Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Dad battles to get son with Down syndrome back on playing field
by Shawn Windser, Detriot Free Press and Delmarvanow.com:
Until last December, nothing scared Dean Dompierre more than the thought of speaking in public. If this seems odd for a man who teaches science and social studies to fifth-graders, well, Dompierre understands. He’s equally baffled.
Still, Dompierre knew that if he were going to have any chance to convince the Michigan High School Athletic Association to change its rules to allow his son to play football during his senior year, he would have to overcome his deepest phobia.
He feared letting down his son, Eric, even more.
Eric Dompierre was born with an extra copy of chromosome 21, a genetic fluke that slows cognitive function and generally stunts physical growth. Jill and Dean Dompierre worried for their son’s future when he was born with Down syndrome 19 years ago. They never imagined that one day Eric would be driving, or working, or enjoying friendships. Or playing high school football.
Certainly the father never figured football would become so central to his son’s identity. But it did. And because Eric needed to be held back in his early years of elementary school, Dean knew his son would be too old to play his senior year — the MHSAA dictated that kids can’t participate in sports their senior year if they turn 19 before Sept. 1.
This realization sent Dompierre on a 2-year odyssey that landed him on national television and the floor of the state Legislature, that taught him to navigate social media and to wield the power of public opinion, that expanded his world from a middle school classroom tucked in an old brick schoolhouse a few minutes from Lake Superior to the home office of the statistician of the Detroit Lions.
Along the way, Dompierre and his son became local celebrities, proxies for anyone who ever tried to fight the Man. Everywhere the father turned, someone offered to help — politicians, principals, computer programmers, neighbors and fathers in communities downstate who had heard about Dompierre’s crusade and figured he was fighting for their children, too.
Two weeks ago, a 5-foot-2-inch, 125-pound senior at Ishpeming High ran onto the football field with his teammates. His father and mother were in the stands, along with his grandparents on both sides and several cousins and family friends.
Eric didn’t wave. Or nod. Or give his extended family any hint that he knew they were bunched up in the stands -- he is, after all, a teenager. His father didn’t mind, though. That he was on the field was enough.
Dean Dompierre, 48, recently began his 26th year of teaching middle school. His father, Dave Dompierre, was a teacher, too. A couple of weeks ago on a Friday afternoon, Dean Dompierre broke down photosynthesis for a roomful of fifth-graders in Ishpeming. Outside, clouds formed overhead and Dompierre cracked the windows to let the cool, damp breeze flow in.
Downstairs, in another section of the building that houses the high school and the middle school, Dompierre’s son sports his game-day jersey in study hall.
Eric fit into these halls so seamlessly that he didn’t know he had Down syndrome until the ninth grade, when his father took him into their basement sauna so they could talk. Eric was playing on the freshman football team, attempting extra points. After he made his first one, a local TV station wanted to do a human interest story.
Dompierre and his wife didn’t want to tell Eric he had a disability because they didn’t want to give him an excuse not to do something. But they agreed to do the story and decided it was time to tell Eric.
“So we are taking a sauna … and I said, ‘Have you ever heard of Down syndrome?’ He said no. I said it’s a condition where there is an extra chromosome.
“I said some people consider it a handicap. You know how sometimes for kids with Down syndrome it’s hard to catch on to things? That’s why sometimes it’s a little harder for you to catch on to things. … But once you do catch on you remember it well. You have a great memory. … That’s just the opposite of me. I can catch on to things quick, but I can’t remember them. So you and I are both in the same boat.”
Dompierre felt relief. He said his son “was cool” with the explanation. “He just kind of laughed. I had poked fun at myself in a way that he has poked fun at me.”
It was the kind of gentle distillation that serves him in the classroom, an approach he figured would help as he began correspondence with the MHSAA.
