The little town with the big football story

Published 11:44 am Thursday, December 6, 2012

Column: Thanks for Listening

David slew Goliath.

Over the past year or so, the Ishpeming Hematites football team has seen more than its fair share of challenging situations. Ishpeming is in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and is near my hometown of Marquette.

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The reason I am sharing this story with you is that it is about love, determination and community. This community is much like Albert Lea and Freeborn County. In sharing it, I am also so proud to call Ishpeming coach Jeff Olson both a mentor and a friend, and I continue to pray for his family as well as the whole Ishpeming football squad every day.

From the start of last year, Ishpeming senior kicker Eric Dompierre and his father Dean had to fight with the Michigan High School Athletic Association to allow him to play one more year of sports. The “Let ‘Em Play” campaign for Eric, who has Down syndrome and turned 19 before the season started, bonded together this hard-working community to fight for Eric to gain a waiver to play.

(In Michigan, you aren’t allowed to play sports if you turn 19 after Sept. 1.)

After a prolonged legal battle with the MHSAA, which entailed countless petitions, signatures and a trip to Lansing, Eric was finally ruled eligible to play his senior season.

“We needed signatures. We needed letters written, and the town not only recruited other people from the state, but people from around the country.” Mr. Dompierre was quoted in a story by the local newspaper, the Marquette Mining Journal. Having Eric on the team was certainly no gimmick, as he was a player who held his head high as a teammate. He not only kicked a handful of extra points but also scored a touchdown in a 53-14 win over Gwinn. Ishpeming finished the season with a record of 13-1.

Because of the determination and fellowship that Ishpeming High School showed in its fight to let Eric play, Sports Illustrated announced Ishpeming as the winner of its “Underdogs” program highlighting the most inspiring stories in high school football. Ishpeming will receive $25,000 from Powerade, the program’s presenting sponsor, and a trip to New York City this week for the Sportsman of the Year ceremony.

This is not the end of this remarkable story; it actually is just the beginning. This team that hung together and stood tall for their friend Eric to play his senior year would need every lesson they learned in sticking together as a team. What happened next in this rough road tested the metal of every player on this team.

Three untimely deaths also struck this tough community prior or during the 2012 season. In 2011, quarterback Alex Briones lost his brother Derrick, and then only a couple weeks before fall practice was to begin, Olson’s son Daniel committed suicide following a battle with depression and anxiety.

Daniel Olson quarterbacked the Ishpeming High School football team to the state finals in 2010, participated in basketball and track at Ishpeming High School and graduated from IHS in 2011. Daniel was a friend and a leader to everyone on this football team. He played with, sweated and earned the respect of all the players who were about to face tough fall football practices without him.

Jeff Olson and his wife, Sally, along with son Isaac, 13, and daughters Taylor, 18, and Jaime, 16, are a close-knit family and had to face the worst adversity any family should ever have to go through. Jeff considered stepping down as head coach. Trying to lead a team of his son’s friends and teammates just weeks after losing a son that he coached on that same field was really almost too much to ask.

Everyone would have certainly understood. At Daniel’s funeral, the team all wore football jerseys to show their solidarity and love for Daniel. Over the course of the funeral week, all of the players would be at the Olson house. Stories were exchanged, tears flowed and hugs were abundant in and around the Ishpeming area. At some point during this time, Jeff decided that to honor his son, the best place for him to be was to be leading his Hematite team week to week during the upcoming football season.

The season began and the team was on a winning streak and continuing to come together when another tragedy struck the Ishpeming community.

A popular eighth-grade student at Ishpeming named Christopher “Bubba” Crowley died in a car accident in October as a result of a drunken driver. The drunken driver hit the Crowley car that also included Christopher’s mom and two sisters, ages 16 and 18.

This tight community again needed to dig deep to keep its focus as heartbreak again came knocking. There is an old expression about getting knocked down seven times and rising eight that makes a champion, and this community was about to stand tall one more time.

Ishpeming persevered another setback and advanced to the state championship game against Detroit Loyola, a team that had defeated its first four postseason opponents by a combined score of 172-27. Ishpeming had won its semifinal game 8-7. Detroit Loyola outweighed Ishpeming roughly about 50 pounds a player. In short, they were Goliath.

I think we all know how that story turned out and although no stones were used, the Ishpeming Hematite football team won the state championship game 20 to 14.

As the final seconds expired, player’s eyes began to well up with tears and coach Olson dropped to his knees on the sideline. As tears ran down his face, he embraced his family. The family of Jeff, Sally, Isaac, Taylor and Jaime and with Daniel in their heart had now grown to include every player on the field that day and during this season.

On the night that the team was to arrive home, the fire department and police waited for the team buses to arrive in Ishpeming to take their victory ride through town. They were delayed a bit as Munising and other Upper Peninsula towns also had police and fire escorts along with fans lining the roads through their own towns for this football team. This squad of destiny now had the whole Upper Peninsula of Michigan as fans. The bus finally arrived back in Ishpeming.

“This is the greatest community to coach in,” said Olson. “Just coming home and seeing everybody lined up on the streets and seeing the procession of cars following us in, it was just fantastic and it’s a great reward for these kids.”

“They stuck by me, they stuck by my family when we went through some tough times,” he said. “After the amount of time I’ve spent with them, they’re so close-knit, and they’re so close to my heart. I’m going to remember this forever.”

In true team-first attitude and as winners of a $25,000 scholarship for their school from Sports Illustrated for the Eric Dompierre state decision, the trip originally included 10 players to be flown out to New York City. But instead of picking 10 players to go, the school asked Sports Illustrated if the team could use the money that would be used to fly out 10 players and put it toward a charter bus so the whole team could experience the trip together. Sports Illustrated agreed.

Even after exchanging 10 plane tickets for a charter bus, the team was $3,200 short of taking the whole team. The team again pulled together and raised well over the needed amount, and now the team won’t have to pay for anything during the trip.

The team left at about noon this past Monday for the 20-hour bus ride to New York. The team will sight-see, then nine players, Olson and Eric Dompierre’s dad, Dean Dompierre, will attend the Sportsman of the Year event Wednesday to receive a much-deserved award.

I am so proud of Jeff Olson and his family, the Ishpeming football team, and everyone surrounded with this heart-warming story. It absolutely makes me believe in the human spirit and just love life.

Thank you to my friends on Facebook, Twitter and the Internet and at the Marquette Mining Journal and Detroit Free Press for allowing me to follow this and write about this amazing story.


Tribune Publisher Scott Schmeltzer’s column appears every Thursday.