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Sunday, November 4, 2012 - Page updated at 06:00 p.m.

Steve Kelley
Inspirational Snohomish football player Ike Ditzenberger battles for his life

Times staff columnist

SNOHOMISH — In those first frightening moments after he walked into Ike Ditzenberger's hospital room last week, all Mark Perry could focus on were the tubes. So many tubes sending food and insulin and pain killers into Ike's body.

Perry saw a tube taped to Ike's nostril and another sending air into Ike's lungs. Ike was hooked up to a heart monitor and his arms were bound by restraints, safeguards for those moments when Ike might get confused and restless and begin tugging at the cobweb of tubes.

"The whole thing was pretty hard to see," said Snohomish football coach Perry, who brought two of his players — his son, Tanner, a senior; and junior Garrett Stich — when he visited Ike last Wednesday night. "I think I'm a pretty tough guy, but seeing him lay in the bed was real tough."

For almost two weeks, 19-year-old Ike Ditzenberger has been fighting for his life, suffering from pneumonia in intensive care at the University of Washington Medical Center.

A four-year football player at Snohomish High School, he had suited up for every varsity and junior varsity football game until he fell ill after the Panthers' game against Lake Stevens on Oct. 19.

Ike is the Panther player with Down syndrome, who two years ago ran 51 yards for a touchdown against Lake Stevens, as touching and uplifting a moment as sports can deliver. The touchdown was celebrated by both teams and became a YouTube sensation with more than 2 million views.

It seemed as if Ike carried an entire community with him on that run. In football he had found something he could put his heart into, and in his football team, he had found a second family to love. That love was reciprocal.

That winter Ike moved a hushed audience at Benaroya Hall with his acceptance speech after being given the Seattle Children's Inspirational Youth Award. "I do not just sit on the sideline. I am part of a great team," he said. "Please give others like me a chance. Give them a place in your classroom, on your team and in your community."

Ike's personality is transcendent. He isn't just a football player at Snohomish. He talks with everyone and anyone. There isn't a student in the school who doesn't know Ike Ditzenberger. And there isn't a student who isn't affected by his pneumonia.

"I think that the inclusion of a student-athlete like Ike kind of tells all our kids that if you want to work hard enough, it doesn't matter how good you are, you can be part of our program here at our school," Perry said. "Ike gives everybody a little bit of hope. I think all of us have some kind of special needs, special problems, whether it's anger management or family problems or financial problems. Ike is an example that there is hope for all of us regardless of our needs."

Ike is a winner, and now it appears he is winning this fight of a lifetime. Last Wednesday doctors performed a tracheotomy that helped alleviate some of his breathing problems.

A chest X-ray on Saturday showed improvement. He was taken off a ventilator, but the fight continues. His arms still are locked in restraints.

"Ike just wants to go home and be with his teammates again," Perry said Saturday.

"He's on his way to recovery," Ike's mom Kay said by email Saturday afternoon.

The hospital room is filled with the obvious signs of love: get-well cards, pictures of Ike in his Snohomish uniform and with his family and his dogs, and a Panthers banner hung across a window that is signed by many students.

The ICU nurses are wearing, "I Like Ike" buttons, delivered from Snohomish. One of his doctors found some "I Like Ike" buttons in the attic from the Eisenhower years and brought them to the hospital. The nurses have nicknamed Ike "The Incredible Hulk" because of the strength he has shown during his ordeal.

"We went to visit him on Wednesday night," said Tanner Perry, who wore Ike's No. 57 jersey in the Panthers' game a week ago. "We told stories and laughed and we got him to smile, which meant a lot."

In Thursday's loss to Cascade, the final game of the season, senior quarterback Kyle Gionet threw an early interception. Coming back to the bench, he instantly felt Ike's absence.

Ike's impact on this team didn't end with that one touchdown or that one speech. He is enduring. He is the consistently optimistic teammate. He is the player who gives his teammates perspective.

"Whenever I do something bad, I throw a pick or we don't convert on fourth down," Gionet said, "I come back to the sideline and I'm down for a second, and the first person who comes over every time is Ike. I mean, I'm mad, but at the same time he kind of makes me smile and loosens me up and makes me realize that it's about more than the game. It's hard not having him there."

The Panthers dedicated the Cascade game to Ike, wearing black patches that read "Ike 57."

"He's the glue that brings the whole team together," Stich said. "He's just a great guy to have around. He makes sure we don't have any cliques on the team. It was very scary for me to see him like that in the hospital because he's basically part of this big family that I have."

The family got some good news on Saturday.

Have you ever seen a city smile?

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or


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