Deaf student is a hit on James Wood team
Posted: November 10, 2012
WINCHESTER — Like most moms, Sonya DeHaven was a little hesitant when her son told her he wanted to try out for the high school football team.
Standing just 5-foot-8 and weighing in at 125 pounds, Tylar Merriner was never going to be confused for an imposing presence in pads and DeHaven had more than a few worries.
She was concerned about his safety (he would suffer a concussion during summer camp, but was back on the field just a few weeks later) and his ability to fit in (after spending just two weeks at James Wood High School the year before, Tylar was beginning fresh as a Colonel junior).
But most of all, she wondered how well her first-born would manage on the field and in the locker room.
Would his coaches and teammates accept him? Would he be given the same opportunities as the other players?
Because while Tylar, 16, is like any other first-year James Wood player — fresh-faced, eager to learn and just a little nervous — one characteristic makes him stand out from the rest.
“It’s not that big of a deal”
When you first meet him, Tylar appears no different from any other high school teenager.
More often than not you can find him with his face buried in his phone, fingers flying over the keyboard as he sends text messages faster than most people can string together sentences.
The only difference is that for Tylar, texting is more a necessary means of communication than one of convenience.
“He uses his phone a lot,” DeHaven said. “He can read lips a little bit, but I learned a long time ago that what you’re saying can come off your lips looking totally different from what you said. So he uses his phone a lot and he’ll text and then show you what he’s trying to say.”
While that’s his preferred method of communicating with friends and classmates, Tylar uses sign language whenever he can — such as the day he told his mother about his intentions to don a James Wood football jersey.
“He came to me before school started and said, ‘I’m going to try out,’ ” said DeHaven, who admitted that Tylar had actually planned to try out the year before, but a badly sprained ankle had prevented him from doing so.
“And I told him OK,” she said. “I talked with the athletic trainer to make sure that his helmet would protect his cochlear implant, because his skull is a little bit thinner where it is and we had to be very careful.
“But I don’t hold him back. I always tell him, ‘You’re only deaf, it’s not that big of a deal.’ His brain is working perfect and he’s healthy, so I’m not going to stop him from doing what he wants to do. He’s not disabled, he’s just deaf.”
A real-world setting
His condition was discovered when Tylar was eight months old.
DeHaven knew something was wrong, but trips to the doctor’s office for the two-month, four-month and six-month checkups yielded nothing.
In fact, it took some serious pushing to persuade the medical staff to perform an Auditory Brainstem Response (ABR) test to check Tylar’s hearing.
“I had to kind of yell at the doctors because I kept telling them that something was wrong and they would just tell me, ‘You’re a young mom, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’” DeHaven said. “But then they sent us to get an ABR and it showed he was deaf. As a parent, you know when something’s not quite right.”
No one has a definitive reason to indicate why Tylar was born deaf. He was never sick, the family has no history of deafness and DeHaven said she had a healthy pregnancy. She was taking antibiotics during her third trimester, the time when the cochlea develops, but nobody can specify the cause.
All anyone knows is that Tylar was born without the ability to hear.
He attended elementary school in Frederick County and spent two months at Frederick County Middle School before transferring to the West Virginia School for the Deaf in Romney, W.Va.
He would spend more than four years there before DeHaven, citing the need for a better education and exposing Tylar to the hearing world, encouraged him to attend her alma mater, James Wood.
“I just felt like the education up there was significantly lacking, like with the reading level and all that stuff, and they’re not doing deaf children justice,” she said. “So I told him that it’s for the best to get him in a real-world setting so he can learn how to communicate with hearing people.”
A second chance
Tylar’s sophomore year at James Wood was one big swing and a miss.
No longer surrounded by other hearing-impaired classmates, he suddenly found himself in a foreign world without anyone to turn to.
“I remember the first time I met him last year, he came in to observe our team-taught English class and we were practicing sound devices in poetry,” said Colonel football coach Mike Bolin. “You could just tell from the look on his face that he had no idea what was going on. They were trying to interpret what was happening, but that was probably the worst first experience he could have had.”
Walking in on an onomatopoeia lesson was rough, but being the only deaf kid at school and eating by himself at lunch made things even tougher for Tylar. He would last just two weeks before returning to West Virginia.
“I didn’t like it [at first],” he said.
Luckily, he would get a second chance — only this time he would go about things a little differently.
A football fan since he started watching it as a child, Tylar had played in flag-football leagues until he became too old for them. Although he had never technically played full-contact football, he was determined to try out for the team heading into his junior year.
It would turn out to be one of the best decisions he has made.
“He’s a great kid”
“The great thing about sports is you learn to get along in a heterogeneous society,” Bolin said.
“You’ve got guys that are white, guys that are black. You’ve got guys that are mouthy, you’ve got guys that are nice. You’ve got young guys, older guys, Eagle Scouts, guys who’ve been in trouble.
