SULPHUR — Ask Colin Larkins about the field where his football team plays, and he uses his index finger to draw an X on the palm of his other hand.
It's sign language.
It means “put down.”
Stand on the football field at Oklahoma School for the Deaf, and you realize why the quarterback feels so strongly. The facility is in need of serious upgrades. There are no lights, few bleachers and no press box.
“It feels like we're put down, like we're a tier down,” Larkins signs through an interpreter. “It's like we're playing pee wee football, but we're a high school team.”
Truth be told, plenty of pee wee fields are nicer than this.
School administrators and supporters have decided it's time for a change. Starting in earnest during their homecoming game on Saturday, they are launching a fundraising campaign called “Make It Right.” They want to raise between $1.5 million and $2.5 million so they can provide all the things that the football program has never had.
Some dream of a grand stadium — “Like Jenks or Tulsa Union,” OSD coach Tommy Varner said — but most believe there's a happy medium between what they have and what other eight-man programs have.
“We just want our kids here at OSD to have what everybody else has,” booster club president Wende McKenzie said. “Our kids are like anybody's kids — they just can't hear.
“We just want the best for them.”
The best of high school football is Friday night.
At OSD, there are no Friday night lights.
* * * * * * * *
Tommy Varner arrived at the school on the outskirts of this south central Oklahoma town in 1998.
He wanted lights ever since.
That's because he knows the power of sport. Born with spinal meningitis that rendered him deaf when he was only four months old, Varner grew up in Stillwater. He faced struggles with no hearing in his right ear and only 20 percent in his left, but none of that mattered when he was on the baseball field.
There, he could hit and run and catch and throw just like everybody else.
He played two years of baseball at East Central, where he got his start on a deaf education degree that ultimately led him to OSD.
Sports empowered him, and he wants the same for his players.
“They came here, yeah, to get an education,” said Varner, who used a sign-language interpreter but verbalized all his own words, “but sports is a valuable part of their lives, too. It's all about equal access.
“Be equal. Be fair.”
The school, a sprawling acreage that looks more like a small college than a high school, is funded by the state. Once the only option for Oklahoma's deaf children — they were not only educated but also housed at the school — it now has an enrollment of 137 in all grades, kindergarten on up.
Students come from all of the state, many of whom live in the dorms during the Monday-through-Thursday school week, then return home every weekend.
Because OSD is state-funded and not tied to a local school district, that means that it can't put together a bond issue and ask local voters to provide funds for construction and renovation. The school has received state funding during the past few decades, but most of those dollars have went to the classrooms, the library and the dorms, said Dana Tallon, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services, the umbrella organization that oversees OSD.
“Now, it's the football team's time,” she said.
KaAnn Varner agrees. She is not only the football coach's wife but also the school's superintendent.
“We understand that some people might not see that as a priority, but our sports are part of what we do have,” she said, using an interpreter but verbalizing her own words. “We give the students an opportunity to participate in sports that they might not get in public schools.”
And you don't have to look hard to find studies espousing the benefits of participating in sports. Kids who play sports are likely to have higher self-esteem, better teamwork skills and lower dropout rates.