Underdog on top: Player with Down Syndrome wins Ishpeming team $25,000 and a trip to New York
The Ishpeming High School football team, which capped an improbable run by winning the Division 7 state championship last weekend, isn't headed to Disney World.
Instead, the team is headed to New York City for the annual Sports Illustrated Sporstman of the Year ceremony.
The Hematites wouldn't be heading there without Eric Dompierre, a 19-year-old kicker with Down Syndrome who was almost kept off this year's team due to age limits set by the Michigan High School Athletic Association.
His father fought the inflexible rule all summer, and in August, the MHSAA finally approved a waiver allowing Eric to play this season as an extra-point specialist.
Sports Illustrated documented his inspirational story -- from the off-field drama to on-field bonds with teammates -- for its annual "underdogs" contest, allowing viewers to vote for his or other stories online.
Earlier this month, just days before they won a state championship, Ishpeming won the magazine contest, earning a trip to New York and a $25,000 grant.
Instead of flying 10 players to the December 5 awards ceremony, as originally planned, Sports Illustrated reportedly agreed to pay for a charter bus from the Upper Peninsula to New York so that the whole team can travel, and local boosters are raising additional funds for the full-team trip.
"The town has really behind this team and behind our efforts for Eric to play these last few years," Dean Dompierre told SI. "We needed signatures. We needed letters written and the town not only recruited other people from the state, but people around the country."
Eric's age-waiver wasn't the only adversity that the Hematites faced en route to their championship. Coach Jeff Olson lost his son to suicide over the summer, and the brother of starting quarterback Alex Briones died last year.
But Ishpeming overcame those hardships -- not to mention a size mismatch -- to defeate Detroit Loyola in the state championship. So much for "underdogs."