A basketball game was played Sunday. Some guys shot baskets — some went in, others didn’t. The team wearing maize jerseys scored more points than the guys donning scarlet and left Crisler Center significantly more pleased.
But for Austin Hatch and John Beilein, Sunday — Senior Day — was about so much more than basketball. Sunday was emblematic of the true meaning of sports, a foundation that supersedes a few baskets here and there, a few wins, a few championships. The story of Austin Hatch is a story about the impact sports can have in their purest form.
And when Hatch walked on the court to a roaring ovation with his grandparents and fiance, former Michigan volleyball player Abby Cole, on his side, the impact was clear. After all that he’s been through, it was the end of one era for Hatch, and the start of a blindingly bright next.
“Life’s good man,” Hatch told a group of reporters Friday afternoon. “It’s coming together.”
By now, you probably know the story of Austin Hatch. It has been well-documented, and for good reason.
It’s a story of remarkable tragedy, of unthinkable sadness. But Sunday was a reminder that it’s also a story of unparalleled perseverance. It’s a love story between a young man and a university, a player-coach relationship that reaches far beyond the bounds of basketball.
When he was eight years old, Hatch was involved in a plane crash that killed his mother, brother and sister. Hatch, seated in the front passenger seat, survived alongside his father, who was piloting the plane. When he was a sophomore in Fort Wayne, Ind. Beilein offered Hatch — a promising scorer and knockdown shooter — a scholarship to play for the Wolverines. Eight days later, he was in another plane crash, this time killing his father and family dog. Hatch was left in a coma for eight weeks, having to regain the ability to walk and speak. Still, Beilein honored his scholarship offer, and Hatch enrolled his freshman year.
“The ultimate measure of a coach — obviously a good coach wins basketball games, you can see the results that way and the impact he has on his team — but the impact he has on developing his players, these young men,” Hatch said. “I’ve definitely learned a lot, grown as a young man. I definitely will take the lessons I’ve learned from him with me the rest of my life, in my marriage, with my family and working. It’s a special bond, and it’s definitely not going to end in April.”
Saturday, four years after first enrolling at Michigan, 15 years after the first plane crash, seven years after the second, Hatch was honored on Senior Day. He was announced with the starters, embracing each player as they lined up for introductions. As he approached freshman guard Jordan Poole, Poole gave him a hug. After he was honored at midcourt, the players mobbed him lovingly.
Beilein told his players Hatch’s story before the game one more time. For freshmen like Poole, the details of Hatch’s experience were fresh.
“Just told them, ‘I want you to put yourself as an eight-year-old,” Beilein said, fighting back tears. “I want you to put yourself as one of the best sixteen-year-olds in the country, and lose your mom and dad after you already lost your brother and your sister and your mom — you watched them basically die.’ ”
Hatch finished his career with one point — a free throw he made in December 2014 against Coppin State. But the impact he had on his teammates can’t be measured.
“I try not to think about it too much because it’s sad, everything he’s been through,” said senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “How positive he is is truly inspiring. That’s all you can ask for.”
In two months, Hatch will graduate with a degree in Organizational Studies. Soon after, he will get married to Cole. In July, he will be going to work full time in real estate acquisition at Domino’s.
“It’s crazy,” Hatch said. “Life’s happening, you know?”
And for Beilein, the day was a way to reflect. Reflect on where this relationship started. Reflect on where it’s come. Reflect on what Hatch means to him. Reflect on life.
“I was ready to cry. Somehow, I choked it off, but I was ready to cry,” Beilein said on seeing Hatch walk out of the tunnel Sunday. “When the NCAA allowed me to go see him when he was finally out of the coma, and see — the last time I saw him he was one of the best sophomores in the country, without question. He reminded me of a young Wally Sczerbiak. He was tremendous. He’d just played a great team and dominated them. Now I see him and doesn’t weigh 210 now, now he weighs about 140. He can’t eat the sandwich because — he can hardly walk — he can move like six inches at a time when he walks. And when you see that and then you see this and his family and his fiance Abby, it makes your heart warm.
“If we’ve been a small part of his life, he’s been a huge part of my life and this team’s life.”