It's been a banner season for Michigan's Ishpeming High. First, the school from the state's Upper Peninsula learned that senior kicker Eric Dompierre, who has Down syndrome and turned 19 before the season, was granted a waiver to allow him to play. Then, last Saturday, Ishpeming capped one of the best seasons in school history by overcoming the odds to win the Division 7 state championship.
Along the way, Dompierre's story captivated the nation, and on Tuesday Sports Illustrated announced Ishpeming as the winner of its Underdogs program highlighting the most inspiring stories in high school football. Fans picked the winner among 10 schools and Ishpeming got the most votes. Ishpeming will receive $25,000 from Powerade, the program's presenting sponsor, and a trip to New York City next week for the Sportsman of the Year ceremony.
This season's run to the state title was equally as inspiring. Ishpeming High advanced to the state championship game against Detroit Loyola, a team that had defeated its first four postseason opponents by a combined score of 172-27. Ishpeming had won its semifinal game 8-7. Loyola features several star players, including one who has received more than 10 Division I offers. Ishpeming's fans had to travel eight hours to the game and one of its buses had to be pulled across a bridge through a blizzard.
Since the team last appeared at Ford Fieldtwo years ago, both Daniel Olson, the coach's son, and Derrick Briones, the brother of Ishpeming's starting quarterback, died (Daniel in July and Derrick in 2011). Coach Jeff Olson considered taking the year off of coaching after Daniel passed away.
"He's one special person," says Ishpeming athletic director Terry Roberts of Olson. "For what he's done for the school considering the personal tragedy he had this summer is unbelievable. He wasn't sure if he was going to coach this year or not, but on the first day of practice he realized that is where he needed to be."
In the offseason, the community bonded together to fight for Dompierre to gain a waiver to play (in Michigan you aren't allowed to play sports if you turn 19 after Sept. 1). After a prolonged legal battle with the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA), which entailed countless petitions and signatures and a seven-hour trip to Lansing, Eric was finally ruled eligible to play his senior season.
"The town has really behind this team and behind our efforts for Eric to play these last few years," said Eric's father, Dean Dompierre. "We needed signatures. We needed letters written and the town not only recruited other people from the state, but people around the country."
Even principal Vicki Lempinen knew the significance of Eric to the team.
"I wish I had 100 students like Eric," she says. "He's the person you want to be around because he is an exceptional individual."
Dompierre kicked a handful of extra points and even scored a touchdown in a 53-14 win over Gwinn (Mich.) as Ishpeming finished the season 13-1.
Despite the difficult adventure to Detroit, Ishpeming fans packed their section at Ford Field. One sign read "Do it for Daniel and Derrick" with pictures of the late former players.
And somehow they did it.
Though the coach had lost his son in July and the team had to cope with possibly losing a team leader in Dompierre, Ishpeming beat heavily favored Detroit Jesuit to win the state title.
The roller coaster came to an exhilarating end and the team returned home champions.
"I'll tell you," said Roberts. "The ride back home didn't feel nearly as long."