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July 26, 2007
SAN ANTONIO ? Martel Van Zant has never heard the roar of the crowd at the Bedlam Game. He can't tell you how the Oklahoma State fight song goes. He has to wait until the movements of his teammates stop before he knows the play is over.
The Cowboys cornerback is deaf.
Van Zant experiences the sounds of the crowd as a feeling in his bones (and for the record, the "loudest" stadiums for him are at Oklahoma State and Texas).
"It's only a feeling, a vibration, when everybody's yelling and stomping on stands," said Van Zant, through his sign-language interpreter, Allie Lee. "I don't hear anything. I can't focus on what's going on in the stands, I have to focus on the play, but I can feel what's going on in the stands."
So much of the college football experience is different for him, yet the same.
He has the same pressures balancing classes and football responsibilities. He's a senior leader who will be in the mix for postseason accolades after having 67 tackles and two interceptions a year ago.
But Van Zant has been deaf since birth, a result of his mother having chicken pox during the pregnancy. Growing up, he wanted to play football, but his family had the same misgivings as many other mothers ? it's too rough.
Van Zant won that battle, though, and eventually became a Division I-A prospect. College coaches came by but weren't entirely sure how to work with Van Zant.
Some had interpreters available when he visited. When coaches visited him, he'd read their lips or they'd pass notes back and forth.
"I feel like a lot of the colleges (were) not really discriminating but didn't know how to conduct (themselves) with a deaf person," Van Zant said. "They just didn't know what to do. A lot of them thought, 'The deaf guy, isn't that the water boy or trainer or something?' "
Not former Oklahoma State coach Les Miles.
Miles wasn't fluent in sign language, but he knew enough to get by. And more importantly, Miles, whose brother is hearing impaired, had no discomfort in working with the deaf.
"He came in and offered me a full scholarship," Van Zant said. "I feel like he was already used to that situation. He didn't know a lot of signs. He knew some basics. I knew what he was talking about and I knew what he was saying."
After four seasons at Oklahoma State, Van Zant is teaching some signs to the rest of his teammates. The coaching staff has picked up a few signs, especially secondary coach Joe DeForest.
Teammates have asked to learn a few signs. College kids being college kids, some have asked for some of the more creative signs, and Van Zant has obliged occasionally.
"He can read lips real well," defensive end Marque Fountain said. "I just talk to him like I talk to you. He understands. You just talk to him like he's another teammate."
As much as Van Zant contributes on the field, he's had at least as much of an impact on the lives of his teammates.
"It's been tremendous for our team," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. "Part of what we do in college athletics is we try to develop young men to go out in the world and have success. For them to have to have to be around white people, black people, rich people, poor people, deaf people and learn how to work with them is great.
"He has been a leader by example and players have learned how to communicate with him during practice."
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.