The Norman Transcript

April 26, 2008

Hearing the 'Silent Thunder'


Transcript Staff Writer

Football gave so much to Eric Thunander.

In high school, it gave the deaf young man a way out of a tough childhood and some normalcy despite his disability. In college, it gave him identity, pride, a sense of belonging and a huge, diamond-encrusted ring from his gridiron contribution to the University of Oklahoma's 2000 National Championship team.

But when it took away his dream, it almost took away his life.

The former OU defensive end remembers what it was like to hit rock bottom.

After a head injury that ended his promising football career and a painful divorce, Thunander downed much of a fifth of Jack Daniels, put a single bullet in a revolver, put the gun barrel to his head and pulled the trigger.

Click.

There was no bullet in that first chamber. But if Thunander had pulled the trigger just one more time, it likely would have been fatal. And he realized how far he had fallen.

Thunander called his friend and the man who recruited him, co-defensive football coach Brent Venables, who had believed in and encouraged the young man who has 95 percent hearing loss in his left ear and 92 percent loss in his right. With hearing aids, he calls himself "very hard of hearing."

And about a week later, OU's head coach Bob Stoops called back.

"Hey Thundercat! How have you been?" Thunander remembers Stoops asking, using the nickname Stoops gave him from an old cartoon strip.

Stoops inquired as to what he was doing the next semester and offered Thunander a chance to return to OU on a football scholarship, a rarity in college sports for an injured player.

"I have a second chance and a second lease on life and I almost threw it away," Thunander said.

Thunander tells his story of despair, hope, tenacity and resilience in his new autobiography, "Silent Thunder," about how he created success for himself despite a childhood of chronic abuse and bouncing between multiple foster homes. And he talks about turning points and how his OU "family" saved his life.

Thunander, pronounced Thuh-NAN-der, will speak about his book, his beliefs and what pulled him through the dark days 2 p.m. Sunday at the Norman Public Library, 225 N. Webster Ave. Advance copies will be available for sale at the talk. Thunander will speak with the help of an interpreter, who will "sign" his speech.

Stoops and OU President David Boren wrote the forewords.

"You may not appreciate just how great a victory he has won until you read the story, but trust me; he has endured tribulations that would have devastated many of us," Stoops wrote. "College coaches are often cited for the way they motivate others. Truth be told, it is often these same young men that motivate coaches. Eric was that kind of player for me. He has impacted my life in a positive way and I know he does the same for so many others."

Thunander said he penned "Silent Thunder" for himself.

"I was caught in the past and I thought maybe if I write it down and read it and put it inside so I can start moving forward ... because I was kind of hanging here in limbo," he said.

But along the way, he found when he spoke to individuals and groups, they would draw inspiration from his experiences. And it gave him a goal of becoming a motivational speaker. He now has a bachelor's degree from OU in communications.

"I hope I go there and open minds," Thunander said of his talk at the library Sunday. "Being a motivational speaker to me is when I'm in my element. Even though it's really strange, with me being deaf, I always have this urge to talk."

As a child, his hearing mother didn't want to learn sign language. She wanted Thunander to read lips and speak.

"She would force me to talk," he said. "You know, it kind of gave me a connection with the hearing world, but growing up with the environment I was in didn't help much either."

He went to mainstream schools in California and later in Lee's Summit, Mo.

But he also was a victim of abuse from two of his mother's three husbands, he said. He was moved from foster home to foster home.

When he was 13, he saw a story about Kenny Walker, a deaf football player for the University of Nebraska, who went on to play for the Denver Broncos in the 1990s. And he thought football might be something he could be good at.

So play football he did, priding himself on working "five times as hard as any other player." Thunander was ranked in high school as the 58th-best player in the Midlands by SuperPrep magazine. He registered 242 career tackles, with 90 tackles, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries as a senior at Lee's Summit. He was part of Lee's Summit's mile relay team that set the state record.

He was recruited by almost three dozen college programs -- until they would learn he was deaf and somehow forget him.

OU was the exception. Thunander was offered a scholarship and found a new home, something that surprised his Lee's Summit teammates, some of whom said he didn't deserve it.

But Thunander didn't believe them. He knew he'd outworked almost everybody for the opportunity to play university ball.

"My (OU) teammates accepted me and I never had that in high school. I found a family in the OU community," Thunander said.

One day in his political science class taught by OU President David Boren, the subject turned to welfare reform.

Thunander shared his story with the class and how he had worked his way past hard times. He told Boren and his classmates that he had found his family.

"And that was always his dream," Thunander said of Boren, a former Oklahoma governor and U.S. senator who said his primary goal was creating a sense of community at OU.

He would learn that Boren sometimes used that story -- of Thunander talking to his fellow students and uplifting them.

In his foreword, Boren calls Thunander's story "an inspiring story of individual strength built upon a remarkable capacity to love and to forgive."

"It is also a call for us to realize the difference that we can make in the lives of others through friendship and mentorship," he writes. "After reading this book, you will be grateful that Eric Thunander has touched your life."

Thunander found his faith about a year ago, which brought a new focus and joy to his life.

"After I finally found God, everything started to make sense," he said.

As Thunander's hearing continues to fade, he is considering getting cochlear implants. But there is a certain stigma attached to the technological advance and he's struggling with the decision.

"The deaf community looks down on it. They think the cochlear implant is trying to kill their culture, with the sign language and the facial expressions. They look down on deaf people trying to speak or wearing a hearing aid or a cochlear implant," Thunander said.

But he also feels that one of his goals is to help bridge the hearing world with the deaf world. And he would like to work to update the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"I want to focus more on positive things for the deaf community. And I want to help focus them on the way they think," said Thunander, who describes himself as a quiet guy who leads by example. "If you want to be successful, here's what you need to do. You don't sit around and complain about it. You go out and do what you say you're going to do."

What does he want to tell people at his talk and booksigning Sunday?

"It's how you pick yourself up and move forward. ... If you put your faith in yourself, the only person who's holding you back is yourself," Thunander said.

Carol Cole-Frowe 366-3538 ccole@normantranscript.com