In September the SI.com video series Underdogs featured Eric Dompierre (above, 44), a senior at Ishpeming (Mich.) High with Down syndrome who became a placekicker on the football team. Dompierre's story was chosen as the most inspiring Underdogs episode in an online vote even before Ishpeming won the Michigan Division 7 championship with a 20--14 victory over Detroit Loyola on Nov. 24. Dompierre's determination and the state title are only part of what made this season so poignant for the Hematites. Coach Jeff Olson (first row, far right) explains why.
I shpeming High is one of the smaller schools on Michigan's Upper Peninsula: It's a town of fewer than 7,000 people, and when I took over as coach in 1992, only 17 kids tried out for football. But this wasn't our first trip to the state championship game. We made it two years ago, against Hudson High. My son Daniel was our quarterback. He was all-state that year, and he played his heart out in the final, rushing for two touchdowns and throwing for two more. We lost by two points, but a lot of people said he was the best player on the field. Even so, Daniel blamed himself for the loss. His dream was to win a state title, and he focused only on the few mistakes he made. That's the way he was.
For weeks after that game Daniel woke up with night sweats, thinking about the loss. He had been battling severe anxiety and depression for years. Counseling, medication, hospitalizations—Daniel fought hard and did everything he could to get better, but nothing worked. In the fall of 2011 he played defensive back as a freshman at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin. He did well during the football season, but then his panic attacks became unbearable. Last February he asked my wife, Sally, and me to bring him home. "I don't want to die," he would tell me. "But I just can't handle it anymore, and nothing has worked."
On July 19, my son took his own life. Our town was shocked. It wasn't a secret that Daniel was depressed, but he was so tough and hid it so well that most people didn't know how much he suffered. Football practice began two weeks later. I was nervous on that first day. I didn't want to be there, but as soon as I was around the team I knew it was where I belonged. The football field was the place where Daniel was most comfortable. Playing was his release, an escape from his suffering. It was the same for me. After his death I could be at peace when I was around football.
At that first practice I told the team I wanted them to talk about Daniel, about depression, about suicide. There is a stigma about those things, especially in sports, and too often people are afraid to discuss them. Sally and I are very open about what our son went through because we want people to understand that depression is a disease, and it can be helped. If somebody like Daniel, who seemed to have so much going for him, could be in so much pain, it can happen to anyone. If we can erase that stigma, it will be easier for people who are suffering to ask for help.
At Daniel's funeral my players vowed that they were going to win the state title. It was a lot for kids that age to carry, but they're more accustomed than they should be to losses that have nothing to do with football. In February 2011 the brother of our quarterback, Alex Briones, passed away. In October an eighth-grader in town, the brother of two girls who attend Ishpeming High, was killed by an alleged drunk driver. These kids have had to become adults much too quickly.
It would have been easy for my players to throw up their hands and say life's not fair. They didn't. There's a lot of love in this group. This team accepted and included Eric Dompierre, making him feel like just another football player. They showed the same compassion to me and my family, and it means a lot. In some ways this was the least stressful year I've had as a coach. These guys were so determined to win for all the right reasons, I knew I didn't have to worry about anyone not working hard.
As we kept winning, we could feel Daniel's presence, maybe because unusual things started happening. We came from behind in our state semifinal and in the final. We stopped Loyola in the fourth quarter on fourth-and-inches at our eight yard line, then iced the game by converting our own fourth-and-inches—on a quarterback sneak over a 290-pound defensive lineman who outweighed our center by 135 pounds. Our tailback, Eric Kostreva, played the game of his life, with 182 yards rushing. Eric transferred to Ishpeming last summer, and he asked to wear Daniel's jersey, number 11. He wasn't a starter at his old school, but Eric ended up being our conference player of the year, and like Daniel he was the best player on the field in the title game. He made that number 11 proud.
Without football to focus on, I know I'll miss Daniel even more. But I'll be O.K., because I know he's at peace now, and because his death is an opportunity to talk about anxiety and depression and suicide. Since Daniel died, many people have told me they were in the same dark hole my son was. They've thanked me for bringing these topics out in the open and encouraging them to get help.
Sometimes winning is about more than being the best on the field. My players gave me and my family the greatest gift: the chance to feel my son's presence again, and to raise awareness of something that thousands struggle with in silence every day. If his story helps those people find help, then Daniel is the champion he always wanted to be.
Watch the entire Underdogs series and read L. Jon Wertheim's account of Ishpeming High's bittersweet championship run at SI.com/mag
ERICK W. RASCO