SULPHUR â€” Oklahoma School for the Deaf coach Tommy Varner never envisioned himself coaching football.
In fact, he never ever saw himself actually being a coach. And if somehow he did turn to a life in that profession, it was most certainly going to be in baseball, the sport Varner had the most talent in when he was in school.
All these years later, Varner is not only the coach of the Indians, but he has taken a school known for basketball and made it into a formidable football program.
That's a far cry from where the team was. OSD was winless three seasons ago, but this year reached the eight-man national championship game for deaf schools. OSD lost 46-42 at Wisconsin.
â€œCoach told me after my freshman season â€˜Don't worry,'â€ senior wide receiver Austin McKenzie said. â€œHe said it would change, and it did. It's a great way to leave this program.â€
The honors were many for OSD following this season. The Indians had three players on the National Deaf Interscholastic Athletic Association's All-American first team (Austin McKenzie, Colin Larkins, Nathan Coon). Three more on the second team (Jacob Walden, Jakob Walser, Marshall Griffith) and two on the honorable mention (Cody Bullard, Colt Jenkins).
As for Varner, he was named the NDIAA Coach of the Year. OSD scored at least 42 points in eight of its nine games in earning a 6-3 record.
â€œI've only known him for four years, but he's been like a second father to me and the team,â€ McKenzie said.
And an inspiration.
Varner was born with spinal meningitis that left him deaf when he was four months old. Varner has no hearing in his right ear and only 20 percent in his left.
Baseball was his sport of choice. He played at Stillwater High and played two seasons at East Central University.
Football? That was never in the equation. Varner began playing in fifth grade but was done with the sport after his freshman year in high school.
He graduated from USAO in Chickasha with a degree in deaf education. That was always the goal â€” to be a teacher.
He was an assistant coach for the Arkansas School for the Deaf football team for three years before coming to OSD. After one year as an assistant, Varner has been the face of the program since 1999.
â€œThat's just the way it worked out,â€ Varner said. â€œThose kids needed someone to coach them, and I wasn't about to deny those kids.â€
OSD has become the Varner family's home away from home. His wife, KaAnn, is the principal, and the family is involved in just about every way possible.
Though football wasn't his first love, Varner had a feeling this year's season had the potential to be something special.
OSD had an 11-man team until 1976 and won a national championship in 1952. After 1996, the school went 16 years without a program before an eight-man team was formed in 1992.
The team has had its fair share of success, but one thing it is still looking for is its own stadium.
â€œIt would be great because more fans could come out and support us,â€ junior quarterback Colin Larkins said through an interpreter. â€œIt would bring a lot of pride to the team and school.â€
The team right now plays on just a pasture next to the school. There are a couple of old goal posts and few small sets of bleachers on either sideline. There are no lights, meaning no night games.
In order for the team to make the trip to Wisconsin, OSD had to raise $9,000. The team did anything possible. From selling raffle tickets to having bake sales and carwashes, they reached their goal.
The loss obviously wasn't what the team was hoping for, but it was an experience none of them will ever forget.
â€œI was so nervous at first,â€ Larkins said. â€œI had butterflies in my stomach. But when we arrived on the field, it was just about playing the game like we always do.â€
Playing the game is a little bit different for the Indians because of the school's structure. OSD runs on a four-day school week. The kids are picked up from designated spots Sunday afternoon. Then they're dropped off back home Thursday afternoon. Players are from Wister, Loco, Lone Grove, Skiatook and Sulphur, among others.
Varner recently turned 40 and is also the athletic director. His family has built a home in Sulphur, and he doesn't plan on leaving anytime soon.
And with the success the program is having, he won't be going anywhere soon. OSD had more than 30 players out for football this year. The school ran out of uniforms and had to buy more.
â€œAs long as there are kids around that want to play, I want to be there to help,â€ Varner said. â€œThese kids are great, and I want to show them there is a world of opportunity out there for them.
â€œThey may have not won the national championship, but they'll always be champions in my heart.â€