MARQUETTE - In discussing high-scoring players in the history of Ishpeming High School varsity football, Eric Dompierre's name will likely never come up, but the 19-year-old senior with Down syndrome has achieved something for Hematite football that can't be measured by points on a scoreboard.
Dompierre and his teammates exemplified what Hematite football is all about - perseverance, courage and strength in the face of adversity - bringing home a Michigan High School Athletic Association state championship for only the third time in the district's history, this year in Division 7.
And as the football team begins to come down from the high of Saturday's championship win against the heavily-favored Detroit Loyola Bulldogs, Sports Illustrated has announced that Dompierre's episode of its online video series "Underdogs" is the winner of a $25,000 online voting contest, with the grant going to the Ishpeming Public Schools athletic department.
Ishpeming High School senior and varsity football kicker Eric Dompierre celebrates a win with his team after the Michigan High School Athletic Association Division 7 state semifinal game at the Superior Dome Nov. 17. Dompierre’s story of overcoming adversity was highlighted in the Sports Illustrated online video series, “Underdogs.” SI announced Tuesday that the Ishpeming episode won an online voting contest, earning $25,000 for Ishpeming Public Schools and a trip for the Hematites to attend SI’s annual “Sportsman of the Year” award event. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
"That's just a great reward for these kids. They're great kids. They're always trying to do the right thing and be great kids for the community. This is just another feather in their cap," said Ishpeming football head coach Jeff Olson. "This team is like a family. They're family to me, but they're also family to each other. It shows that if you really care about something, you care about each other, you work hard at it, good things will happen."
The roughly seven-minute episode centers around the Dompierres' two-and-a-half-year struggle to change an MHSAA age restriction rule that would have prevented Eric Dompierre from playing sports his senior year.
Titled "Heart of the Team," the episode showcases Eric Dompierre, his parents, Olson and two other players, R.J. Poirier and Hunter Wirtanen, as they talk about what having Eric Dompierre play means to the team.
The winning episode also earned an all-expense-paid trip for 10 players on the featured team to New York City to attend SI's "Sportsman of the Year" event.
But it was simply too difficult to make that 10-player cut-off - because if the Ishpeming varsity football team only learned one thing from this exemplary season, it would be the true value of teamwork.
"Instead of flying 10 kids out there, (Sports Illustrated is) going to take that airfare and we're going to charter a bus so the whole team can go," said Dean Dompierre, Eric's father, Tuesday afternoon. "Only 10 will be going to the 'Sportsman of the Year' ceremony, because it's kind of a smaller affair, but the rest of the team will get to spend time in New York, doing whatever they want to do together."
The Ishpeming varsity football team overcame a lot in their championship season, including the recent deaths of two fellow Hematites - one of whom was the son of the team's head coach - and the fear that the team's senior kicker would be prevented from taking the field.
"There's been a lot of adversity and these kids had to grow up quickly," Olson said. "They really treated each of those adversities like adults. That really helped them throughout the season in some of these close games. They didn't put their heads down. They didn't quit early. They just kept pushing. They've dealt with some things that tell them life isn't fair ... that's the big thing for this year and these kids really learned a lot."
Sports Illustrated asked the series' viewers to vote for their favorite "Underdogs" episode and Eric Dompierre's episode, the fifth installment in the 10-part series, was officially declared the winner Tuesday.
"The year as a whole has been quite remarkable," said Dean Dompierre. "Sometimes, it's been remarkable in a negative way, or a sad way, and other times it's been remarkable in a good way, but overall, it's been quite a ride ... We really want to thank everybody, not just in the U.P. but really all across Michigan and the country who went to bat for us, not only during our 'Let 'em Play' campaign, but also during this contest to help us come out on top."
It's the perfect ending to a storybook season for the varsity football team, and Olson said he hopes to carry on the tradition so embraced by this year's varsity Hematites.
"It'll be hard-pressed to do it, but that's the goal, that's what you work for all the time," Olson said. "You try to be good people first off the field, and then you can be good people on the field. That's what we try to stress."
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.