The Snohomish Panthers' football practice is almost over, and the question on everyone's mind is: Where is Ike?
“Get out here, Ike!” hollers Mark Perry, Snohomish High School's head coach.
After a few moments, 5-foot-5, 150-pound Ike Ditzenberger emerges from the tunnel near the locker rooms. The 16-year-old sophomore, wearing pads and a helmet, shuffles to the huddle.
It's Ike's turn to shine.
Living to play football
Like other hopeful young athletes, Isaac “Ike” Ditzenberger wants to play college football.
Ike has other dreams too. He wants to get married, get a black pickup truck and be like his oldest brother, a wide receiver who has played in college.
The fact that Ike has Down syndrome, a genetic condition that causes mental and physical disabilities, doesn't stifle his aspirations a bit.
Since he was an eighth-grader growing up in Woodinville, Ike has lived to play football.
“You tell him, ‘You get out there and you work hard, (then) you can do whatever you want to do. If you want to play college football, that's up to you,'” said Kay Ditzenberger, Ike's mother. “He knows there's something waiting for him at the end.”
Ike lines up at the fullback position, crouches slightly and scans his surroundings.
Quick look left. Quick look right.
Ike adjusts the facemask on his white helmet. Here comes his play. When he gets the ball, there is one mission: Get to the end zone.
‘Got to lose that gut'
The Ditzenbergers — Kay, her husband, Steve, and their sons Josh, Jake and Ike — moved from Woodinville to Snohomish two summers ago.
They immediately felt accepted and content, said Kay Ditzenberger. “We found that this is prototypical small America, It's awesome.”
By that time, Josh, a 2007 Woodinville High graduate who was a starting wide receiver for the Falcons, was in college. Jake and Ike prepared for their junior and freshman years at Snohomish High. The boys' parents felt Ike would get quality educators in the school district, but their priority was football.
Like other Down syndrome kids, Ike had trouble making friends — until he played sports, especially football. It gave him structure and social connections.
“The routine is important, the camaraderie,” Ike's father said.
So soon after the Ditzenbergers moved to Snohomish, Ike and his parents went to the high school and met the head football coach. They explained Ike's desire to play.
“Young man, you can be on my team for the next four years,” coach Perry said. “But you've got to lose that gut.”
Perry's welcoming attitude — and sense of humor — delighted the Ditzenbergers. The coach has “a really generous heart. He sets the tone for the whole team,” Kay Ditzenberger said. “They see him embracing Ike and treating him with respect and then they do the same thing.”
Dozens of players shout in anticipation of the play called the Ike Special:. “Let's go Ike! C'mon Ike!”
Ike is ready, so the quarterback hollers “Go!” and takes the snap. The QB quickly turns to his right, where Ike eagerly awaits the handoff.
It's a smooth transfer. Ike cradles the ball in his right arm and runs forward. Glory — the end zone — is 20 yards away. Ike sees a pack of defenders. Can they stop him?
Being a fan wasn't enough
Football is one of many sports Ike has tried. He's also done wrestling, basketball, track, soccer and horseback riding.
But for Ike, football has no equal. His passion blossomed when he watched his oldest brother play for Woodinville.
After playing soccer for 10 years, Josh Ditzenberger switched to football. He made Woodinville's varsity team as a junior and became a starting receiver who later earned a chance to play in college.
At Woodinville, Ike was at every one of Josh's games.
“He'd wear an old Seahawks (youth) helmet — we painted it green with a ‘W' on the side. He was always decked out in green and white,” Josh said.
But being a fan wasn't enough for Ike. “He kind of wanted to get out there and do it himself (after) seeing big brother doing it,” said Josh, a Central Washington University transfer student who is redshirting and hopes to play for the Wildcats next year.
Jake, the middle brother, also got into football. He's a senior wide receiver/defensive back on Snohomish's varsity team. Ike plays on the junior-varsity squad but practices with the varsity and soaks up the daily interactions.
Down syndrome kids “don't learn by what they hear; they learn by what they see,” Ike's mother said. “So he's a real imitator. For him to be able to watch and learn by doing, and to be like his older brothers, is a really big deal.”
Beyond the first wave of defenders, Ike sees an opening and cuts left. A touchdown is possible, but there's lots of work left.
Rain drops smack Ike's helmet as he evades more pursuers. He can see the goal line now.
