MADILL — It’s Sunday, 2015, and along the concrete path surrounding Madill City Lake lies a boy in pain.
Mosquitoes fly overhead as the harsh light of a harsh life wakes him from the bench at Raymond Gary Park.
He’s 15, alone and homeless.
Sweat boils under his dirty clothes, clinging to the park bench that had been his bed for the past week.
He didn’t have a father, he’d been in and out of 11 schools in nine years. Fending for himself left him empty, afraid and fueled by anger. But on that morning three years ago, Zane Crisp’s life changed, forever.
He followed his stomach to a nearby church, a place that had helped him and his family before.
At First Baptist Church Madill he found food and the weary eyes of James and Haylee Ratliff.
“We were sitting in Sunday school and this young man sat across the table from us,” James Ratliff said. “Zane came up and said, ‘I don’t have anywhere to go, I need help.’
“Well, what can you do?” Ratliff said. “I told him ‘Get in the truck.”
Zane Crisp’s life trajectory shifted that day.
The Ratliffs, who have taken in 18 foster children in their life, laid out some ground rules. They’d been burned before.
“I told him how things work around here and if you can handle that, you can stay here,” Ratliff said. “With tears in his eyes, he asked, ‘Can I please stay?”
The Ratliff’s didn’t know at the time that this troubled boy they brought to their farm would soon become the son they’d legally adopt three years later.
For most of his life, Crisp grew up with a mother who would take he and his four siblings from town to town before those community’s charity and patience ran dry, Ratliff said. Home was tents, cars, hotels and everywhere in between.
At Madill, his family was taken into the First Baptist Church Hope House, which brought in Crisp’s mother and three siblings. But Crisp was forced out and for a week he lived in the park.
“I went to church looking for food,” Zane Crisp said. “I was homeless. I used to skip school and do things a kid shouldn’t do. But then I met James and Haylee Ratliff and they took me in. I felt like a burden at first. But seeing that side of people, it grew on me. All of the sudden I realized — I’m part of a family now.”
James and Haylee Ratliff said parents and teachers warned them about bringing Zane into their home. They said he was trouble.
“I had teachers and family that worked at Madill coming to me, basically in tears, saying don’t do this, this kid is trouble. It’s not going to be good for your family. Don’t bring this kid into your home,” Haylee Ratliff said. “But we felt God was telling us this is what we needed to do. So we brought him home.”
From that Sunday on Zane stayed on the Ratliff farm. He learned the values of hard work and making sacrifices for family. Change came quick.
After two weeks, Crisp and the Ratliffs went to work on his future. He was failing his classes and was academically ineligible to participate in sports.
“He’d failed and failed and failed and failed,” Ratliff said. “Then he turned nothing into everything.”
As a family they worked on his grades, staying up late into the night, making up missed assignments.
But as the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a boy into a man. And at Madill just that happened.
After Zane got his grades back up he wanted to play football. It was too late in the season for him to join, so he approached Madill wrestling coach Jim Love.
“He walked in and I’d heard he was trouble. He was rough, but he asked me if he could join the team. I told him, ‘I don’t think you’ll last, I don’t think you have the discipline to be a wrestler,’” Love said. “He proved me wrong.”
With wrestling, Zane got an opportunity to express the anger he felt toward his past on the mat. But also, he learned the discipline it took to be elite and channeled his natural talent into something special.
“I looked at (Coach Love) and said, ‘My name is going to be on that board one day, you just watch, you just wait." Crisp said. "Every time I’d run my hardest in practice and drill my hardest. I’d feel like I’m about to pass out and I’d look at him and Love would say, ‘So you say you want to wrestle huh’ and I’d take off again. He pushed me to better myself.”
Zane, with just months of experience in wrestling, qualified for the state tournament his sophomore year. His junior year, he was one match away from becoming the State Champion at 220 pounds.
And as Zane rose through the ranks and turned his life around, the same teachers and parents that warned the Ratliffs about Zane were in the stands cheering him on as he won regionals. He’d become a new man.
In December, upon turning 18, Crisp was legally adopted by the Ratliffs. While his prowess on the mat is special, Haylee Ratliff cherishes watching her youngest son put on Zane’s headgear as the two playfully wrestle.
“Zane’s special,” Ratliff said. “He’s so sweet to our kids. All of them look up to him. For years we’ve waited on him to turn, go bad. Burn us. That day never happened.”
And this weekend, the Ratliffs will watch their son attempt his third and final shot at a state title in Oklahoma City at the State Wrestling Tournament.
His work on the mat has piqued college interest with schools sending him letters. But Crisp seems more interested in following the footsteps of his father, James an Army Veteran.
“Freshman year, before I met the Ratliffs, I didn’t know what I was going to do that week much less after high school,” Crisp said. “Now I have schools sending letters for wrestling, offering me full-rides. But I’ve been talking to the Army, and I might have a chance to wrestle in the Army. My life has completely taken a U-turn. I’m better for it.”