Michigan high school sports officials say their hands are tied in the case of a basketball player with Down syndrome who has been ruled too old to play his senior season despite widespread community and online support.
More than 77,000 online supporters have weighed in in favor of letting Eric Dompierre, 19, of Ishpeming, Mich., play during his final year at Ishpeming High School, even though the rules say student athletes who are 19 as of Sept. 1 are ineligible for sports.
It appears the only shot for Dompierre, who was held back in kindergarten and first grade, is for the Michigan High School Athletic Association to vote to pass his request on to all member schools. Two-thirds of those schools would then need to support waiving the rule. The association has already failed to pass on the request twice.
"We're not heartless here," Tom Rashid, associate director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, told Fox News. "We've had a lot of good communication with Mr. Dompierre and our heart goes out to this man and his family. We know it's a difficult decision, and when it hits home, it's hard. But there are concerns when you begin to go in this direction."
Dompierre's father, Dean, told FoxNews.com that Eric has "built his identity" around being an athlete and he's worried what will happen if he isn't allowed to play next season.
"He spends a great deal of time working out and his socialization skills have improved greatly because of athletics because he meets a lot of people," Dean Dompierre said. "I'm hopeful they'll see there is support, but I guess I'm not hopeful if it's just left to MHSAA leadership. They'll do anything they can to avoid bringing it to a vote."
Rashid told FoxNews.com that the council first denied Dompierre's initial request in December 2010 because it contained narrow language specifically requesting a waiver for students with Down syndrome. A second request that included an age exception was denied a year later and a third request was submitted on March 26. The third request will be considered during the first week of May, Rashid said.
Rashid said 27 other states do not allow waivers to their maximum age requirement in high school athletics.
"In this state, with our schools, we really spend a lot of time vetting changes," he continued. "What do the schools want? Their comments were to be careful, more than careful I suppose. Our read from our schools was that obviously they were not in support of this."
A petition supporting Dompierre on Ishpeming High School's website has received 77,123 signatures as of early Wednesday.
"Changing this rule will enable a small number of deserving students who have experienced a hardship due to a combination of intellectual and physical disabilities early in life to play a full four years of high school sports," the petition reads. "This would put Michigan in line with 23 other states who currently allow waivers to their maximum age rule."
Eric, meanwhile, told FOX UP he has been blown away by the number of supporters who signed his petition.
"They saw me making a basket, and that brought them to give me attention and support me," he told the station. "It feels good because it's not just people from here, it's other states and other people that I don't know, and they support me and tell me they want me to play."