Iron Mountain head coach Robin Marttila knew something was up when the opposing sideline called timeout after a touchdown. Ispheming High always goes for two without hesitation. The timeout—and the circumstances—made Marttila think otherwise. Expecting an extra-point attempt, he gathered his team and instructed them not to rush the opposing kicker. Not a single player objected. Like their coach, they knew the kicker had been through so much just to get to that point.
All Eric Dompierre wanted to do was play high school sports. The Michigan High School Athletic Association, for a long time, wouldn’t let him because Eric is 19 and the rules say participants must be no older than 18 on September 1. Eric is not some 6’4, 215-lb. NCAA prospect looking to gain an extra year of eligibility to showcase his talent for a college scholarship. Perhaps it’s kids like that for whom the rule was created. Eric is a 5’2, 140-lb. senior with Down syndrome. He wanted to play basketball and football for the Ishpeming Hematites in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as he had done for the previous three years.*
*Hematites is just one of the many colorful mascot names in the U.P. Here is a sampling of others: Nimrods, Flivvers, Midgets, Speedboys/Speedgirls, Wykons, Eskymos, Modeltowners, Gremlins, Nordics, Tartars, Copper Kings, Lakes (formerly Whiz Kids), and Emeralds. I wish more schools, on the high school and college level, would take note. We have enough Tigers and Bulldogs.
The MHSAA said no to Eric. It appeared The Rules were going to score a victory over Common Sense. Eric’s dad, Dean, wouldn’t accept this. He sent his first request to the MHSAA Representative Council in July of 2010, after Eric’s freshman year. It was rejected that December, meaning it wouldn’t even be sent to member schools for a vote. The following February, Dean sent another request, offering suggestions on how to rephrase the waiver language and noting that 23 other states allow for exceptions to the age limit. In the winter of Eric’s junior year (December 2011), the request was again rejected. For those scoring at home, that’s The Rules 2, Common Sense 0.
Finally, last May, the MHSAA sent the proposed amendment to its member schools for a vote, perhaps swayed by the more than 90,000 signatures supporting Eric’s case through an online petition. On August 9, 15 days before Ishpeming’s football opener, the MHSAA approved the request. Eric could play.
With 8:49 left in the fourth quarter of Ispheming’s opener on August 24, the Hematites scored a touchdown to go up 28-0. Ishpeming head coach Jeff Olson called a timeout to prepare his extra point team, a unit that hardly sees the field. “I didn’t say anything to Eric,” Olson said. “He knows what to do. It’s what he practices all the time.” No, it wasn’t Eric he was worried about, even though he didn’t expect his kicker to play in the season opener against a typically tough opponent; it was his other players. He wanted to be sure they’d be in place for the kick.
While Olson spoke to his players, Marttila spoke to his on the opposite sideline. Marttila had signed the petition for Eric; he knew his story. “When they scored that touchdown and they called timeout, I figured they’d want Eric to kick the extra point,” Marttila said. “I was going to do everything in my power to help him make it because that would have been a highlight for him and a highlight for everyone who was in attendance.”
Nothing had been discussed regarding Eric prior to the game, neither between Marttila and his players nor Marttila and Olson. “It was just spur of the moment,” Marttila said. “I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to block the kick.’ It had nothing to do with the outcome of the game. I just wanted to give the kid the opportunity. Nothing was scripted.”
Eric marched onto the field and the home crowd gave him a hearty applause—even though the game was in Iron Mountain. The hold was good, the kick looked good—high enough, far enough—but it hit the right upright. “I wish he had made it,” Marttila said. The Ishpeming players crossed the line of scrimmage after the play to shake hands with the Mountaineers.
The display of sportsmanship didn’t go unnoticed by the Ishpeming sideline or its supporters. “That just showed a lot of class for Iron Mountain’s program,” Olson said of the decision not to rush the kick. “We want these kids to succeed and Eric’s disability makes it hard for him to succeed. What Iron Mountain did gave him a better chance to succeed. It was a great experience for him.”
In an email to the Iron Mountain athletic director, Ishpeming assistant coach Scott Syrjala wrote, “I saw possibly one of the greatest acts of sportsmanship I have ever seen in my 12 years at Ishpeming: Your Mountaineers, being down in a hard fought game, still found it in themselves when Eric walked on to the field to cheer and clap for him. I can’t say how proud I was to see that.”
Dean Dompierre’s email to Marttila the day after the game read, in part: “These kinds of experiences were what we were fighting for throughout our struggle with the MHSAA leadership. While allowing kids like Eric to play certainly benefits them, it benefits others as well. Although you guys didn’t come out with a win last night, the character that your team showed convinced a lot of people that the young athletes in both communities deserve our respect and our praise.”
Eric got another crack at an extra point later in the game, but missed. He kicked off, too, and the Mountainers didn’t hit him on that play.
Of course Eric’s performance was not the point. He was inspiring others simply with his presence on the field. “I talked to the kids at the beginning of the year about football teaching you lifelong lessons,” Marttila said. “This was a lesson my players will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Sometimes Common Sense goes head-to-head with The Rules and wins. The fight may last several rounds, and Common Sense loses its fair share, but it does win now and then.
Olson hopes to get Eric playing time in as many games as possible. Eric has shown success kicking extra points in practice, so the coach has confidence he can deliver in a game. “We’ll be rooting for him. It’s going to be great when he makes his first extra point.”
Update: Last Friday, playing at home, Eric got five more chances at an extra point. On his fifth attempt, he sent it through the uprights. It was his first conversion as a member of the varsity team. His coach was right: it was great. Although there were still a few minutes left in the fourth quarter, Eric’s teammates hoisted him onto their shoulders and carried him off the field right then. “His teammates were just as happy for him as he was,” Dean said. “They’ve been there with him from the start. It was a special night.”