A career in high school athletics was something Billy Lange wanted ever since he was a star athlete at Florida School for the Deaf.
Danville, Ky., was not a stage where his childhood fantasies played. Lange had never even been to the town of about 16,000 before a loving gesture left him stranded in Boyle County for a week in the summer of 1988.
Fast forward 29 years and Lange, 55, has now spent the majority of his life in Danville. On Dec. 1 he officially retired from Kentucky School for the Deaf, where he was most recently the athletic director and volleyball coach, but he’s worn just about every coaching hat the school has to offer.
Lange has his wife, Amy, and a shoddy timing gear to thank for his unexpected career stop.
During a school break he drove Amy, then his girlfriend, home from Gallaudet University, where she was a senior and he was an assistant football coach for the college’s Model Laboratory School for the Deaf. The pair arrived at their destination, but Lange’s Volvo wasn’t going to make it back to Washington, D.C., without repair. He had to wait a week for a special-order part, so he got acquainted with Danville.
“My first impression was, ‘Wow, it’s so small.’ That was my first impression,” said Lange, who was born deaf. He spoke over the phone with the Herald-Leader via an interpreter. “It was a dry county at the time and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, where’s the fun?’”
Lange also got acquainted with Kentucky School for the Deaf, where he learned of a job opening for a recreation and leisure program director. “Oh, by the way, the head basketball coaching job is available, too,’” Lange was told, and that was enough to convince him to apply for the position.
“I thought maybe I’d stay here for two or three years and then move to another state,” Lange said. “I thought it was gonna be temporary because I knew that KSD was a small school compared to the school that I was at before in Florida.”
Big careers come in small packages, it turns out.
Among the schools in the state, Kentucky School for the Deaf is one of the tiniest.
Per the 2016-17 KHSAA enrollment report, KSD had 72 total high school students (the 15th fewest among KHSAA members) and only 32 boys. For some perspective, Danville High School — a mainstream independent school located a half-mile from KSD’s campus — had 524 students enrolled the same school year, and that’s 42 percent fewer students than the county’s other public high school, Boyle County.
“When we have tryouts, what ends up happening is we keep all the tryouts,” Lange said. “There’s no reason that we would have to cut anyone. We keep all the tryouts and hope that they can all play. Even if they don’t have athletic ability, hopefully they can learn to be an athlete. That’s our hope.”
Some kids who try out for varsity sports at KSD, which serves grades K-12, have never played a sport before arriving on campus. Students sometimes will go back to mainstream schooling or come in and out of KSD depending on their personal situations.
Teams can’t implement summer programs because their players, many of whom live in dorms and hundreds of miles from home during the school year, are scattered across the state. The schools closest to KSD have much deeper and skilled rosters, so finding similar opponents can require driving two to three hours, and sometimes further for some of the deaf-only tournaments that occur throughout the season.
If it sounds like KSD is the hardest place in Kentucky to build winning programs, that’s because it probably is.
“It’s just very, very tough all around,” Lange said. “We try our best and keep going.”
Low enrollment has hampered its ability to compete over the last decade, but KSD has had a great deal of success at its level.
In 1985 and 1988 it won the Mason-Dixon Schools for the Deaf Athletic Association boys’ basketball tournament. The girls’ basketball team had even more success, winning five of the six tournaments held from 1990-1995.
The football program, now defunct due to low enrollment, won national deaf titles in 1966 and 1993 as well an eight-man deaf title in 1999, when it made the semifinals of the 1999 KHSAA Eight-Man Football State Tournament. It also produced Patrick Collins, one of only 42 players in KHSAA history to rush for 5,000 or more yards and who graduated as the all-time leading rusher among all deaf high schools.
The boys’ soccer program, of which Lange also was a coach, won a national deaf title in 2007, but has since shuttered. Currently the school offers only boys’ and girls’ basketball, volleyball and cross country, but it’s possible that a once-thriving swim program could be revived thanks to the recent re-opening of a school pool that was closed for eight years.
KSD also helped produce Sekoe White, who played in the American Basketball Association and won a gold medal in the Deaflympics. White played his final two varsity seasons at Paul Laurence Dunbar, from where he graduated, but learned to love basketball and honed his skills while he was a player under Lange at KSD. He finished his high school career as a 2,000-point scorer before an All-America career at Gallaudet.
White now is the boys’ head coach at Mississippi School for the Deaf. He credits Lange and KSD for the path he’s traveled.
“It’s made my basketball career and the person that I am now,” White told the Herald-Leader, via an interpreter, during a phone interview. “If not for them I think I may have been overlooked. I would have been one of those kids with a hidden treasure that was overlooked and didn’t get an opportunity. But they sought me out and I got the opportunity that I needed.”
Before basketball, Lange encouraged White to play for the middle school football team, of which Lange was the head coach.
“I was like, ‘What?’ He was my first coach. It was the first time I’d ever been asked to play football,” White said.
But it was basketball that White learned to love.
“When I was in sixth grade Billy Lange somehow just got me completely connected to basketball,” White said. “ … He was like, ‘You can do this, you can do it.’ He really pushed me hard. The older kids, he really just ground on them and I watched what he did and how he built players. … It hooked me, and I’ve been in sports ever since.”
Lange continued to support White after he left KSD for Dunbar. He would come watch him play for the Bulldogs, he said, and continued to offer him advice and support when he played college basketball. The two recently got to reconnect in person when, in October, MSD hosted the Mason-Dixon volleyball tournament.
“I was proud to be his coach,” Lange said.
Lange’s three older siblings — sisters Camy and Wendy and brother Andy — all retired at 55, and Lange wanted to follow suit so he could spend more time with them, as well as Amy and their two adult children, Brooke and Kyle.
“After looking at my brothers and sisters and seeing the different choices that they had, I thought, ‘Why not me?’ I wanted that,” Lange said. “And now I’m here, I can’t believe it.”
He and Amy plan to remain in Danville, and Lange hopes once his 90-day exclusionary period ends he again will be involved with KSD athletics in some capacity. Lange hasn’t ruled out a return to Florida, though.
“I always wanted to go back to Florida. That’s my home state, and it’s possible I could work at Florida School for the Deaf there for a temporary amount of time,” Lange said. “Who knows? Anything is up in the air still.”
Such a homecoming has been well-earned by the man who broke down in Kentucky and decided to plant roots nearly 30 years ago.
“Seriously, I already miss it,” Lange said on his fifth day of retirement. “I have to learn how to adjust to life now without KSD. ... They have high expectations for their students and they want to see their students succeed and have a productive future after graduation. I hope kids and parents will know, KSD is always here.”