By Steve Kelley
He was in a slump. His smile was fading. His energy was low. He seemed content to sit in the back of the auditorium for assemblies, ride in the back of the bus to school.
He was becoming disengaged, more accepting of the mistaken idea that, because he was born with Down syndrome, he was limited.
So holding hands as they walked into coach Mark Perry's classroom, Kay and Steve and Ike came to the Snohomish High School football coach and asked if he would allow Ike to play for the Panthers.
Ike's brother Josh had played high-school football at Woodinville and collegiately at Dixie State and Central Washington. Ike wanted to be like Josh.
Perry poked roly-poly Ike in the stomach, told him he had to lose a little weight, then said, "You're going to be a part of this football team for the next four years."
"From that point on, we've kind of been buddies," Perry said.
Perry's classroom at Snohomish is across the hall from the classroom for the special-needs students. He sees them every day. He talks with them, teases them, hugs them, high-fives them, loves them.
Almost intuitively he understood how football could help Ike Ditzenberger and, just as important, how Ike's presence could help his team.
"Ike has a way of making people's days around here with just a smile," Perry said. "Everybody in the school knows him. He's a challenge sometimes. He's a handful sometimes, but he's contagious in his actions. Ike is always full of energy.
"Sometimes maybe I can be too serious and he can bring me right back, reminding me that we're supposed to be having fun. He can bring things down to the important things in life."
It has been a difficult season for Snohomish, which won its first game after five consecutive defeats, 21-17 Friday night over Marysville-Pilchuck. Ike has helped lend perspective to the season.
"As coaches we're defined by ours wins and losses," Perry said. "It's a big part of the picture. We'd love to be undefeated, but I think my kids are learning more than just Xs and Os and football. And if they learn to treat another human being with humanity and compassion, we're all going to be better off."
Perry, who also coaches Ike on the wrestling team, designed a couple of plays for Ditzenberger.
The Ike Special is a running play that sends Ditzenberger up the middle. And the Ike Special Special is a kind of a swing pass.
With 10 seconds left in a recent home game, Snohomish was losing to rival Lake Stevens 35-0. The thought of shutting out Snohomish was sweet for the Vikings.
Perry called a timeout and came on the field to tell the Lake Stevens players he was going to run the Ike Special. He told the Vikings' defensive coordinator, Joe Cronin, about the play.
"I don't want you guys to lose your shutout," Perry told the players. "Preserve your shutout. You've earned it. But I'd like you to let Ike run around for 10 or 20 yards before you tackle him."
A year earlier, when Ike was on the Snohomish junior varsity team, the Panthers ran the same play against Lake Stevens and Ditzenberger scored. Many of those same Lake Stevens players were on the field for the final minutes of this game.
"We get it, coach," a Vikings player said, giving Perry a thumbs-up before the snap.
The subsequent play turned into something much more than a touchdown run. It was an all-encompassing act of human tenderness that, because of a YouTube video, was witnessed around the world.
"I've told my players I've learned more from them than they learned from me on that play," Lake Stevens coach Tom Tri said. "They were levelheaded enough to use their common sense. They weren't directed to do anything other than let Ike run for a while. But they took that literally and allowed Ike to score a touchdown.
"In hindsight, that was clearly the right thing to do. We didn't want to give up a shutout. This was one of our biggest rivals and we had a chance to shut them out on their home turf. But our players didn't even want to think about that. Their only thought was, 'Let's do the right thing.' "
Although the play is designed to go up the middle, Ike swung to the left. He actually ran out of bounds, but Perry urged him back into the field.
Ike cut right and toward the end zone as his teammates threw faux blocks and the Lake Stevens players dived and jumped and swung-and-missed at tackle attempts. Ike rode the wave of cheers from his teammates and the student body for a 51-yard touchdown.
"The Lake Stevens players, they made this happen for a special kid named Ike," Perry said. "They gave us a moment that none of us will ever forget."
Junior running back Jordan Holland, a regular who wasn't in the game, ran stride-for-stride with Ike, down the sideline, making sure Ike stayed focused and in bounds.
"I heard screaming in my ears," said Ike, a 17-year-old, 5-foot-6, 160-pound junior.
This should have been a difficult night for Snohomish, a bitter defeat in a disappointing season.
But the understanding of the Lake Stevens players and the unquenchable brightness of Ike made this moment and this game as unforgettable as a Super Bowl.
They celebrated the score as if it were the game-winner.
Holland was the first player to greet Ike after the touchdown. He lifted Ditzenberger in the air. Players mobbed Ike and encouraged him to do a touchdown dance.
He accommodated them. It was a moment of unambiguous joy.
"I was sprinting down the sideline and when I got to Ike I picked him up and he's pretty heavy and I almost hurt my back," Holland said. "We'll always remember that play. Every time we look at the picture we'll think of Ike. We'll remember all the things we've done with him. All the funny moments."
Ike ran back to the sideline and raised his helmet, acknowledging the cheers of the crowd.
"The smile on his face was priceless," said Perry, who has been in coaching for 28 years. "He knew he had done something special. He knew he'd scored a touchdown. He knew he'd succeeded in what he was trying to do."
While Ike was running, Tony Soper from Lake Stevens was recording every remarkable yard. The video he posted on YouTube went viral, getting more than a million views. The Ike Special took on a life of its own.
Both Perry and Tri got e-mails and letters from around the world, thanking them for their profound acts of sportsmanship.
"This thing's blossomed into something huge through no purpose or intent of ours," Perry said. "We gave one opportunity to one kid for one rep and in no way do you ever think that it would balloon into what it has. Ike's special to us no matter what happened."
But Ike's story is about much more than this one football play.
It is a reminder of the infinite capacity of the human heart. It is about Mark Perry's compassion. It is about the ability of the young players from Lake Stevens to understand the importance of the moment and act selflessly when it would have been so easy to be selfish.
It is about the Snohomish team's unconditional love of their teammate and about Ike's parents' love for their child.
"We've seen Ike brighten," Kay Ditzenberger said. "He no longer sits in the back at the assembly. He's right there in the front row. Football has elevated his self-opinion. He doesn't feel different. He doesn't perceive his handicap. They've given him the gift of normalcy.
"They (Snohomish players) set aside the handicap and saw the person first. They recognize the handicap secondly and they accommodate and adapt to that."
Last week, the Ditzenbergers went to Lake Stevens' practice.
"You could see in their faces that they were really proud of what they'd done," Kay said.
She spoke to the players.
"Thank you for your sacrifice, because in sacrifice is great power," she told them. "You unleashed something very powerful on the field two weeks ago that the world needed to see and hear. Your sacrifice touched the hearts of millions of people. We salute you Vikings."
She read a quote from the late UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden: "You can't live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you."
At the end of the practice, Lake Stevens invited Ike to run their final play.
"I've learned from this that people can be true," Snohomish assistant coach Vince Ivelia said. "In a society that has a lot of the me attitude, this is an example of what we can do for others."
Ike's was a touchdown run like no other. It was a touchdown run that all of us should remember, a reminder of everything that is good about sports and about life.