A’Marion Thomas doesn’t think of himself as different than any other 14-year-old middle schooler. Sure, he happens be deaf, but that doesn’t define who he is or what he plans to accomplish in life.
Now an 8th-grader at Burns Middle School, Thomas has become a three-sport athlete since joining the football team this year. He also plays basketball and runs track.
Thomas has been deaf since birth, but he started working with Denise Lautenschleger when he was 3 years old. Lautenschleger is an Interpreter of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and she is a staff member for Daviess County Public Schools.
Thomas began preschool at Country Heights Elementary School, where he was first exposed to American Sign Language. It’s become second nature to Thomas.
“It is part of my everyday life,” he said. “I don’t see it as different. I am like other 14-year-olds — I just have another way to communicate.”
Thomas still works with Lautenschleger, as well as interpreter Mandi McCann, and the three are learning how to best communicate as he plays sports. Thomas has cochlear implants to help him hear, but they are only an aide and not able to provide 100 percent clear communication.
The athletic ventures for Thomas didn’t begin until he reached middle school. He first joined the basketball team in 6th grade and worked his way into a starting role by 7th grade. He also joined the track team— where his favorite events are the 100-yard dash and the 4×100 relay — before deciding to try out football.
BMS football head coach Mike Hamilton said he actually approached Thomas about joining the team after watching the young athlete play basketball.
“I really didn’t think he would come,” Hamilton said. “He had never played in the contact part of it. He kind of got on board and that was it. He’s been here.”
Thomas said his family was hesitant at first about him playing on the gridiron, but his mother finally agreed after the doctor said it was okay. Now, he wants to follow in his uncles’ footsteps and embrace an athletic career.
It’s taken plenty of hard work to learn the playbook, but Thomas has plenty of support from everyone involved. McCann wrote down every play from the first day of practice so Thomas could go home and study, and the two interpreters alternate working with him each day.
Thomas also has a wristband to help him know which plays to run, and his teammates make sure he’s ready before the snap.
“My teammates always are sure to let me know which set we are working on,” he said. “They sometimes have to tell me which way I should run. My teammates are the most important in the huddle. If I can’t hear the quarterback, other teammates make sure I know the play.”
Lautenschleger and Hamilton both said much of Thomas’ success stems from his attitude toward everyday life and his strong work ethic.
“Because he was born deaf, he has learned to manage everyday life — sometimes with an interpreter and sometimes without,” Lautenschleger said. “A’Marion has worked hard to be able to communicate for himself and uses an interpreter for clarification when he misses information. Keep in mind he must manage two different languages (ASL and English) at the same time.”
She said he’s got the same issues any young teenager has, but Thomas doesn’t let anything become too big of a burden.
“One thing I admire about A’Marion is that he is proud of who he is and brings a smile to everyone he encounters,” Lautenschleger said. “He has a bright soul. Yes, A’Marion is faced with struggles. When he is faced with a challenge, he has a can-do attitude.”
Thomas’ said his family and a few friends know some sign language, but there are still gaps in communication. He doesn’t let that stop him from having a conversation.
“It is hard when I can’t understand someone and I don’t have an interpreter,” he said. “What I do then is get paper and pencil and write back and forth. I find a way to communicate.”
Thomas said he’s grateful for both Lautenschleger and McCann.
“Denise has high expectations for me,” he said. “She interprets for the coaches and my teammates. She won’t let me be lazy. She encourages me to work hard, kind of like my second mom away from home. Mandi and Denise share interpreting for football. I appreciate my them. Without them, it would be very hard.”
Thomas has high expectations for himself going forward, and he eventually wants to be like Derrick Coleman, who became the first legally deaf offensive player in the NFL a few years ago.
“When I enter high school I want to take the lead,” Thomas said. “In high school I plan to continue to play basketball, football and track. I want to get a scholarship to college. One day, I hope to play for the NFL like Derrick Coleman.”