Just a bit farther. The last 5 yards will be the most difficult.
‘Treat him like the other boys'
Ike gets in for a few plays per game with the Snohomish JV, usually when the Panthers are either winning by a lot or losing decisively.
After Ike's coach explains the situation to the opposing team, Ike jogs onto the field. Snohomish fans cheer wildly. Teammates help Ike line up in the right spot, sometimes at receiver.
The plays are designed to go away from Ike — he doesn't know how to defend himself, his parents said — but Ike is focused regardless.
Sometimes Ike gets knocked around, just like any other player. During a freshman team game last year, Ike was at defensive end. An opponent, unaware of Ike's Down syndrome, fired off the line and “just clocked him,” said Ike's dad, Steve Ditzenberger. “Isaac flew back about 6 feet and his eyes must have been like that big (using his hands to simulate cartoonishly huge eyes). He just got right up.”
Ike's parents don't want him to get hurt. But, to a degree, they want him to get a full football experience.
“We don't want to protect him from life,” Ike's mother said.
When Kay Ditzenberger gave birth to Ike, a doctor — who noticed the newborn had Down syndrome features — approached her and shared some influential advice.
“You just take this boy home,” the doctor said, “and treat him like all the other boys.”
The Ditzenbergers have done that. Ike's parents expect the same from all of their sons: Do your homework, be polite, be on time, help around the house.
“He does it, just like everybody else,” Kay Ditzenberger said. “And he complains like everybody else.”
Mere feet from his goal, disaster strikes.
Legs churning, Ike nearly reaches the end zone but at the last second a defender falls in his path. Ike doesn't see it in time, falls forward and crashes to the turf.
It's OK. The offense lines up again. This time, Ike won't be denied.
The Ike Special
Snohomish players and coaches genuinely appreciate Ike. You see it at practice, when they cheer loudly after he caps a TD run with an elaborate, grin-inducing celebration dance.
“He's someone that everybody can kind of enjoy because he has such a great personality and character,” Snohomish senior captain Keith Wigney said.
Some days Ike gets tired or bored. Keeping his attention can be a challenge, coach Perry said.
“But I make him a deal. ‘If you keep your shoulder pads on and your mouth piece in, you're going to get a play,'” Perry said.
That play, the Ike Special, is Snohomish's final offensive snap at each practice. Besides being a thrill for Ike, it means a lot to his family.
“The guys are just really great,” Ike's dad said. “They lunge for him. They dive for him. He heads for the end zone. They make a big deal out of it.”
“It's awesome to see,” said Ike's brother Josh. “Everyone's cheering for him and the defense is kind of diving at him and missing him. He comes back to the huddle with a huge smile on his face.”
The Ditzenbergers savor every happy moment. They have been through difficult times. In addition to the challenges of raising Ike, both Ike and his brother Jake have diabetes. But the most emotional, draining hardship was middle son Jake Ditzenberger's battle with cancer.
As a 7-year-old in the first grade, Jake was diagnosed with a type of lymphoma. He underwent chemotherapy and finally ended treatment on Valentine's Day 2000. In 2005, following periodic scans, Jake received a clean bill of health.
With the family going through so much, football became its passion. They all got involved at Snohomish. In addition to Ike and Jake playing, their dad is on the chain crew at home games and mom cheers in the stands. Oldest brother Josh was a volunteer assistant coach before he left for college.
For the Ditzenbergers, football is more than a fun sport.
“The minute that a kid is diagnosed with cancer or diabetes, the cloudless futures go away,” Kay Ditzenberger said, “and you realize how important (every) minute is. Friday night football is very important because we're all together, and you don't know if you've got next Friday night or not.”
Stopped short of the end zone on his first try, Ike will try again.
The ball is snapped. Ike takes it from the quarterback and plows through the middle for 2 yards. Touchdown!
Ike spins, raises the ball with his left hand and high-fives teammates with his right.
Minutes later, Ike answers questions outside the locker room. Asked why he likes football, Ike said, “Fun,” and “Challenge.”
Then he smiles. He sees a familiar man approaching. “Coach!” Ike yells.
It's coach Perry, who grins and lets out a hearty chuckle.
Mike Cane: email@example.com. Check out the prep sports blog Double Team at www.heraldnet.com/doubleteam.
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