into the top-rated passer in the country while leading No. 14 Louisville (6-1, 3-0 Conference USA) to a place among the nation's best teams.
Louisville was the only school that offered LeFors a football scholarship.
"I always knew I could play," said the left-hander from Baton Rouge, La. "It was all about getting the opportunity. I was very lucky to get into a program like this."
Not long after he learned how to run, LeFors was playing football in the backyard with his father and older brother, the way many future stars were introduced to the game.
The big difference was that LeFors' father and brother are deaf. So are his paternal grandparents and three of his uncles. Larry LeFors, Stefan's father, was born deaf like his parents. Stefan's mother, Susan, became deaf as a child after having the mumps. His brother, Eric, also went deaf after having the mumps.
Eye contact was vital in the LeFors household, and the quarterback said that might explain his skill at reading defenses.
"I learned to communicate with my eyes from a young age, learning to pick things up," he said. "Maybe a guy from a normal hearing family wouldn't pick that up."
Mentored by his brother, who set national records at the Louisiana School for the Deaf, LeFors put up big numbers at Christian Life Academy. At Louisville, he impatiently backed up Dave Ragone for two seasons, then had renewed doubts about his future when Bobby Petrino replaced coach John L. Smith, who bolted for Michigan State.
LeFors' skills turned out to be a perfect match for Petrino's complex offense. LeFors was the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year in 2003, completing 61 percent of his passes for 3,145 yards and 17 touchdowns.
This season he's looked even better, completing 77 percent of his passes for 1,164 yards with seven TDs and only one interception. His 179.2 passer rating places him ahead of prototype NFL prospects such as Southern California's Matt Leinart.
Last week, LeFors completed his first 13 passes and finished 21-for-26 for 242 yards in a 41-9 rout of South Florida. Next up for the Cardinals is a pivotal C-USA game at Memphis on Thursday night.