Ike Ditzenberger is like a lot of other 17-year-old American football players. He dreams of playing college football. He attends daily practices. Most of the time he toils away in offensive drills. Then, on rare occasions, Ditzenberger runs into the limelight with aplomb. The description could fit thousands of American teenagers, except for one crucial detail: Ike Ditzenberger has Down Syndrome.
Ditzenberger, a junior at Snohomish (Wash.) High School, achieved a major milestone on Friday in a game against Lake Stevens, running 51 yards for a touchdown with 10 seconds remaining. The "Ike Special" provided the only points in Snohomish's 35-6 loss. It was the first varsity touchdown in Ditzenberger's career, a ramble through an opposing defense that mirrors the end to Snohomish practices every day, when Ditzenberger gets the final run of practice and somehow finds the end zone, through a combination of running guile and intentionally passive defenders.
"He's someone that everybody can kind of enjoy because he has such a great personality and character," Snohomish senior captain Keith Wigney told the Everett Herald in a feature on Ditzenberger.
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For Ditzenberger's feel-good story to go beyond practice to an actual competitive game took an assist from the coaching staff at Lake Stevens. The Vikings' coaches not only instructed their players to let Ditzenberger score, but to make it look relatively competitive in the process to make the moment more real for the Snohomish junior. In the video above you can see a handful of Lake Stevens defenders make diving runs at Ditzenberger, only to come up agonizingly short. Or perhaps gleefully short, in this case.
The moment wasn't without precedent. Lake Stevens also collaborated with Snohomish for Ditzenberger's other touchdown, a gallop through the Vikings defense in a junior-varsity game last November, which you can see below.
For his part, Ditzenberger has trained for such a touchdown each day for the past three years. He practices every day with the Snohomish junior-varsity team, but gets the final run of the varsity practice as long as he adheres to two conditions Snohomish head football coach Mark Perry relayed to the Everett Herald:
"I make him a deal," Perry told the Everett Herald. "‘If you keep your shoulder pads on and your mouth piece in, you're going to get a play.'"
Ditzenberger first became obsessed with football by watching his brothers play the sport. One, Jake, was also on the Snohomish team with Ike for the younger Ditzenberger's first two seasons. Taking part in a sport in which his older brother starred helps Ike bond with him, and gives the 5-foot-5 17-year-old a sense of place despite his limitations.
That role as part of a larger team has made football one of most important aspects of Ditzenberger's life. Here's how his mother, Kay, described the importance of football to the Everett Herald:
Down syndrome kids "don't learn by what they hear; they learn by what they see," Ike's mother said. "So he's a real imitator. For him to be able to watch and learn by doing, and to be like his older brothers, is a really big deal."
For Snohomish's program, Ike has become a big deal. His runs at the end of practice build camaraderie and sense of routine for the rest of the team. And they help place sports in perspective.
On Friday, the "Ike Special" even provided the Panthers' only points. Of course, Snohomish coach Perry may have had that play up his sleeve the whole time. After all, he sees just how effective it is at the end of every single practice.