ISHPEMING - Asked what his favorite subject is in high school, Ishpeming High School junior Eric Dompierre wasn't sure what to answer.
Sensing his indecision, this reporter asked, "Or is it getting out of school every day?"
To that question came a vigorous nod of his head - much like any other high school student in the area would honestly answer.
Eric Dompierre, right, shoots a free throw under the watchful eye of, from left, Ishpeming varsity basketball teammates Tyrus Millimaki, Alex Briones and Jordan Windahl, and Eric's father Dean Dompierre, in the Hematites gym on Thursday afternoon. (Journal photo by Steve Brownlee)
Dompierre has become the center of a controversy - really a movement - that has picked up loads of momentum in the past few weeks.
It's a fight that would simply allow Dompierre to play on the Hematites varsity football and basketball teams when he becomes a senior in the next school year.
Right now he can't, since he's 19 years old.
But after two years of work behind the scenes, his father has helped spearhead a campaign that has caught a lot of people's attention both in the west end and online communities.
You see, Dompierre is a teenager with Down syndrome, something that slowed his physical and intellectual development to a mild degree.
Parents Dean and Jill Dompierre had him spend two extra years in elementary school to prepare him for later grades, and the move has worked wonders.
He splits his time between special education and regular classes. In fact, when he finished back-to-back television and newspaper interviews on Thursday afternoon, he had a thick textbook with the bold title "Economics" waiting atop his coat as he left the IHS gym.
Homework is a high school student's constant companion.
But the extra preparation in his early years means he is older than the average high school student, affecting his sports eligibility as outlined by the Michigan High School Athletic Association.
Made up of most public and private school districts in the state, the MHSAA has a rule stating that a student is ineligible if he or she is already age 19 on Sept. 1 of that school year.
He answered a simple "yes" when asked if he still would want to be around the Ishpeming teams next year if he wasn't allowed to play with them.
Like as a manager, or maybe assistant coach? The assistant coach part elicited a big laugh from Eric, but he agreed that being a manager would be just fine with him.
Dompierre isn't a star on either the varsity football or basketball squad, but like any other player who doesn't see a lot of time in games, he is just as integral a part of those teams as a talented quarterback or point guard.
He's attempted an extra point or two in football, and he's played in the last minute or two of several basketball games that weren't close on the scoreboard.
And his father - and the more than 110,000 others who have signed an online petition - would like to see him be able to continue through the end of his senior year.
Dompierre was enough of an inspiration to be named one of the recipients of the Gil Heard Courageous Athlete Award at the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association basketball meeting last week ago in Escanaba.
The award is presented to U.P. athletes who demonstrate perseverance in overcoming barriers to their participation in athletics and is named after the late Gil Heard, who was Northern Michigan University sports information director for 23 years and is enshrined in the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame.
Eric isn't oblivious to what's going on, and said that he'd like to play again next year.
But he isn't letting it rule his days, either.
"Eric, he knows how to put a smile on your face," said senior starting center Jordan Windahl.
"Eric is a real bright kid, and he's always fun to be around," said his varsity basketball coach, Bob Salisbury, who coincidentally moved from head JV coach to head varsity coach this past season just as Eric moved from the JV to varsity team. "He's always got a smile on his face, and he fits in great with his classmates.
"Eric's been great for the team - when he gets in games when the team or the fans might be losing interest if the score isn't close - everybody is rooting for him. Not just our fans, but the fans from the other team, too."
And while he may not be a sharpshooter, he made a basket in the Hematites' only district tournament game this season, a loss to Negaunee in early March.
"And last year on the JV level, he got in late in a game against Westwood and he hit three 3-pointers in a row," Salisbury said. "The place went nuts when he did that.
"It's so neat to see and be a part of. It's probably something I'll never to get to top."
Salisbury added that Dompierre is something of an ambassador for the basketball Hematites when they're on the road, talking to fans from the other team before they change into their uniforms.
"He'll talk to just about anyone," Salisbury said.
His father said that just like any teenager, he's a crack expert on a computer.
"I really like Facebook," Eric said. Asked for more specifics, he added, "Adding people, messaging them and posting stuff."
And yes, part of it is getting to know girls, too.
"Girls in school, in Negaunee, in Iron Mountain, and in college," he rattled off a list of the girls he's friends with.
Finally, has he thought about life after high school?
"I like to work with people," he said. "I want to live on my own and have a job."
Not unlike any other junior in high school is thinking.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.