Dompierre first wrote the MHSAA in early 2010 asking for the association to grant Eric a waiver so he would be eligible to play this fall. He explained Eric’s disability, the work he’d put in to study and play sports, the confidence that sports had given him to be part of a team, the jubilation he’d experienced kicking and shooting three-pointers in front of a crowd. (Eric saw spot duty at the end of blowouts in both football and basketball.)
Two weeks later, MHSAA associate director Tom Rashid responded, telling Dompierre there were no exceptions. Aside from concerns about lawsuits, some in the association thought a few unscrupulous parents would exploit the system by holding their kids back a year to gain a competitive advantage.
Undeterred, Dompierre asked Ishpeming high school officials to forward a proposal to the MHSAA requesting that it begin allowing waivers for kids with Down syndrome. In December, the MHSAA’s representative council reviewed it and declined to send it to the state’s high schools for a vote, citing “legal and practical” reasons.
Dompierre was frustrated, but not surprised.
“I think having a cut-and-dried rule makes it easy to make decisions,” Dompierre said, “If it is black-and-white, allowing waivers and exceptions makes it grayer.”
The father quickly realized he needed more ammunition. So he wrote a second proposal, this time including copies of bylaws from other states that already allow an age-waiver for disabled kids. He found 23 states made exceptions.
Showing MHSAA’s leaders how other states did it didn’t work. The second proposal died within the representative council, too, and for the first time in almost two years, Dompierre feared he might have to tell his son his football days were done.
At least until he realized carefully worded — and polite — proposals weren’t working. He needed to generate heat. He needed to get his message directly to the schools.
He had to confront his phobia.
By playing football, Eric becomes part of a group that is exceptional — not because of who they are but because of what they do and how they carry themselves, which means trekking to a gym in the middle of winter and lifting weights, which means running until it hurts and then running some more.
“I took two days off this past year,” says RJ Poirier, a senior linebacker and one of Eric’s closest friends on the team, as he heads for the water hoses on the first two-a-day of the summer.
And so Eric doesn’t like to take days off, either. His father bought him a used Bowflex for Christmas a couple of years ago, setting it up in the basement near the free weights that Eric pumps as he throttles up his favorite rap songs or blasts AC/DC.
No matter how much he runs or inflicts pain on his muscles, he never will add much to his diminutive frame. Bulking up isn’t the point. He lifts because that is what football players do. He lifts because he must.
Dompierre felt duped when the council didn’t pass along his second proposal for a vote. He couldn’t understand why they hadn’t given council members his full proposal before the meeting, nor could he fathom why an institution charged with protecting and promoting the welfare of kids couldn’t see how well a waiver system was working in other states.
Jack Roberts, the MHSAA director, was blunt about why.
“Schools didn’t want the change,” he said. “We had surveyed this issue before.”
Dompierre, 46, doesn’t buy it.
“If they had let the schools vote two years ago, it would’ve passed easily,” he said.
He felt the MHSAA had set up the meetings to squash support.
“That didn’t sit right with me,” he said.
So he did what a lot of people his age might have done. He wrote a letter to the editor and sent it off to several newspapers in Michigan. The effort didn’t get much response.
Then last March, a TV reporter called. She’d seen the letter in a local paper. Her story of Dompierre’s crusade aired on a Thursday night. The next day it began to blow up on Facebook.
Dompierre got calls from a niece and neighbor telling him about the buzz. That Friday night, his neighbor, Angela Kiviniemi, helped him start a petition called Change.org. By Monday, their petition had 3,500 signatures.
Area news media started calling. Dompierre started talking to reporters. More signatures rolled in -- 10,000, 15,000, 20,000; ultimately 90,000.
More names on the petition meant bigger media outlets wanted in on the action. The New York Times called. Sports Illustrated. CNN. “Fox and Friends” sent a car to take him to a studio in Green Bay — about three hours away. As he rose through the news media strata, he had to develop ways to tamp down his anxiety.
For his first radio interview in the Marquette area, the station told him he could write down his own questions. He spent hours filling out recipe-sized cards, as if preparing to explain a lesson to his class. He read them, practiced answering them.
