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OSU CB doesn’t let deafness stop him

September 3, 2007

 Oklahoma St. cornerback refuses to let his deafness hold him back

 By BRANDON GEORGE / The Dallas Morning News
Martel Van Zant could have spent his whole life feeling sorry for himself.He has been deaf since birth and can’t speak.Instead, he has a zest for life and a hunger on the football field that have allowed him to excel as an Oklahoma State starting cornerback.

He plays with ferocity on the field, but off it he has an engaging smile and a desire to make the most of his opportunities.

“He’s really a special person,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said. “He’s amazing.”

His mother, Alice, contracted chicken pox in the fifth month of her pregnancy with Martel, causing him to be born deaf.

“It’s captivating,” Alice said of her son’s smile, which she says he got from his father, Andre. “I might be a little bit biased, but once you get to meet him, you can’t help but to love him because he’s so genuine.”

Van Zant, a senior, has played football since the seventh grade. Though last year was Van Zant’s first as a full-time starter at OSU, he appeared in eight games in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. Last season he ranked fourth on the team with 67 tackles. He also had two interceptions and eight pass deflections in 13 games.

Van Zant uses sign language to communicate. During practices and games, he communicates with coaches and players through interpreter Allie Lee.

Lee, who is paid on an hourly basis by the university, serves as Van Zant’s ears and voice and has become a close family friend.

“Martel has bad days just like anybody else, but he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve,” Lee said. “He always has a positive attitude. He’s a great inspiration.”

Van Zant has been Lee’s only client since he moved from Tyler to Stillwater in 2004.

“Coaches and my teammates treat me like any other player,” Van Zant said. “They come up and talk to me, and Allie is just there for communication.”

Van Zant said the biggest football challenge he faces is to know when to stop playing – he can’t hear referees’ whistles.

“I’ve had to get used to when all the football players quit playing, then I know that I have to quit playing,” Van Zant said. He’s never been called for a late hit.

Van Zant said he was once told by former OSU coach Les Miles, who recruited him out of Tyler Lee, to not worry if he were to be called for a late hit because he is deaf.

“I said, ‘No, no, no. I don’t want to have to get into that,’ ” Van Zant said. “I want to be just the same as everybody else. I don’t want any special rules.”

Learns to read wideout

Van Zant said he knows when to start playing by reading the receiver he’s covering. When the receiver moves, he moves. At least he doesn’t have to listen to receivers’ trash talk.

Though Van Zant can’t hear the tens of thousands fans screaming, he says he can “feel them.”

Senior defensive end Marque Fountain said Van Zant encourages him to be a better player and person.

“It’s a lot of motivation to see somebody with a disability like Martel has and go out there every day and work hard and not want anything more or less than any other player,” Fountain said. “He does everything that we do. We treat him like anybody else on the team.”

Van Zant always went to public schools, choosing not to attend a deaf-only school. He grew up in a tight-knit family of strong Baptist faith, with four brothers.

“His brothers didn’t show him any mercy,” Alice said. “He got beat up on, messed with, just like any of the rest of them.”

Alice said she didn’t know Van Zant was deaf until she had him tested when he was about 1.


The Oklahoman

During practices and games, Martel Van Zant (right) communicates with coaches and players through interpreter Allie Lee.

“It was very hard,” Alice said. “I cried a lot about it, but then after I had my pity party, I said, ‘You have to get up and start helping him.’ That’s when I leaned on my faith.”

At 3, Van Zant started taking early childhood development classes and Alice began learning to sign. With Van Zant so far from home now, Alice stays in touch by often text-messaging him. She also writes him letters and e-mails him and checks in with Lee at least once a week.

Alice calls her son a blessing and inspiration to others.

“I’ve always taught him to be strong,” Alice said. “When he was young, people would say, ‘Oh, poor little deaf kid. What is he going to do? He won’t be able to do this and that.’ If I would have listened to what people were telling me, he’d be in his room right now scribbling on paper instead of reaching out to people.”

Prized DB recruit

Before choosing OSU over TCU, SMU and Texas A&M, among others, Van Zant was one of the top defensive back recruits in Texas as a senior. He finished his career at Tyler Lee with a staggering 21 interceptions.

Van Zant said he dreams of becoming the third deaf athlete to play in the NFL.

Defensive end Kenny Walker, the former Nebraska standout from Crane, Texas, was the second deaf player in the NFL. He played for the Denver Broncos in the 1990s. The first deaf NFL player was defensive tackle Bonnie Sloan, who played for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1970s.

“Martel will go on and do well and maybe in an NFL camp if someone is willing to put in the extra effort it’s going to take to communicate with him,” Gundy said. “But he’ll do well in the real world for what he stands for and for what he’s overcome.”

Van Zant said all he asks for is an opportunity.

“I can do anything that any other person can do,” Van Zant said. “I just want to be a role model to show kids that, ‘Look what I’m doing, and you can do it, too.’ I’m deaf, but that’s not stopping me.”


School: Oklahoma State

Position: Cornerback

Ht./Wt.: 6-1/210

Cl.: Sr.

High school: Tyler Robert E. Lee

Notable: Grew up playing soccer and basketball. … A former winner of the Mike Johnson Award as the OSU player exhibiting outstanding spirit and enthusiasm. … A 2006 nominee for the annual Football Writers Association of America “Courage Award.” … Started his final four games of his sophomore season. … He is majoring in sports management. … Van Zant, 22, has four brothers: Carlos, 30; D’Marcus, 27; Andre Jr., 24; and Dominique, 20.

Oklahoma St. at No. 13 Georgia, 5:45 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2)


Video: Martel Van Zant                                       


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  1. My 12-year-old son, Billy
    September 4, 2007 at 7:59 am

    Note from him:

    I would like to meet him.

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