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A Deafly Inspiring Story
College football is a field where many inspiring, heart-touching stories emerge. It is also a place where the passions of the players, the enthusiasm of the fans, the desires of the coaches and the expectations of the community come together to form a unique atmosphere. The games are packed with fans. The teams are considered home teams. Players collide and helmets hit. Music bands pay tribute to their teams. More than 40,000 fans are loud and critical. Amid all this commotion and noise, all Martel Van Zant hears is his heartbeat. His story is deafly inspiring.
Van Zant is deaf, born without eardrums after his mother suffered from chicken pox during pregnancy. He can feel the vibrations of the crowd as he yells and hits, but he can’t hear the referee’s whistle and must use his eyes to confirm that the play is over. Growing up in Tyler, Texas, Van Zant was raised like any other kid at school. His parents did not treat him any differently. They kept the same hopes in him. Van Zant attended regular high school and has thrived in his community. The source of this success an inspiring story was sport.
Growing up in a sports community and with four brothers to play with, track and field was a way of life for the Van Zant family. Martel adapted very well to this field. Through sport he leveled the field and distanced himself from his teammates. He started playing soccer at the beginning. He also tried basketball and track. He excelled in all of these, but he didn’t feel the great sense of satisfaction from these games. In eighth grade, he was introduced to football. He learned the game and compensated for his hearing loss by watching the ball. The focus on the ball along with his natural athleticism made him a very good defensive player. The more he played, the more he realized that he could use soccer as a lever for his educational and inspiring story.
By the time he finished his career at Lee High, he had 21 interceptions and was named to Texas’ top 100 prospects list, earning him attention from Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma State, SMU, TCU and Texas A&M. His ability caught the eye of former OSU coach Les Miles. Other coaches were hesitant to pick him, but Miles, with some basic sign language proficiency, took Van Zant’s shot and signed him to OSU. The rest of this inspiring story as you can tell is history.
How does a deaf football player bridge the gap in the high pace of American football? Fortunately, Van Zant has the help of Allie Lee, his interpreter of sorts. Lee is itself an inspiring story. He makes the 132-mile round trip from Oklahoma City to Stillwater every day, accompanying Van Zant to classes, team meetings, practices and games. If playing Division IA soccer is a dream come true for Van Zant, being part of the Cowboys family is just as exciting for Lee.
He may not like to refer to himself as a “deaf athlete,” but Van Zant has seen how he inspires others. He has received letters from deaf children and has seen the excitement in his eyes when they approach him, an example of never giving up on his own dreams and expectations. They are all inspiring stories to be written.
“I’m a role model for these younger deaf people who can do it too,” Van Zant said. “It makes them get more invested in their interests and go to college and go through the same steps and do as well as I did.”
His triumph has not gone unnoticed by those outside of the deaf community. He has been nominated for the FexEx Orange Bowl FWAA Courage Award, which honors athletes/coaches who have shown courage, on or off the field, including overcoming injury or physical disability, preventing disaster, or going through hardship. Van Zant’s mother best sums up Martel’s inspiring story: “I really believe that God does things for a reason,” she said. “He doesn’t put more on us than we can handle. I never doubted that he would be doing the things that he’s doing now. It’s just my faith.”
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