Family Matters

Down Syndrome Goes Viral, Thanks to a High School Touchdown

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courtesy YouTube

Recently, a Canadian couple insisted their surrogate have an abortion after learning that the fetus she was carrying had Down syndrome. Mired as they were in talk of bioethics and contract law, it’s doubtful that the parties had time to fully  consider the nitty-gritty of actually raising a child with Down syndrome. In the 17 years Kay and Steve Ditzenberger have spent parenting Ike, their son with Downs, they’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the challenges.

It’s safe to say when Ike was born, there was little reason to think he’d be famous one day. Yet this week, the Ditzenbergers are awaiting a movie contract from Aegis, a Hollywood production company, and they’re fielding calls from reporters far and wide. The occasion? Ike, a junior at Snohomish High School near Seattle, scored a triumphant touchdown in a Friday night varsity football game last month. His zig-zag offensive play — and subsequent victory jig — was captured on a video that’s attracted more than 2 million views on YouTube. (More on Video: For the Disabled, a Day at the Beach)

The Ditzenbergers have tried to mainstream Ike as much as possible. So three years ago, when they moved to Snohomish, Ike’s parents asked coach Mark Perry if Ike could play football.

Perry, a math teacher at the high school, poked Ike — whom Perry describes as a “short, squatty little guy” — in the stomach and said, “You can play for me for the next four years, but you’re going to have to lose some weight.”

Ike’s still a portly fellow, but now that he’s in his third season, he knows all the drills. He’s not treated differently from the other players, except when he is,  like when the team runs the “Ike Special:” Ike enters a practice match playing fullback, the quarterback hands the ball to him and he runs for a touchdown as his teammates pretend to block him but really just stand aside.

Of course, it’s one thing to have your own team play along; it’s quite another when an opponent decides to set the score aside and let a boy with Down syndrome do his thing.

That’s what happened Sept. 24, when Snohomish High was down 35-0 in a match against Lake Stevens. Any time the team is winning — or losing, in this case — by a lot, it subs in its less experienced players. On that night, Perry put Ike in the game and told the Lake Stevens players it would be great if they’d let him run 10 or 20 yards before tackling him. The players gave Perry a thumbs-up. “We get it, Coach,” they said. (More on 5 Pregnancy Taboos Explained (or Debunked))

Clasping the pigskin, Ike began to run, and the opposing team just let him go. He scored. He danced the traditional touchdown dance, and the crowd went nuts.

“I’m not surprised by it at all,” says Perry of the opposing team’s complicity in allowing Ike to score. “But there are people all over the world who are. People have left us messages, saying what a touching thing.” Having a player with a disability on the team has taught the players about humanity. It has helped Ike, but it has helped his typically developing teammates even more.  “In your lifetime,” Perry has told them, “you may be the father of a special-needs kid.”

Indeed, Kay Ditzenberger had not anticipated she would be the mother of one. When Ike was born — the third of three boys — she told his pediatrician she didn’t know what to do with him. His advice: Just take him home and treat him like the other boys.

So she has, as much as she could. But in doing so, she has worried — as any parent of a special-needs child inevitably does — about how he’d be received. Would he be quietly ignored or pulled in as an active participant? Embraced or ridiculed? “You can push a child with special needs into an environment,” she says, “but whether they will be included and accepted is the question.”

Some venues have been less welcoming than others. Parents on a soccer team he joined wanted Ike assessed to make sure he wouldn’t hurt other players. Other coaches have not been willing to expend the energy to incorporate someone like Ike into the fabric of a team.

Perry, not one to sugarcoat things, says Ike can be tough to train. “Is he difficult? You bet he is. He can be a pain in the butt. But he dropped off a 5 x 7 framed picture of his touchdown run that says, I love you, Coach. He keeps me well-grounded.”

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