Commentary

For Van Zant, it's more than just the injury issue

Martel Van Zant wasn't invited to the combine, but he's in Indy anyway, hoping to convince NFL teams that his injury problem -- and his deafness -- are not negatives, writes Pat Yasinskas.

Originally Published: February 21, 2008
By Pat Yasinskas | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Martel Van Zant positioned himself next to an escalator in the lobby of the Indiana Convention Center on Thursday and tried to talk his way into the NFL. But while the words were his own, the voice and ears belonged to Allie Lee.

A 22-year-old cornerback from Oklahoma State, Van Zant wasn't invited to participate in the league's scouting combine that began this week. One reason is that Van Zant is recovering from a dislocated ankle tendon he suffered in November.

Another reason might be because Van Zant is deaf.

He does all his talking through Allie Lee, his interpreter for the past four years. "If a team drafts Martel, they're also getting Allie," said Kelli Masters, Van Zant's agent.

As coaches and personnel evaluators walked through the lobby, Masters tried to entice as many as possible to spend a few minutes with Van Zant and Lee. Many were receptive, as Van Zant tried to get the message out that his ankle will be healthy soon. He has started jogging and hopes to be healthy enough to work out at Oklahoma State's pro day on March 12.

[+] EnlargeMartel Van Zant
Paul Jasienski/Getty ImagesMartel Van Zant started every game as a junior at Oklahoma State.

At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Van Zant says he can run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds. There is plenty of film that shows he was a productive starter for his last two college seasons.

But convincing NFL teams that his ankle is not an issue wasn't the only reason Van Zant was in Indy.

"We wanted to let teams see how Martel and Allie work together and show that communication is not a problem," Masters said.

Van Zant was born without eardrums after his mother, Alice, contracted chicken pox during pregnancy. The only deaf member of his family, Van Zant attended regular schools since second grade, and sports helped bridge the gap. But it wasn't until Van Zant got to Oklahoma State that Lee became his voice.

Lee, 38, is a lifelong Cowboys fan and was working as a heating and air-conditioning technician in Oklahoma City when he heard Oklahoma State was recruiting Van Zant in 2003. Proficient in sign language, Lee volunteered his services. He was evenutally put under contract by the school to work with Van Zant for the duration of the cornerback's collegiate career.

Lee attended every practice and every game to ease Van Zant's communication with coaches and teammates. It took Lee some time to learn football terminology, and things did not always go smoothly, especially during Van Zant's freshman season. But the two developed into a team. Meanwhile, American Sign Language became a very popular class for Cowboys who wanted to communicate with their teammate. Van Zant helped them with their homework and also is proficient in text messaging his friends.

Van Zant said he doesn't want to go through the transition to a new interpreter if he lands with an NFL team. There will be enough other challenges in earning a roster spot and Lee has agreed to continue working with Van Zant.

What Van Zant is trying to accomplish is not unprecedented. As he was quick to point out Thursday, there have been two deaf NFL players: Kenny Walker with the Denver Broncos in the early 1990s and Bonnie Sloan for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973.

"I'm just trying to let teams know I'm here and that my ankle is going to be all right," Van Zant said. "This, obviously, is all new to me, but teams are asking questions and I'm just trying to let them get to know me."

Van Zant, who grew up in Tyler, Texas, plans to return to Oklahoma on Friday and continue getting his ankle ready so he can work out for NFL teams. He's realistic about the possibility that he might not get drafted.

"I believe everything happens for a reason," Van Zant said. "I know the injury hurt my chances, but I still think the draft is at least a possibility. But, if I have to go the free-agent route, that would be fine, too. I'd just like a shot at the NFL."

Several personnel evaluators said they were aware of Van Zant before the combine and that he was considered a potential late-round pick before his injury. A strong workout in March could help, but most evaluators said Van Zant likely will go undrafted.

That's why the time in Indianapolis might have been critical for Van Zant. He wasn't able to show his physical skills like the other prospects. But perhaps his time by the escalator will help convince an NFL team to take a chance. Maybe spending his own money to make the trip and waiting around all day for teams to give him a few minutes might score some points.

"Teams are talking to him and, hopefully, they're realizing, 'Hey, this guy is an athlete and he's no different than anybody else,'" Masters said.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter