Van Zant Never Lost A Step In Life - KLTV.com - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

4/28/08-Tyler

Van Zant Never Lost A Step In Life

This weekend, pro dreams came true for hundreds of young men playing the game of football.

The pursuit of that dream continues for Tyler's Martel Van Zant. However, NFL teams including the Tennessee Titans are still showing free agent interest in the OSU cornerback.

Martel was born without ear drums, but he has never used his impairment as an excuse. Instead, it has been his motivation.

"I didn't want to discriminate against myself or tell myself I can't do this or this is something I can't do," Martel said. "I just went and did it."

What most people would call a handicap, Martel ignored, approaching everything in life at full speed.

"It wasn't even a question about him being confident," his father Andre said. "From day one, when we found out he was hearing impaired we made sure he was going to be confident. He was not going to be a let down."

"A lot of people said he couldn't do things and he proved them wrong," Martel's older brother Davon said.

Martel began playing football in the seventh grade at Tyler's Moore Middle School. He blew right past the other kids on the field, something that even impressed his older brother's friends.

Football was a good fit for the already athletic Martel because the play calls are done through hand signs.

"Everybody on the team has to know these signals," Martel said, "so in a sense, everybody knows sign language."

Martel had the speed and tenacity to play varsity ball at Robert E. Lee. His younger brother Dominique was a teammate.

"Hardest worker I've ever seen.," Dominique said. "He keeps wanting to be the best, at the pinnacle, and he just keeps working harder and harder and harder. He's just a great football player and I always wanted to be like him."

"When I was a junior in high school, that's when I really set my sights on playing in the NFL," Martel said. "I didn't know if I would have a chance or what would be my possibilities to even get into college."

Oklahoma State came calling. Former OSU coach and current LSU head coach Les Miles has a brother who is deaf. Martel said Coach Miles' affiliation with the deaf community helped him pick OSU.

Two weeks before two-a-day practice with the Cowboys, Allie Lee became Martel's interpreter. An OSU fan, Allie heard his favorite team had signed Martel.

Allie grew up in a family where his grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins were deaf. He said he was actually signing before he could ever talk. He offered his services to the university. 

"I thought this is a pretty good opportunity," Allie said, "to work with Martel and be involved in football because it was something I really enjoyed. It's been a real pleasure to be able to work with him. Especially to see him come in as a freshman and see him mature into the man that he is now and see him take on these responsibilities and just be humble this whole time."

"It has been an inspiration to me."

For Martel, Allie has become much more than an interpreter.

"It's kind of like having maybe a brother or a second father or something," Martel said. "It's been really exciting working with Allie."

As a Cowboy Martel had 127 tackles. His best season, his junior year, he had two interceptions and broke up eight passes.

Martel's abilities as a cornerback attracted NFL scouts, but an ankle injury brought some doubt to Martel's future in the pros. During this weekend's draft, Martel wore a cast.

"I can kind of put a little more pressure on it now," Martel said of his ankle, "so I know that it's healing."

During February, Allie and Martel attended the NFL Combine, despite not receiving an invite.

"I just wanted to go and meet as many teams as I could," Martel said. "I still had my ankle injury but I wanted them to see how I worked with an interpreter and let them just meet me. I know that Kenny Walker was the last deaf player in the NFL which was 20 years ago. So, I wanted them to have an idea of how I work with an interpreter and they would have an idea of what it's like to work with a deaf person."

Martel's courage receives national attention. A movie is currently in the works about his life.  He is also the winner of the 2008 Giant Steps Award from the National Consortium of Academics and Sports.

However, this Saturday will bring Martel's greatest achievement. He will graduate with a degree in business management.

"He will be the first of my mom's son's to graduate college and that's his greatest achievement to me," brother Davon said. "NFL, that's fine. Your body can only last for so long but your mind can last forever."

"Balancing football and academics, it was really important to me," Martel said. "My education was most important to me."

Martel is a hero and an inspiration. In Stillwater, he mentors a young elementary student that is deaf.

In many ways he is a mentor to anyone who doubts themselves.

"I would like to tell all of the people, all the deaf kids, the deaf athletes and the hearing athletes, don't say I can't do this or let people tell you can't do this. That shouldn't even be a word that you have in your vocabulary."
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