PERU — Not one Dirigo High School football player is likely to forget the crispness of the autumn air cascading through his facemask, the light squish of FieldTurf beneath his cleats, or the dull roar of a bipartisan crowd echoing in his ears when the ball is booted into the air to start Saturday’s Class C football championship.

Jake Dowland’s five senses will deposit the Fitzpatrick Stadium scene into his memory bank in ways that none of his teammates, coaches or closest friends comprehend. Because he’s surveyed the Portland ambiance from a startlingly different perspective: Six floors high, from the window of his room in the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center.

“He was looking down through binoculars and said, ‘Someday I’m going to play down there.’ We didn’t think about it being this soon,” said Jake’s mother, Tracy. “Not at all.”

Seven months ago, Dowland, 16, spent a month in the hospital recovering from a potentially fatal complication of a rare allergic inflammatory disease.

He spent four days in intensive care and was nourished through a feeding tube. Thirty pounds dissolved from his 6-foot, 190-pound frame.

And little more than a week into the ordeal, doctors and parents and a hospital tutor received earfuls about his plans for a gridiron comeback with the Cougars.

“Football is one of my favorite things in the world,” Jake said. “If I had that taken away from me, I don’t know what I’d do.”

‘Just his way of life’

The price could have been unthinkably higher.

Jake was diagnosed with Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EE) five years ago. Triggered by allergens, the disease causes inflammation in the upper gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms may include severe acid reflux, difficulty swallowing, food becoming stuck in the esophagus, and nausea and vomiting.

“It was nothing to have Jake get up from the dinner table, go into the bathroom, throw up, then come back to the table to sit down and eat again,” Tracy said. “That was just his way of life.”

Doctors are still uncertain what allergies exacerbate Jake’s condition. He takes prescribed medication to minimize the symptoms. But it was a different pill that wedged in his throat on the evening of March 28.

“I took a Sudafed pill, like a gel tablet,” he recalled. “And I couldn’t swallow it.”

He vomited violently and expected the discomfort to go away. Instead, throughout the night, Jake felt intense pain in the middle of his back.

“We weren’t sure if he might have popped a rib out,” Tracy said.

Doctors at Rumford Hospital discovered the alarming truth in the morning. Jake’s bout of vomiting had torn his esophagus. Air was being released into his body, putting pressure on his spine.

While EE itself does not limit life expectancy, such an injury to the esophagus, if untreated, could kill.

“I didn’t realize it was that bad. They didn’t really tell me. They mostly talked to my parents,” Jake said. “I thought, ‘In a couple of days I’ll be fine.’ ”


Rough and tumble

As the parents of three active children, including two teenage boys and a 10-year-old daughter, Tracy and Pete Dowland know their way around emergency rooms.

Jake, the eldest, has broken his arm three times since embracing football as his favorite sport in third grade. And there was Jake’s first brush with medical disaster in eighth grade, when he withheld the truth about increasing back pain for fear of not being allowed to play in the final three games of the season.

“After the last game of the year, I finally had to say, ‘I don’t think this is going to heal right.’ ” Jake said.

The culprit was a herniated disk in his lower back. In January 2008, after being pulled out of school for six weeks because the pain made it impossible for him to sit through class, Jake underwent spinal surgery.

True to form, Jake vowed immediately to play varsity football as a freshman. Other moms asked Tracy if she had any reservations about her son returning to a sport that could pose such long-term dangers.

Watching him make a diving catch in the outfield during a junior high baseball game calmed her fears.

“I figured football couldn’t be any worse than that,” she said.


It took a village

Until early spring, Jake’s ninth-grade year was normal, even the stuff of dreams.

He converted from fullback to offensive tackle when given the chance to compete for a starting job, which he earned. Jake also played inside linebacker as Dirigo celebrated a breakthrough eight-win season with a trip to the regional playoffs.

Five months later, his parents experienced the ultimate feeling of helplessness.

“I was scratching my head a lot at first,” said Pete Dowland, a 1988 Dirigo graduate and former football player. “You wonder, ‘What happened? It wasn’t two or three months ago that everything was great.'”

Jake’s attitude was one of many forces that kept his family afloat throughout a month of rigorous tests, unanswered questions and sleepless nights.

The Dowlands speak warmly of the Maine Medical Center and Ronald McDonald House staffs. Jake also formed a special bond with Glenn Hutchins, an 80-year-old, retired teacher and coach who works for the Barbara Bush hospital as a tutor and liaison between the sick children and their schools.

“He’s coming to the game on Saturday,” Jake said.

‘Hutch,’ as he is known to the children, used his words to fuel Jake’s fervor to return to the football field, even as the hospital gown began to hang off his student’s upper body.

“All I could think about was playing football again,” Jake said. “I couldn’t work out or anything, of course, but I mentally prepared myself in the hospital. I had time to sit and think about it.”

“Sports were a pretty critical thing to him getting better,” Pete noted. “There were a lot of calls, a lot of email get-well cards from his teammates. And lots of visitors.”


Full circle

Had the tear not healed naturally, Jake would have faced six months of surgeries, all but ending his sophomore athletic year.

Instead, he hasn’t missed a game or a beat. Dowland made eight tackles on defense and blocked for an offense that rolled up more than 340 yards in a 41-7 victory over Yarmouth to sew up the Western Maine title last weekend.

Most of his brawn has returned. Jake said he felt 100 percent by the third game of the season.

“He looks healthy today, but he actually isn’t,” Tracy said. “We have more testing next month which hopefully will determine once and for all what he is allergic to. Jake begged us to put that off until after the end of football season.”

Dirigo meets Foxcroft Academy at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in pursuit of its first state title since 1975.

The Cougars dropped football two years after Pete Dowland graduated, returning to varsity status only five years ago.

“Being on this team is like having another 30 brothers,” Jake said.

“He’s a tough kid,” added Tracy. “He has a high tolerance for pain. Football’s his thing. He definitely loves the game.”

And he appreciates Saturday’s final destination on a higher level than most, from a vantage point most of us hope we never understand.

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