“But you get them all together and you’ve got one focus and one goal and you just go at it. Whether he’s deaf or blind or whatever, everybody has their own issues that they’ve got to overcome,” he said.
For a kid looking for a way to blend in, the football field couldn’t have been a better fit for Tylar.
Having played in a few youth leagues while growing up, he knew some of the players beforehand, but Bolin said all of the players took it upon themselves to make sure that he felt comfortable and accepted when he arrived on the third day of mini-camp in July.
“I really thought if we were going to get him to stay this year, football was going to be the key,” Bolin said. “Because he knew 40 kids before he even stepped into the building. I know last year he kind of felt isolated because it was all new and different. But he’s acclimated himself really well this year.”
That included not only going out for the team, but also making the varsity as a wide receiver, defensive back and special-teams player.
His success on the gridiron carried over to the classroom, where his confidence level soared thanks to his newfound friends and the help of interpreter Cheri Martinez.
“Many kids have probably never seen or talked to a deaf kid before, but when he walks into the classroom wearing his James Wood jersey, they know he’s a football player and I think that helps break the ice,” said Martinez, an academic interpreter contracted by the school district who accompanies Tylar to all of his classes.
“And once they feel comfortable enough to talk to him through me, they get to know his true character and see what a great kid he is.”
She said Tylar receives A’s and B’s in his classes and more than does his share when working in groups. Aside from the occasional classmate admonishing him about texting during class — he’s allowed to use his phone to communicate if Martinez is not around — Tylar is just like any other high school student.
“He’s funny, he’s polite, he’s smart,” said Martinez, who added that she spends most of her day talking like a 16-year-old boy, using words like “dog” and “dude,” in order to portray Tylar’s personality exactly the way he would want it.
“He’s fun to interpret for; we have similar personalities and we joke with each other. He’s a great kid and everyone sees that now.”
“He can play”
In a year when the team would win just one game and finish the season on a nine-game losing streak, the presence of Tylar has been a welcome addition for James Wood.
Bolin and his staff have learned a few hand signals from Febra Christensen, Tylar’s main interpreter at practices and games, and developed a wristband for him to wear during games. It has images of hand signals that correspond to passing route patterns used when he is in the game at wide receiver.
“We came up with a system where we can call his route and where he needs to line up from the sideline and it’s been pretty successful,” said Bolin, who also has a dry-erase board in his office to communicate with Tylar. “He’s a smart kid and he can play. He’s not afraid to put his head in there and stick you.”
Due to a backlog at the wide receiver position, Tylar hasn’t seen much time on the offensive side of the ball, but he did record a tackle in a game against Musselman (W.Va.) this season and saw a lot of action in the team’s last two games against Fauquier and Handley.
“He was so excited, he got into the car [after the Fauquier game] and said, ‘This is so cool,’ ” DeHaven said. “We didn’t expect him to play as much as he did, but they just kept putting him in and when he walked off the field [at the end of the game] he had a big grin on his face.”
“Just like everyone else”
The football season has ended, but Tylar won’t have much time to relax.
He’s thinking of trying out for the track and field team and also wants to practice as much as he can in the off-season so he will be ready for football camp next summer.
“I just love playing sports,” Tylar said. “I like being part of a team, being part of a family. It doesn’t matter if I’m deaf, I can play just like everyone else.”
When he’s not at school he spends his time with his younger brothers Charlie, 13, and Dylan, 2, — both of whom can sign — and his 5-month-old sister, hangs out with his girlfriend and enjoys being a typical teenager.
He skateboards, is really intersted in shoes and even is trying to help mentor a deaf elementary school student he met through Martinez.
At school, he’s just one of the guys, exchanging high-fives in the hallway, complaining about the difficulty of a test and occasionally forgetting what he was supposed to bring for practice.
When that happens, his coaches have developed a sign language symbol for the term “knucklehead” — they point to their knuckles, rub them and then point to their brain, Martinez said.
An even playing field
Tylar has no plans to return to West Virginia.
In fact, he and Martinez have discussed the creation of an American Sign Language class at James Wood that could possibly fulfill a foreign-language requirement for some students.
For now, though, Tylar is perfectly happy with where he is and what he’s doing.
He’s a football player, a teammate, a classmate, a friend and a Colonel — who just happens to be deaf.
“I could not ask for a better coach, team or school,” DeHaven said. “They sought him out, Coach Bolin sought him out to make sure he was comfortable and that’s made a huge difference in his life.
“He’s significantly more mature and secure with himself this year and he’s just having so much fun.
“Sports put him on an even playing field. All the kids love the same thing, they’re all striving for the same goal and they’re all a team. It’s a brotherhood and a family and he’s a part of it.”
— Contact Kevin Trudgeon email@example.comFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1