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Michigan teen with Down syndrome gets waiver to play on high school team

By Jake Carpenter, CNN
updated 7:24 AM EDT, Mon August 13, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The teen's father says officials have ruled he can play, despite age limits
  • 19-year-old Eric Dompierre has Down syndrome and was held back in kindergarten
  • His underdog quest to keep playing for his school garnered widespread attention
  • Father: "We're proud of the way Eric advocated for himself and kids like Eric"

(CNN) -- The 19-year-old Michigan student with Down syndrome who drew national attention for his fight to play football at his high school will be allowed to suit up his senior year, his father said Thursday.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association approved Eric Dompierre's request for a waiver to keep playing, even though he exceeds the state's official age limit, according to his father, who said he learned the news from the athletic director at Ishpeming High School.

The Dompierre family had been petitioning the school and athletic association to create a waiver process for more than 2.5 years. They were pushing to give the teen, who was held back in kindergarten because of his disability and turned 19 in January, a way around rules that banned students from participating in high school athletics if they turned 19 before September 1.

"We're proud of the way Eric advocated for himself and kids like Eric. We're very grateful for all the people, tens of thousands of people, that stepped forward," Dean Dompierre, Eric's father, told CNN.

Down syndrome athlete can keep playing

The student's underdog quest to keep playing sports in Michigan's Upper Peninsula garnered widespread attention.

An online petition on Change.org that was started on March 24 garnered more than 94,000 signatures. Yooper Shirts, a T-shirt store in Ishpeming, sold shirts that said "let 'em play."

On the football field and the basketball court, the 19-year-old has shown flashes of athletic prowess, kicking an extra point near the end of a football game several years ago and hitting a 3-point shot in the basketball playoffs to help his team maintain a comfortable lead.

In May, after the Dompierre family's lobbying, the athletic association created a new waiver process, allowing student athletes who turn 19 before September to play sports under "narrowly defined" circumstances.

Under the new waiver rule, a student "must have a defined disability documented to diminish both physical and either intellectual or emotional capabilities, does not create a health or safety risk to participants and does not create a competitive advantage for the team. The burden of proof rests with the school seeking the waiver," the association said in a statement.

The age restriction is intended to prevent the possibility of injury or competitive advantage from an older, more developed athlete playing against younger students.

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

Eric Dompierre started practicing with the football team before the waiver was accepted, in hopes that he would be cleared. The rule change and waiver acceptance means he will be allowed to play as an extra point kicker on his high school football team.

"And when football is over, he'll try out for the basketball team he's been playing on for three years," Dean Dompierre told CNN Thursday. "Thanks to all the people that signed the petition and spoke up. Without them, this couldn't have happened."

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