Michigan considers age-limit rule

Eric Dompierre is just like any other teenager. He has a jump shot that is smooth and true, spends countless hours on Facebook and holds a job at the local golf course, where he cleans clubs and picks up balls on the range.

But in many ways, Eric Dompierre is nothing like most teenagers. He has Down syndrome, a disability that often turns simple tasks into challenges. And he just might go down as the teen who changed Michigan's long-standing rule on age limits in high school sports.

"I really want the people to vote to change the rule," Dompierre recently said. "I want to play again for my last year in high school so I can have great memories with my friends."

Dompierre, who is heading into his senior year at Ishpeming High School on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, is a two-sport athlete. During his junior year, he kicked extra points for the varsity football team and was a backup guard on the varsity basketball team. He gets into games once the outcome has been all but decided. But his propensity to split the uprights and nail 3-pointers has become a source of pride for Ishpeming's legions of loyal fans.

Dompierre wants to play sports during his senior year. His teammates, coaches and family support him. But the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA), which governs sports in public high schools throughout the state, has a clear and simple rule that is standing in Dompierre's way: No student who turns 19 before Sept. 1 shall be eligible to play high school sports. No exceptions.

Dompierre turned 19 in January, making him ineligible. (He was twice held back because of his disability, after kindergarten and first grade.) But all hope isn't lost. A vote is currently being considered that could change everything for him.

"It would be a huge relief to see the rule changed, and not just because I've been working on it for so long," Dean Dompierre, Eric's father, said Thursday. "It would help kids in the future that would have been excluded. Kids like Eric."

The current rule, which, according to the MHSAA, has been in effect for 33 years, never sat well with Dean. Two years ago, he initiated a proposal to have it amended in a way that would allow students with Down syndrome to play sports even if they had turned 19 before Sept. 1. But the MHSAA's 19-member representative council declined to send the proposal to its 1,536 member schools for a vote. Undeterred, Dean last year initiated a broader proposal, targeting students with any disability. That, too, was rejected by the council, which indicated that member schools didn't see a need for change.

The father and son didn't stop there. On May 2, they took their fight to the Michigan Senate, attracting national headlines. During an Education Committee hearing sponsored by state Sen. Tom Casperson, Eric read from a prepared statement, explaining how sports have always made him feel like one of the guys.

"I didn't do anything wrong," Eric said. "I shouldn't have to sit out." He added that 23 other states currently have rules that would allow him to play.

The Michigan Senate and the Michigan House of Representatives were moved by Eric's words. Democratic and Republican leaders came together, jointly asking the MHSAA to change its age-eligibility policy to permit students with disabilities to play sports in their senior season.

"Eric [bridged] the philosophical and political differences that all too often keep us from working together towards the common good," Casperson said. "It's a lesson legislators would do well to remember each and every day."

On May 9, the MHSAA representative council reversed course, sending a proposal to amend the rule to its member schools and asking them to vote on it. The proposal would allow for exceptions to be considered in cases where the safety of players and the competitive balance of games wouldn't be compromised, paving the way for Eric and other students with disabilities -- as defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act and/or the Persons With Disabilities Civil Rights Act -- to compete in sports provided they don't exceed 20 before Sept. 1.

Ballots must be postmarked by May 25, with the result being announced as early as May 30. The amendment needs a two-thirds majority to be passed.

When asked by a reporter on Thursday why the MHSAA was embracing change after two years of inaction, the association's executive director, John Roberts, declined comment through a spokesman.

"It's been kind of discouraging," Eric's mother, Jill Dompierre, said when asked about the two-year battle her family has waged. She then turned optimistic, stressing how much a rule amendment would mean to her son. "When you see him out on the court during practice, warm-ups before the game, he's just looking around to see who's watching him and kind of puffs up his chest. He's just very proud to be a part of it all."

Whether Eric continues to be a part of it remains to be seen. For now, he has no choice but to wait a few more days. And practice. He's been spending much of his time in the Dompierre family's basement, nicknamed "Eric's Man Cave." It's equipped with a stereo system, a television and a Bowflex machine. When Eric was 5 years old, Dean set up a makeshift basketball hoop for Eric to practice on. A few years later, Dean added a net for practicing extra points.

With the start of football practice about three months away, Eric has been diligently working on extra points. Asked recently what he likes best about football, he said: "Kicking because I can practice on the sidelines, so when I am out there I can possibly make one."

He then added one more thing he likes about the game: "Hanging in the locker room listening to rap music."

Just like any other teen.