Snohomish students lobby for special-needs teammate

SNOHOMISH — The latest story in the incredible life of Ike Ditzenberger is, of course, an inspirational one.

But this time, Ditzenberger, the Snohomish High School student with Down syndrome who became a celebrity after his 2010 touchdown video went viral, isn’t the one doing anything particularly noteworthy.

Instead, it’s his classmates, motivated by a desire to help a friend, whose actions deserve attention. Like many other special-needs students, Ditzenberger, who turns 20 next month, has been in high school for more than the typical four years. But unlike most special-needs students, Ditzenberger is a member of his school’s football and wrestling teams. And here’s where a problem arises. Under state law, Ditzenberger can attend Snohomish through next year, but under Washington Interscholastic Activities Association rules, students going into a sixth year of high school have not in the past been eligible to participate in athletics.

Now, through a change to the WIAA handbook, or perhaps even a new piece of legislation dubbed the “Ike Act,” Ditzenberger and future special-needs students might get to keep participating in high school athletics after their eligibility would have normally expired.

And if Ditzenberger is again suiting up in a Panthers uniform next fall, he’ll have three Snohomish students to thank for it. When seniors Tanner Perry, Troy McCarty and Kieren Raney were given an assignment by their government and law teacher, Tuck Gionet, they thought of Ditzenberger.

The assignment, one that Gionet has been giving to students for years, was to come up with legislation to pitch to lawmakers in Olympia, and Perry, McCarty and Raney decided to see if they could find a way for special-needs students such as Ditzenberger to keep playing sports as long as they are in high school. It didn’t take long for local leaders to jump on board. Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, loved the idea, so, too, did state Sens. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds, and Rodney Tom, D-Medina.

“We met with five or six people,” McCarty said. “They all loved it. Sen. Shin wanted to sponsor it, but Sen. Tom did it first. Everyone loved it.”

As it turns out, however, the Ike Act, despite being a pretty darn cool idea for a trio of students to cook up, may not be necessary after all. When Dunshee contacted WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese, it set in motion a plan that could allow Ditzenberger to play next year without any new legislation. Colbrese has met with Dunshee, Tom, as well as the Snohomish students, and the plan now is to amend the WIAA handbook to make it possible for sixth-year students to appeal for additional eligibility, something that had in the past been available only to fifth-year students.

“We’ve developed language that will go into the handbook next year, but is effective immediately, that will allow me on a case-by-case situation to waive the rule,” Colbrese said. “Then the family and the school need to simply ask me to consider the situation, and on a case-by-case basis, I’ll review the case and make a decision.

“To date, there have been waivers provided for students who have had their fifth year of opportunity who are similar to Ike’s situation. The new avenue will now allow the opportunity for there to be a sixth year.”

What an opportunity that would be for Ditzenberger and so many other students like him. Even if Ditzenberger hadn’t scored that touchdown against Lake Stevens in 2010 that made him a local celebrity — friends at Snohomish started calling him “Hollywood” not long after, and the nickname stuck — even if his story was known only to his teammates and friends at Snohomish, the past few years on the football and wrestling teams would have been life-altering.

“He’s become a completely different person,” said Kay Ditzenberger, Ike’s mother. “When he started in 2008, it took a while to figure out how to put on pads, to keep his helmet on, to learn rules, but as soon as he began being incorporated onto the team and the practices and games, he completely changed his attitude about who he was. He began to see himself as a typical student. He began to say to himself, ‘Well if everyone else can do that, so can I.’”

And if Ditzenberger could find a home on the football team, why not wrestling, too? As Ditzenberger continued to open up, Kay and Steve Ditzenberger signed their son up for the school play.

Now, ask Ditzenberger what he wants to do next with his life, and without hesitating, he answers, “College.”

It may be oversimplifying things to say that Ditzenberger’s growth is all because then Snohomish High football coach Mark Perry was open to having a kid with Down syndrome on his football team, but not by much.

“That’s because of football,” Kay Ditzenberger said of her son’s desire to attend college. “He wants to do what everybody else does, because he’s seen how great it is to be a part of the typical population. It’s changed his idea of who he is.”

Another year for Ditzenberger wouldn’t just be a victory for him and other special-needs students, it would mean another year of Ditzenberger teaching his teammates about sports and life.

“He’s got the attitude that every kid should have,” said Tanner Perry, whose father is Mark Perry. “He’s doing something he loves to do and does it with passion and all his heart.”

And as much as this is a story about Ditzenberger and his desire to keep playing football, it has become so much more. His story is now that of a school and a town that embraced him; it’s a story of high school kids learning about acceptance; and a story of how sports can bring out the very best in everyone, from the coach who didn’t hesitate to put Ditzenberger on the Panthers roster, to the players who embraced Ditzenberger not as some sort of mascot, but as a teammate, to opposing teams like Lake Stevens that showed tremendous sportsmanship in doing their part to make Ike’s magical touchdown happen.

It would be naïve to think that we now live in a world free of bullying, a world where kids never pick on those different from them, but at Snohomish, and so many other schools, stories like Ditzenberger’s show how far we’ve come. When Ditzenberger is teased at high school, it’s playful banter coming from a friend, and he’s usually giving it right back.

“Not cool, man,” Ditzenberger says with a grin when Tanner Perry asks him about being the big man on campus.

After Ditzenberger and Perry trade a few more barbs, it’s off to wrestling practice, where, once again, Ditzenberger will be just one of the guys, sweating through another practice.

“I wish that for every kid with special needs,” said Kay Ditzenberger.

Hopefully, it isn’t over yet. As Sen. Tom puts it, finding a way for special-needs students to get extra eligibility is a “no-brainer” and it appears the WIAA will make the change without the need for the Ike Act. Tanner, McCarty and Raney may not end up creating a new law because a new law may not be necessary, but either way, their action has the potential to help Ditzenberger and so many other special-needs students.

“It’s just all great stuff,” Dunshee said. “It’s part of the civics lesson about how you get stuff done. They can take great pride in what they did. It’s just wonderful.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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