“I couldn’t sleep for a week,” he said.
But he got through the interview. With each successive one, he prepared meticulously. He lost 10 pounds as the story gained traction last spring.
“Just remember,” his father, Dave Dompierre, told him, concerned about the weight loss, “you are the one that knows more about this thing than anyone else.”
Slowly, Dompierre began to relax, so that when offers of help rolled in, he welcomed them. Willy Mena is the Lions’ official stat keeper and works with the Novi High School football varsity team, too. He heard about Dompierre’s story and offered his computer skills by designing the website “Let em Play,” the clearinghouse where supporters could read news releases, sign petitions and buy T-shirts that Dompierre had made up with the “Let em play” slogan.
The blitz worked. By this past summer, Dompierre and his son found themselves testifying on the floor of the state Legislature, before a joint session with the Senate and House of Representatives. Both houses unanimously passed a resolution calling for the MHSAA to amend its bylaws for the age waiver.
“I never imagined I would be capable of doing something like that,” Dompierre said.
Although Roberts said he wouldn’t be swayed by politics, he admitted that he and his members worried about legislation that could supersede its own constitution.
“That was an unpleasant experience,” Roberts said. “We were sure painted as a backward organization, even though our rule was with the majority of states.”
The attention put pressure on the representative council to send the proposal for a vote. In May, the proposal was passed by 94 percent of the 701 member schools that cast ballots.
When asked what he would enjoy most about playing his senior year, Eric said, “Having people watch me kicking extra points.”
Eric also loves eating burgers on the bus rides home from away games, giving his jersey to a girl to wear on Fridays, listening to the thumping music in a winning locker room. These are the details that his father thought of as he pursued the rule change, as he wrote the next letter, made the next phone call, sacrificed the next evening after dinner as he researched the high school athletic bylaws of 49 other states.
He also thought about disabled kids around the state who would benefit, too. Eric officially received the waiver Aug. 9, three days after practice started. But he wasn’t the only student to get a waiver.
A couple of weeks ago, Dompierre got an email from Nancy Boudreau, mother of Elena Boudreau, and the assistant girls cross-country and track coach at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor.
“I would like to say thank you so much for all of your efforts getting this issue passed by the MHSAA,” she wrote, adding, “Without your efforts, Elena’s dream would not be possible.”
Boudreau had adopted her daughter from an orphanage in Romania when Elena was 6. She weighed 32 pounds at the time. She’d been badly abused, suffered neurological damage in her leg and was brain damaged.
When her mother brought her back to Ann Arbor, she realized Elena couldn’t identify colors or recognize shapes. She was so used to neglect that she didn’t cry when she got hurt — it never did any good. As Boudreau transitioned her daughter into American schools, she needed extra help and was held back.
Even now, as a 19-year-old senior, she has trouble learning and runs with a slight limp. Like football for Eric, running is part of how Elena sees herself. Until a month ago, she thought she wouldn’t be able to do it again in high school.
Yet on Tuesday in Temperance, there she was at a meet, running the 5K, striding across the grass toward the finish line — after 22 minutes and 40 seconds of pain and struggle — gasping for air, and smiling.
Back in Ishpeming, a week and a few days earlier, Eric and his teammates are beating Calumet, 23-6, for their third victory of the season. Coach Olson gathers the team in the end zone to talk about the game before telling them to have fun but be responsible. The kids sprint toward the field house, and Eric leads the way.
Half an hour later he and several teammates stride through the back door of Congress Pizza, a sports bar and hangout downtown where players inhabit the front section while parents drink beer and gather in the back.
On some nights, the players are showered with applause as they cut through the kitchen and make their way to their tables. Tonight is low-key. Dompierre and his wife, Jill, and his parents cram into a booth. Eric has found a spot up front, grinning, laughing, surrounded by girls.
“Look at him,” says Poirier, the teammate and friend who enjoys ribbing Eric, “look at all those girls swarming over him, all because he made an extra point.”
And the laughter continues.