Fifteen-year-old Larry Prout Jr. is a man of few words.
Tuesday, when a reporter asked him how long he had been a Michigan football fan, he said only “the whole time.” When another wondered what he thought of the Wolverines’ 78-0 victory at Rutgers on Saturday, Larry called it “pretty crazy.”
His mother, Kathy, who doubles as his homeschool teacher, once asked him what scared him about the hospital, a place where he has spent countless hours fighting for his life.
The answer, Larry said, was nothing.
When Larry was born with several birth defects, his presence at Schembechler Hall this week was inconceivable. Doctors did not know if he would survive birth. They certainly did not expect him to last more than two weeks outside of the womb. And yet on Tuesday, Larry became a member of the Michigan football team in a special ceremony.
As the fourth-ranked Wolverines took a break from their bye week amid a promising season, Larry — not football — was the talk of the evening. He was born with several chronic conditions, including spina bifida (which limits the development of the spinal cord) and choacal extrophy (which caused him to be born with some of his major organs outside his body). Those and other health problems, such as an opening on his abdomen called a massive omphalocele, have required 93 surgeries during his life.
“I have been cut open and sewed back up many, many times,” Prout said in a prepared statement. “Not all of the surgeries were a success, but this didn’t stop my family from bringing me back to the University of Michigan Mott Children’s Hospital. This didn’t stop my team from drawing up another play and to hopefully go on to win another day.”
Michigan drafted Prout onto the football team as part of the Team IMPACT program, an organization that seeks to improve the lives of chronically ill children by setting them up with college athletic teams. The Wolverines welcomed him to their team Tuesday, as coach Jim Harbaugh and several players walked out into the public area at Schembechler Hall and shook his hand. He then appeared with his parents, Harbaugh, redshirt junior quarterback John O’Korn and Team IMPACT executive director Seth Rosenzweig at a press conference.
A few minutes into the press conference, Kathy Prout handed the prepared statement to her son, who removed his sweatshirt to reveal a blue sweater that matched Harbaugh’s.
“I stand here before you today as just one of the stories that can be told regarding the patience at the great university’s Mott Children’s Hospital,” Larry said. “I also stand here as just one of the stories that could be told about many sick children and their families across the country. My heart goes out to all families of children with chronic illness.”
This isn’t Michigan’s first experience with a child like Larry. Two years ago, the men’s lacrosse team similarly welcomed Brendan Randolph, a child with medically intractable epilepsy. Randolph signed a National Letter of Intent with the Wolverines on Nov. 24, 2014, at age 14.
This past summer, Randolph’s parents told Prout’s parents about the IMPACT program and helped to connect them with Michigan. For Larry, a lifelong fan, joining the Wolverines was a dream.
“It’s just unbelievable,” said Larry’s father, Larry Sr. “Around every corner, there seems to be something really cool that’s happened. In spite of everything, we just keep going.”
Since the younger Larry began his relationship with Michigan, he has met a few of the current players. One of the first was O’Korn, a transfer from Houston, who also had a similar experience at his old school. At Houston, O’Korn met 15-year-old Jacolby Rogers, who was on dialysis with renal disease.
O’Korn, whom Larry called one of his favorite players along with senior running back De’Veon Smith, awarded Larry with some new Michigan gear such as T-shirts and football gloves.
“It’s a special relationship, and if we can be that source of hope and positivity for Larry, that’s something that makes us really happy,” O’Korn said afterward. “He’s somebody, as you saw today, that just flows with positivity, flows with grace and dignity.”
Team IMPACT hopes Larry could spur a new wave of teammates like him. According to Rosenzweig, the organization has a list of more than 600 teams who are interested in helping but have not yet been connected with a child.
The hope is that those teams could have the same experience as Michigan’s players, who said that Larry’s toughness has worn off on them.
“It’s easy to look after a long practice or a long day of camp or a workout, you might be sore or tired, you might be injured,” said senior tight end Jake Butt. “And you might let that thought creep into your head where you want to feel sorry for yourself, or you want to find an excuse.
“And you look at a kid like Larry and his family and the way they’re facing such great adversity and still up there smiling, and still up there so grateful just to be a part of this team. We’re grateful to have him on our team, and we’re grateful for the example that he’s setting for us.”
As for Larry, he hopes kids like him can learn the same lesson. Asked what he would tell others going through the same issues, the boy who has overcome so many of them spoke briefly but meaningfully again: “Not to be afraid.”