Aidan Hutchinson has a routine for watching the Big Ten Championship Game.
He meets up with three friends from high school at one of their houses, a space which the group has dubbed “The Den.” There, Hutchinson is reunited with Theo Day, a teammate at Divine Child who spent three seasons playing for Michigan State.
Hutchinson and Day pass the time joking about their own misfortunes, ribbing one another while they watch two teams clash for the title they so desperately covet: We’ll never get there.
The last three years, as their Big Ten season ended on a couch in that den, those quips grew more dejected. Heartbreak mounted.
“For better or worse, he’s always believed in Michigan,” Day said. “In the team they had, the coaches they have, wholeheartedly. And at times, what he was telling me may have seemed far-fetched when they were losing to Ohio State, but he always believed it.”
At last, that unwavering optimism is paying off. Hutchinson and Michigan will play for a Big Ten Championship on Saturday, with No. 13 Iowa the final obstacle between the second-ranked Wolverines and history.
Last winter, Hutchinson could have left school early to chase his NFL dreams. Even though he was still recovering from a season-ending ankle injury, it appeared as if he would be an early-round draft pick.
And yet, even as uncertainty and turmoil marred Michigan football, Hutchinson opted to return.
That’s why Saturday’s victory over Ohio State — one that snapped a nine-year spell against the Buckeyes and seems poised to change the trajectory of Michigan’s program — brought tears to Hutchinson’s eyes. When the clock melted towards double-zeros, he thrust his arms into the air, jerked his head back and screamed, flooded with emotion. As he told FOX Sports after the game, it was the best moment of his life.
“I visualized fans storming the field, goalposts coming down, all of that,” Hutchinson said in his postgame press conference, his voice incredulous. “We did it. It was something I’ve been thinking about for years now.”
Few outside Schembechler Hall believed in Hutchinson’s vision, but his uber-confidence is grounded in a boundless determination. It’s just how he operates.
“Aidan, he didn’t read a book, wake up and decide, ‘I want to be great,’ ” John Filiatraut, Hutchinson’s coach at Divine Child, said. “And when you love a place like he does with Michigan, you put that together with the fact that he wants to be the best at everything he does — I feel like that’s blossoming right now.”
Nationally, it is. Hutchinson has Michigan on the precipice of its first-ever berth in the College Football Playoff. Boasting a single-season school-record 13 sacks, he’s a legitimate contender for both the Heisman Trophy and the first overall selection in April’s NFL Draft.
“If there’s a better player out there that’s draft eligible than Aidan Hutchinson, I have not seen that player,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh gushed. “… Where do you start, where do you go? There’s so many superlatives. He’s a football player. He’s a stalwart.”
To those who have watched Hutchinson grow up, though, there’s a sense of déjà vu.
“From start to finish, he’s really the exact same kid that started in our building,” Nick Ploucha, Divine Child’s defensive coordinator, said.
Physically, Hutchinson is no longer the “skinny little dude” who Ploucha first met. But that version of Hutchinson, while a shell of his current 6-foot-6, 265-pound self, mirrors the Hutchinson of now.
Divine Child doesn’t have a freshman team, so JV and varsity practice together. That allowed Hutchinson to waste little time making an impression.
“Aidan was a freshman just ruining practice for some of our juniors and seniors,” Filiatraut laughed. “Just making life miserable.”
Gradually, Hutchinson began to fill out his frame, reaping the benefits of a physique perfectly constructed for football. As he grew, though, the work ethic remained, manifesting itself in different ways.
Tales of Hutchinson’s motor are told like fables. Once, against Macomb Lutheran North during his sophomore year, he rotated between offensive tackle, defensive end, long snapper and short snapper.
“The kid never came off the field,” Ploucha laughed. “He just shrugged his shoulders, turned around and played the next snap.”
In the months before he left for college, Hutchinson trained alongside Day in a private gym. At the start, Hutchinson relayed a message to their trainer: “I want you to kill me every day.”
That intensity soon permeated the rest of Divine Child’s locker room in the same fashion as it has at Michigan. To understand the gravity of that, though, it’s important to paint an accurate picture of football at Divine Child.
It’s a small school, housing a varsity team of roughly 30 players. Its schedule primarily includes other small schools, not heavyweights. When Hutchinson became Filiatraut’s first player to travel for an Army All-American game, Filiatraut expressed concern that Hutchinson would injure himself against players from “football factories” in Florida and Texas. Inevitably, though, Hutchinson was one of the best players there.
Before attending Divine Child, Hutchinson played football throughout middle school for Our Lady of Good Counsel, another small school in Plymouth. When he moved up to high school, he brought a swath of teammates along with him.
These weren’t kids with aspirations of playing football at the next level; they merely enjoyed the sport and its camaraderie. But there was something about Hutchinson that they gravitated towards.
“Aidan got every single one of those guys to buy in, even if they were just playing to have fun,” Liam Soraghan, a high school teammate of Hutchinson’s, said. “You don’t see that unless it’s a really good high school team when guys all have aspirations to play at the college level.”
After Hutchinson’s junior year of high school, when Divine Child saw its season end in the state semifinal, the team unanimously named Hutchinson a captain. On the heels of a disheartening loss, the intensity turned up a notch. “It was contagious,” Soraghan, who began to mimic Hutchinson’s day-to-day habits himself, says.
“We had kids that contributed heavily his senior year that weren’t really big contributors junior year,” Ploucha said. “That was because of Aidan’s willingness to lead and to get guys to buy in to what needed to be done to win.”
That’s what lies at the core of Hutchinson’s drive — not a want, but a need, to win.
“If he’s going to play his grandmother in tiddlywinks, he’s going to win,” Ploucha said.
Hutchinson sets goals, and he’s no different than any other football player in that sense. But to him, they’re not goals so much as they are demands.
The way Filiatraut sees it, goal-setting requires two components: a vision and an ability. Hutchinson masters both.
“He’d set a goal and nothing else stopped him,” Michelle Sugg, Hutchinson’s American Literature teacher at Divine Child, said. “He was one of my top students in terms of his effort and getting all of his work done on time. And he got an ‘A’ in my class, which wasn’t super easy to do.”
Soraghan watched the same process unfold on the gridiron. Before Hutchinson arrived, he says, Divine Child was “terrible.”
Then, things changed.
“We were just like, ‘We’re going to be good, we’re going to work hard, we’re going to play hard and be better than everybody else,’ ” Soraghan said.
Hutchinson’s sophomore year, Divine Child went 4-5. His senior year, they went 11-2.
“We spoke that into existence, and that happened,” Soraghan said.
In July, at Big Ten Media Day, Hutchinson professed that he was “willing to die for” a victory against Ohio State, much in the same vein that Harbaugh asserted he would beat the Buckeyes or “die trying.”
He then put that vision into motion.
“What you don’t see is what he does in practice,” Harbaugh said. “Trying to win the down every single rep in practice, like it was third-and-six during the game.”
That approach has been apparent in each of Hutchinson’s years at Michigan, but perhaps even more so this season in his last hurrah.
“He’s always been hungry, but he’s at a different level now,” Michigan defensive line coach Shaun Nua said on Oct. 27. “He’s just hungry. Either you have it or you don’t. And he has all of it.”
For Hutchinson, the win over the Buckeyes is both the culmination and the beginning.
On Saturday, Day will be down a partner. He’ll be in The Den, on the couch with no one to poke fun at. When he looks at the TV, he’ll see Hutchinson, at long last playing for a Big Ten Championship, looking to turn his goals into reality.