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Down syndrome student fights to keep playing sports

By Ted Rowlands, CNN
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Wed April 18, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Dompierre has Down syndrome and plays high school football and basketball
  • A Michigan high school rule prevents Eric from playing his senior year due to his age
  • Eric's parents and the school district are fighting to have the rule changed

Ishpeming, MI (CNN) -- After spending a Sunday afternoon with Eric Dompierre and his parents it's clear that they're extremely grateful that Eric has always been included.

Eric Dompierre has Down syndrome, but he's been welcome to play sports with other kids in Ishpeming Michigan since he was in elementary school.

"We didn't know how far he'd go, how many coaches would keep him on the team," says Dean Dompierre, Eric's father.

When he got to high school, Eric was invited to keep playing. Now he's on both the Ishpeming High School football and basketball teams. He attends every practice and works out with the other players and if it's appropriate he plays a few minutes at the end of the game.

During this season's basketball playoffs Eric brought the house down. The team after maintaining a nice lead put Eric in the game and he hit a three-point shot against rival Negaunee High School.

"I was on the left side behind the three-point line and they passed me the ball," Dompierre says smiling as he recounts the game. "I heard the fans, including my mom crying."

Eric's father was in the stands with his camera and captured the amazing reaction.

"I videotaped the crowd on the other side and it was made up of mostly Negaunee fans including their student section and they were all on their feet cheering for Eric."

The same thing happened when Eric kicked his first extra point for the football team towards the end of the game two years ago.

"I was amazed that he even had the opportunity to kick, and then when he did it, I thought woo-hoo! And then watching the kids react, they carried him off the field; it was just one of the best moments," recalls Eric's mother, Jill Dompierre.

Eric Dompierre is fighting to play sports his senior year
Eric Dompierre is fighting to play sports his senior year

Even though Eric is only a junior, his high school sports career may be over. Eric turned 19 in January, which puts him six months over the maximum age limit to play. Eric was held back in kindergarten because of his disability.

According to the constitution of the Michigan High School Athletic League, students who turn 19 before September 1 are not allowed to compete in sports. The rule is intended to prevent the possibility of injury or competitive advantage from an older more developed athlete playing against younger students.

For the past two years Eric's parents, with the support of the Ishpeming High School District have tried to get the rule changed so Eric can play during his senior year.

But a committee with the Michigan High School Athletic Association has refused two proposals which would allow kids like Eric to participate.

James Derocher is the president of that committee says "our members have to change the constitution and at this point in time they've told us 'no.' "

Derocher says one of the concerns is that if they let Eric play, other 19-year-olds may come along in the future and claim a disability for a competitive advantage.

We've come a long way in those 100 years in this country in the way that we involve and included people with disabilities.
Dean Dompierre, Eric's father

Twenty three states allow for age exceptions for students with disabilities but that fact does not carry much weight with Derocher.

"What about the other 27 states like Michigan, nobody is talking about them?" he says.

The Ishpeming School District has submitted a third proposal on Eric's behalf, which is pending. The committee has the choice to deny it, or allow schools around the state to vote on it. If there is a vote, a two-thirds majority is required to change the age rule. A decision on if there's a vote is expected to be made at the committee's next meeting scheduled in May.

"The rule is 100 years old. We've come a long way in those 100 years in this country in the way that we involve and included people with disabilities. And I think its time that the rule catches up with that," says Dean Dompierre.

Eric Dompierre, 19, plays on the high school basketball and football teams
Eric Dompierre, 19, plays on the high school basketball and football teams

Eric's cause is getting a lot of attention and support. An online petition on Change.org that was started on March 24 now has more than 80,000 signatures. Yooper Shirts, a T-shirt store in Ishpeming, is selling shirts that say "let em play." Resident Nick Joseph came in to buy two shirts on Monday afternoon saying "it's just one of those positive things we don't see in our society anymore."

The basement in the Dompierre home is transformed into a mini gym and is what Eric refers to as his "man-cave." There's a weight room, a kicking net for him to practice his field goals, and a basketball hoop.

Eric has some choice words for those who are deciding if he can keep playing sports or not.

"I would say let me be with my friends so I can be with them. They want me to play as much as I want to play with them."

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