Wolves Deaf Rookie Makes the Team - and a Statement
MANCHESTER, NH-Martel Vanzant read the play all the way, timed it perfectly, and stepped in front of the receiver to pick off the interception and run it back for the score. The Manchester Wolves fans at the intra-squad scrimmage and his teammates clapped and cheered loudly for the rookie. But he couldn't hear them.
Vanzant (6-0, 210) is deaf. He has never heard the cheers, even though they came often for him in the 40,000-plus stadium at Oklahoma State where he played collegiate football and was the starting cornerback. He couldn't hear the OSU marching band, nor anything else. Vanzant was born without ear drums after his mother, Alice, contracted the chicken pox while she was pregnant.
But his disability never stopped him from becoming an exceptional student-athlete. He won the Mike Johnson Award given to the OSU player who demonstrates spirit and enthusiasm, and he was a finalist for the FedEx Orange Bowl FWAA Courage Award which honors a coach or player who has displayed courage on or off the field, including overcoming an injury or physical handicap.
Vanzant, who made the Wolves final roster on Monday, runs the 40 yard dash in 4.4 seconds. Coming out of the competitive Big 12 Conference in 200 8, the NFL scouting report called him a strong, physical safety who's quick up the field, easily sheds blocks, likes to get involved in the action, and brings an opponent down on initial contact. Competitive and hard-working, he's an imposing figure in the secondary.
Some might call Vanzant a deaf football player. Rather, he is a football player who happens to be deaf.
Brian Hug, the Wolves assistant head coach, believed that would not be an issue. Hug is the son of deaf parents.
"I knew sign language before I knew how to speak," said Hug. "I knew about Martel and (Head) Coach (Danton) Barto knew about him too and also knew he is deaf. When we talked about bringing him in, he asked me if we can coach him. I told him that it would take work if we invited Martel to camp, but it wouldn't be that hard. It would just take some learning on both ends."
So Hug called Vanza nt's agent, Kelli Masters, and sold her on the arenafootball2 league franchise in New England. Convincing Alice Vanzant back home in Tyler, Texas was a little tougher.
"Martel's mom was worried about him coming all the way up here all by himself," said Hug. "She was also worried that he'd be separated from his interpreter."
So far, it's working well. While Vanzant no longer has the services of the interpreter whom Oklahoma State assigned to him all through school, he does have a new interpreter whom the Wolves brought on board when he arrived in camp. And he also has Coach Hug.
To see them work together on the field during practices is fascinating. Since Vanzant can't hear the instruction or even the whistle as he learns the arena game and the intricacy of his position, he watches Hug intently. Although the process is amazing, sometimes a little gets lost in the translation.
"His sign language is old school," Vanzant said, through=2 0Hug, with a big smile. "I'm learning from him and he's learning from me. "
Hug added that because they are different ages and he grew up in Michigan while Vanzant hails from Texas, they don't always sign the same. He likened it to them having to learn different dialects of the same language.
Vanzant, who earned his degree in business management, is a quick study. He has stood out in practice and keeps turning heads.
"We like his size and his speed," said Hug, who clearly relishes working closely with his charge. "He's a good learner and a good player. He just needs playing time and more reps. As for the on field communication, we've got to get used to him seeing us out there and then relaying the signs."
Vanzant, who went to camp last summer with the NFL's Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent, would not be the first deaf player to20make a professional football roster. Bonnie Sloan played for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973 and Kenny Walker was a Denver Bronco in the early 1990s.
"This isn't the same as the NFL or the CFL, but I am learning arena football and getting used to the rules, which are very different," Vanzant said through Hug. "So far, my experience here has been positive. I'm making friends with my teammates and enjoying the interaction. Some of the players want to communicate with me and are trying to learn to sign."
Returning veteran TC Myers, who was assigned to be Vanzant's roommate and is also fighting for a starting role in the defensive backfield, is one of them.
"He helps me a lot. He helps me with the playbook and in practice, and he asked me to teach him how to sign," Vanzant said. "So I'm teaching him now. We also write things down when we need to communicate. He's been great. I was a little nervous at first. I was nervous about going so far away from home and from my mom and being away from my interpreter. Now I'm excited to be here. Everyone has been so good to me. I'm relaxed and ready to go."
Hug termed Vanzant a role model for his accomplishments on the football field and in life, and added that he is an inspiration for others in the deaf community.
The Manchester Wolves hear the message loud and clear.
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