Ike Ditzenberger had watched his big brothers play football. He grew up idolizing and imitating them. Ike wanted to play football too. And he even dared to talk about his dream of playing college football. Big deal, right? It just means that he is like thousands of other teenagers who dream of being an on-field hero.
As a matter of fact, Ike is quite different from your "average" teenage boy. The 17-year-old junior at Snohomish (Washington) High School has Down Syndrome. His 5-foot-6, 160-pound frame isn't that of an athlete, and he doesn't have the motor skills to compete in a game where he could get hurt very easily.
Ike is fortunate to have a supportive family. More than that, his classmates have given Ike the one gift that matters most to so many kids who have a handicap, look different, or stand out for the wrong reasons - the gift of inclusion. Still more specifically, Snohomish's football coach lets Ike come to practices and hang with the guys he admires. Coach Mark Perry has even created a play that ends every varsity practice. Called the Ike Special, the offense hands the ball to Ike. And he gets the thrill of running it toward a soft defensive line of his friends.
On Friday, Sept. 24, 2010, the traditionally competitive Snohomish was absorbing its fourth loss of the season. A 35-0 drubbing at the hands of undefeated Lake Stevens High was mercifully about to end. With 10 seconds left on the clock, Coach Perry heard the "We want Ike!" chant from the stands, put Ike Ditzenberger into the backfield, and called the Ike Special. Wearing No. 57, Ike took the ball and began to run left. Although he appears to have stepped out of bounds, officials let the play continue - as his teammates ran interference and Lake Stevens players made reluctant efforts to get to him.
By the time the clock had expired, Ike was in the end zone. He had run for 51 yards and scored Snohomish's only touchdown of the night. He got to dance in the end zone. The play that worked every time in practice had worked that night in a real game. And Ike got to head to the sidelines to rip off his helmet, pump it in the air, and - in his mom's words - "scream like a banshee."
Grownups in the stands were crying. Lake Stevens players had given up a shutout for something far more important. Snohomish coaches and players had taken the final step in making Ike "one of the guys" with the team.
With all the scandals in sports at all levels, it's nice to come across a story that affirms what games are supposed to teach - character, sportsmanship, team spirit, and self-confidence. Ike and his big brothers can talk football like never before for the rest of their lives now. The guys on the field that wonderful night can talk forever about the biggest play in their high school careers.
Rubel Shelly is a Preacher and Professor of Religion and Philosophy located in Rochester Hills, Michigan. In addition to church and academic responsibilities, he has worked actively with such community projects as Habitat for Humanity, American Red Cross, From Nashville With Love, Metro (Nashville) Public Schools, Faith Family Medical Clinic, and Operation Andrew Ministries. To learn more about Rubel please go to: www.RubelShelly.com