Oklahoma football: Lack of sight, hearing don't stop Don Petty from following Sooner football

SOONER VISION — Encephalitis took Don Petty's sight when he was a baby, and he gradually lost his hearing as he got older. But the 59-year-old is a lifelong Sooner fan, and while he can neither see nor hear, he hasn't let that stop him from enjoying OU football.
by Jenni Carlson Modified: November 7, 2013 at 12:00 pm •  Published: November 6, 2013

FORT WORTH, Texas — Poke a piece of paper with the tip of a ballpoint pen, close one eye, then look through the hole with your other eye.

This is how Don Petty sees the world.

While still looking through that pinhole, scoot a chair in front of the television and lean toward the screen so that your nose almost touches it.

This is how Don watches his Sooners.

On a day when Oklahoma goes to Baylor for a rare and important Thursday night game that the entire college football world will be watching, no one will be watching quite like Don. The 59-year-old is a lifelong Sooner fan, and while he can neither see nor hear, he hasn't let that stop him from enjoying OU football.

Sports are his connection to the world.

“Real important,” his wife said.

He devours information about sports, getting braille copies of magazines or using a reading device that magnifies the print in the sports section to a size he can read on a closed-circuit TV. Seventy-two-point type, almost as big as the words “THE OKLAHOMAN” at the top of your newspaper, is about perfect.

He calls our sports department as he has for more than a decade using a relay system. He types what he wants to say — “What time is the game?” “Where are the Sooners ranked, 11th or 12th?” — then an operator reads the words to us, signaling the end by saying, “Go ahead.” We respond — “6:30 p.m.” “10th in the BCS and 12th in the AP poll.” — and the operator types our responses so that they come up on a braille machine on Don's kitchen table. The calls are always long, a combination of pauses, questions about opponent rankings or player stats and commentary about who's playing well or who's not.

“Go ahead.”

But Don's favorite thing is watching games.

It's also the hardest thing.

* * *

Donald Delano Petty was raised in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., but there was Sooner blood in his family. His parents met while students at OU, and they passed along their love of all things crimson and cream.

When the Gomer Jones-coached Sooners played at Maryland in 1964, the Pettys were there. Don was 9 years old, and he remembers his mom sitting beside him and trying to describe some of the plays.

It wasn't easy.

Don was already blind.

When he was only 9 months old, his brain became inflamed. He contracted encephalitis, which can be fatal in some cases.

In Don's case, it took the vast majority of his sight.

Complicating matters, Don gradually lost his hearing as he got older. Because he learned to speak as a child, he continued to talk, but by the time he was in high school, he could only hear something as loud and resonating as a thunder clap or a bass drum.

He was legally blind and legally deaf.

At a time when many with disabilities were institutionalized and marginalized, Don's parents became his greatest champions. They told him that he could do anything and fought to make sure that he was given the same opportunities as any kid.

Don's mom, Charlene, learned sign language, then taught it to Don and many others. Her work was commended by the Library of Congress, the National Association for the Deaf-Blind and others.

Don's dad, Bob, served on the board of directors for the North American Association for the Deaf-Blind.

“I believe that regardless of creed, color, condition or whatever you want to put in there,” Bob once told The Oklahoman, “everybody should have the opportunity to develop to their full potential.”

Charlene, Bob and Don eventually wrote a book, “Out of the Shadows,” that chronicled not only their struggles but also their triumphs.

Don learned to throw a football and shoot a basketball. He swam, following the thick, bold line painted on the bottom of the pool. He shot pool. He wrestled, earning a letter in high school.

After his family moved from Maryland to Oklahoma in 1971, he graduated from Edmond High in 1973 and decided to go to college.

OU, of course.

His mom went on a search every semester for braille textbooks. Some, she found. Others, she brailled herself, tedious and time-intensive work.


by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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