November 28, 2012 (HLIWorldWatch.org) - Student-athlete Eric Dompierre is a state champion football player, winner of Sports Illustrated’s “Underdogs” contest and an all-around inspirational young man. And he has Down syndrome.

Eric, who attends Ishpeming High School in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan and is a kicker for the school’s varsity football team, wasn’t sure if the state of Michigan would even allow him to participate in sports this year. Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) regulations barred him, and others with disabilities, from playing athletics after turning nineteen-years-old before September 1.

Students with Down syndrome and other developmental conditions sometimes require extra years of schooling in their early years, making them older than their classmates in their senior year of high school. Currently 26 states do not allow waivers for older students with disabilities to play sports past an established age requirement deadline.

Eric and his father, Dean, fought for two years trying to convince the MHSAA to create a waiver policy allowing student-athletes with disabilities to play one year past the current maximum age.

“Michigan’s kids with disabilities should not have to beg their leaders for relief,” Dean said, adding the MHSAA should change its policy “not because they have to, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

After an outpouring of support for Eric, and petitions to overturn the policy from across the nation, the MHSAA announced in late May the approval of a new age waiver policy:

A two-thirds majority of votes cast is required to change the MHSAA Constitution. In a vote of schools conducted this month, 701 of 1,535 MHSAA member senior high and junior high/middle schools cast legal ballots, and 94 percent approved of the change. … As a result of that vote, the Association’s age rule, under which a student who turns 19 prior to September 1 of a school year is ineligible for interscholastic athletics, may now be waived by the MHSAA Executive Committee.

“I’m very excited,” Eric said after learning that he would be allowed to play football.

“It’s a great sense of relief,” said his father Dean. “I’m proud of the way he (Eric) has handled himself through this whole thing. He helped not only himself, but he helped out some other kids from the state. I also feel thankful for all the people who helped us out in this and made this thing happen.”

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But Eric’s story didn’t end there.

His football team, the Hematites, went on to win the MHSAA Division 7 state football championship last Friday with a near flawless season record. Eric kicked a number of extra points and even scored a touchdown during their championship season.

And on Tuesday, Sports Illustrated announced that Eric and his Hematites were the winners of their “Underdogs” contest, giving the school a $25,000 grant from Powerade and a trip to New York City for 10 of the team’s players to attend the magazine’s Sportsman of the Year event next week. But the Hematites are sticking together, and are trying to raise money to send the entire team to New York.

Sports Illustrated will pay for a charter bus for the whole Hematite squad to travel to New York, but the school needs to raise $3,200 to house and feed the students during the trip.

“The year as a whole has been quite remarkable,” said Eric’s father Dean. “Sometimes, it’s been remarkable in a negative way, or a sad way, and other times it’s been remarkable in a good way, but overall, it’s been quite a ride … We really want to thank everybody, not just in the U.P. but really all across Michigan and the country who went to bat for us, not only during our ‘Let ‘em Play‘ campaign, but also during this contest to help us come out on top.”

While studies have found that around 90 percent of women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose to have an abortion, stories like Eric’s show just how much of an inspiration and impact persons with disabilities can have on their families and their communities. Eric and the Hematites leave Monday for the Big Apple.

Follow Adam on Twitter: @adamcassandra.