I Like Ike

  • Sun Oct 10th, 2010 9:42pm
  • Sports

By Mike Cane Herald Writer

Like most people, I can’t resist an inspiring sports story.

Whether or not you are an avid sports fan, it’s natural to appreciate a heartwarming, true account of a competitor — maybe a particularly unlikely hero — who overcomes daunting challenges and eventually tastes success. Those stories are powerful and almost universally embraced.

One of my favorite examples is incredibly talented author Michael Lewis’ book “The Blind Side,” which chronicled the inspiring rise of once-homeless football player Michael Oher. Now a starting offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, Oher became a household name last year when the movie based on Lewis’ excellent book hit theaters.

Another remarkable, unforgettable story is that of Team Hoyt. The father-son duo has competed together in more than 1,000 races, including marathons and ridiculously grueling Ironman competitions.

Here is the truly amazing part: The son, Rick Hoyt, is a quadriplegic — his arms and legs are paralyzed — and he has cerebral palsy. At Ironman triathlons, Rick sat in a small boat and Rick’s dad, Dick Hoyt, pulled his son during the 2.4-mile swimming stage. Then Dick pedaled while Rick rode in a seat on the front of the bike throughout the 112-mile biking stage. Finally, Dick ran while also pushing his son, who was strapped into a running chair, in the 26.2-mile running stage.

In 1977, 11 years before they attempted an Ironman race, Rick and his dad did their first event together, a 5-mile benefit run. Rick sat in his wheelchair and Dick pushed him. Afterward, according to the Team Hoyt website, Rick said, “Dad, when I’m running, it feels like I’m not handicapped.”

Rick Hoyt’s comment makes me think of Ike Ditzenberger, the Snohomish High School student who received nationwide attention for his 51-yard touchdown run at the end of Snohomish’s varsity football game against Lake Stevens High on Sept. 24. When Ike — who has Down syndrome — plays football, he feels normal. He feels accepted. He is one of the guys.

Ike’s coach, Mark Perry, put Ike in the Snohomish-Lake Stevens game with 10 seconds to play in the fourth quarter. Thanks to a classy group of Lake Stevens defenders, Ike was allowed to ramble all the way into the end zone. He scored Snohomish’s only points in a 35-6 loss.

Ike’s run and joyous celebration — and Lake Stevens’ impressive sportsmanship — touched people not only in Snohomish County but throughout the world. I am blown away by how much attention the play received. In addition to sparking numerous TV, radio and web reports, Ike’s first varsity TD run was a YouTube hit.

As of Friday, one 45-second video clip of Ike’s run had been viewed more than 2.3 million times. It generated 1,250-plus comments and received more than 1,000 “likes.”

Sadly, there are detractors — not many, but they’re out there. Based on some negative YouTube comments, two kinds of people, it seems, disliked Ike’s wonderful run:

1. Cruel jerks who anonymously post hateful, venomous remarks online just to get a reaction, even when the target of their repulsive attacks is a 17-year-old special-needs student-athlete.

2. Contemplative but misguided observers who firmly believe celebrating Ike’s TD run is wrong and patronizing. The play was a flat-out lie, they warned, and he didn’t earn it.

To those critics, I say: Wake up! You are missing the point!

If Ike’s exuberant celebration dance and his exploding-with-joy smile don’t fully convince you his TD run was the best moment of his life, ask people who know best: His parents.

Ike’s life drastically improved when the Ditzenbergers moved from Woodinville to Snohomish a few years ago, said Kay Ditzenberger, Ike’s mom. Ike’s coaches, teammates and teachers genuinely care about him.

It goes way beyond football. Sometimes when Ike and his parents ride around town in their car, locals recognize Ike and chant his name. The caring community is “prototypical small America,” Kay Ditzenberger said, and Snohomish enthusiastically adopted Ike as one of its own.

The town’s palpable affection surged to a new high when Ike scored his touchdown. Ike loved every second of it. Ike’s mom said she has never seen her son so happy and so confident.

On YouTube, Ike’s dad addressed naysayers with a classy, thoughtful response.

“Both teams (Snohomish and Lake Stevens) and coaches were (allowing) the simple act of tolerance in a sport called football,” Steve Ditzenberger wrote. “Is Ike a special needs kid? Yes but every kid out on the field has a special need.”

“Ike scored a touchdown,” Ike’s dad added, “only because of the simple act of true sportsmanship and tolerance by the (Lake Stevens) players and coaches. They showed the world that we all need to be more tolerant and inclusive REGARDLESS. These kids raised the bar for all of us.”

I received similar comments via e-mail from parents and even grandparents of special-needs children. They were unanimously thrilled about Ike’s TD.

Mountlake Terrace High wrestling coach Kanoe Vierra’s 24-year-old son, Kris, has Down syndrome. Kris — who wrestled for College Place Middle School and later worked out with Mountlake Terrace wrestlers — loved watching the video of Ike’s run, Vierra said.

“Kris feels that he was lucky to have been involved with athletics,” Vierra said. “As a wrestling coach it has been wonderful to see more and more developmentally disabled students participating in football, wrestling, tennis and other varsity level sports. My hat goes off to Coach Perry and the Panthers football team for allowing Ike to participate in football.”

Tom Deshefy of Oakdale, Conn., also e-mailed me. Deshefy’s 7-year-old grandson has Down syndrome.

“It brought tears to my eyes that everyone had the compassion to help Ike reach a goal like that,” wrote Deshefy. “Our grandson, Colby, loves basketball, swimming, and soccer. Making a basket brings a huge smile to his face and he yells, ‘I did it!’

“He has brought so much joy to our lives with his innocence and non-judgmental ways. He has taught us all a lot about what’s important in life.”

That’s why millions of people embraced Ike. We live in an uncertain, frightening time. Many of us are losing jobs, losing homes, losing loved ones in seemingly endless wars … and losing faith.

More than ever, we crave uplifting, hopeful stories. We need Michael Oher. We need the Hoyts. We need Ike and the compassionate young men who made his big moment possible.

When life seems especially grim, their stories keep us going.

Mike Cane: mcane@heraldnet.com. Check out the prep sports blog Double Team at www.heraldnet.com/doubleteam and follow Cane on Twitter at MikeCaneHerald.

Mike Cane: mcane@heraldnet.com. Check out the prep sports blog Double Team at www.heraldnet.com/doubleteam and follow Cane on Twitter at MikeCaneHerald.