HARRISON, Mich. — When Tucker and Tyler Vasher’s large gray van pulled into the Dairy Queen, they could see the employees inside buzzing.
In the car was perhaps the most famous athlete to visit Harrison in recent memory, and word had spread. Jourdan Lewis only has so many spare weekends, and yet here he was, in a two-stoplight town with a population of just about 2,100, pulling into a Dairy Queen in late April.
“We can see them inside the little building and they’re just freaking out, jumping up and down,” Tucker Vasher said. “So we pull up, and Jourdan’s sitting (behind) me, and I’m like, ‘Dude, you gotta get up, you’ve gotta say something to these guys.’ ”
Lewis obliged and took photos with them, but he wasn’t there to meet the kind folks of Dairy Queen. He was there for the Vashers.
On the surface, it’s hard to identify what connects them. Lewis is an All-American cornerback, one of the nation’s elite athletes who will almost certainly be a high pick in next April’s NFL Draft. Tucker and Tyler are 21-year-old twins with osteogenesis imperfecta, commonly known as Brittle Bone disease, who are confined by their fragility to electric wheelchairs.
Months earlier, Lewis had begun talking to the Vashers after Tucker tweeted him to say what a big fan he was. They started playing Xbox together online, some Madden and some NBA 2K, and soon they were playing semi-regularly. Now, Lewis was coming to visit.
Lewis does not remember ever breaking a bone. The Vashers estimate that they have broken hundreds. Once, Tucker broke his arm picking up a cup of soda at McDonald’s. They used to avoid watching scary movies for fear of scenes that might make them jump. When they sneeze, the best they can do is hope that nothing breaks.
Lewis is a Detroit native who now lives in a bustling college town. The Vashers live in Harrison, a city so small you could fit its entire population in Michigan Stadium 50 times over. Driving there from Ann Arbor, you see the first sign for the city right about the same time you see your first horse and buggy. One-hundred-fifty-eight miles northwest of Ann Arbor, it’s one of those Michigan cities that sits comfortably under the umbrella name “up north.”
Tucker and Tyler love to tweet and meet famous athletes. Just scroll through their feeds and you’ll notice all of the athletes they reach out to. Mike Trout. Antonio Brown. Justin Verlander. The list goes on.
In their living room, they have a signed bat from Trout. They’ve been invited to games as guests of Verlander and Ndamukong Suh. They’re sports fans who actually get to meet their sports heroes. It’s kind of their thing.
And given their situation, it makes sense that athletes like Verlander, Suh and Trout have acknowledged the twins. Who doesn’t love a good inspirational story?
But to lump Lewis in with those players would be a mistake. Those players have each given things to the Vashers, not the least of which was simply recognizing their existence, but none of them actually came and spent a weekend in Harrison. Lewis did.
As they sat in the drive-through, Lewis took pictures with fans he didn’t know he had in a place he had never been to. He was asked if this happened to him all the time in Ann Arbor.
“Only in Harrison,” he said.
It was Saturday, April 23, when Lewis came to visit.
Tucker had a doctor’s appointment, so Tyler went to Ann Arbor with two friends to pick up Lewis. This was at the end of the academic year, before 7-on-7 started, and it was a rare weekend off. It meant going to stay with a family he had only met once — when he visited Tucker after one of his surgeries in Ann Arbor.
But there was something about their invitation that drew him in.
“They just felt like really real people,” he said. “They weren’t hiding anything from me. They’re really honest and told me everything about Harrison. It was just like, ‘Why not?’ ”
On the drive up, Lewis says, his hosts talked about all the things they wanted to show him when they arrived. Harrison is the epitome of small-town life. Its claims to fame are its “20 lakes in 20 minutes,” and the Clare County Fair. So their list of activities wasn’t a typical set of tourist attractions.
They hit golf balls with baseball bats. They played NBA 2K. (And, they say, Lewis insisted they play on “Hall of Fame” difficulty). They played live basketball, too.
When Lewis showed them how to dunk, the Vashers could not even attempt it. But while their obvious differences could have drawn a dividing line, Lewis saw a connecting one.
“The way they go about life,” Lewis said. “They don’t think about (their limitations). They don’t think about any repercussions of what they want to do, they just go out there and they do it. And that’s honestly what you have to have to play football, and that’s what they have to have to go about their everyday life.”
Tucker loves to fish, but he also vividly remembers breaking his arm while fishing and getting the bone cut down as a result. And then there’s the time he says he broke both arms, both legs and a femur when he fell out of his wheelchair into an old firepit. His friend, Reed, had to save him from being crushed by the chair.
Tyler is a little bigger, his arms aren’t quite as crooked and he’s stronger than his brother. But these are all relative terms.
But in this little slice of small-town Michigan, they make their own fun. They live on a lake, though it’s a different house than the one they lived at when Lewis visited. They move around this town often — their mother is a real estate agent — and yet their place within it seems to remain the same. It’s not hard to see the appeal.
“I was talking about, it would be cool if I went out there and just lived out there,” Lewis said.
April 23 was also prom night in Harrison, a night that usually means dresses, dancing and dinners.
But Jourdan Lewis was in town for this prom night and, again, word travels fast.
“Before he came over, I was gonna say, ‘Watch how many of our “friends” come around,’ ” Tucker said. “(And say) ‘Oh, hey man, I haven’t talked to you in a while. Oh by the way, I heard Jourdan Lewis is coming over!’ ”
Sure enough, they came, dressed for prom but stopping by to meet Lewis.
“It was crazy,” Lewis said. “Usually you go out to dinner or something like that, you go hang out with your friends. You don’t go see like an athlete or anything like that.”
But while the rest of Harrison was treating him like a celebrity, Lewis appreciated that the Vashers let him experience their world. He liked spending a day in a community like that. The fact they invited him, he says, is how he knew they were more than fans.
“When they let me come up there, honestly, and see how they lived,” he said. “They treated me like I was part of their family. It was so special to see they didn’t treat me any (more special) than they would treat Reed or anything like that. It was just a great feeling to know I was just part of their family.”
That’s how Lewis wanted them to think of him, too — like a regular guy.
Lewis has earned a reputation as somewhat of an ambassador for Detroit. When an NCAA ruling on satellite camps jeopardized scouting at the local Sound Mind Sound Body camp, Lewis took to Twitter to publicly express his discontent. He occasionally sounds off on social issues, too. He comes from one of the nation’s most storied cities and now lives in one of America’s most revered college towns, and that makes his reaction to Harrison all the more noteworthy.
“It was just an environment of just pure joy and happiness,” Lewis said. “It was just so much fun. It was never a down moment when I was there. It was just so much fun every second I was there. It was just something that you had to experience, honestly.”
That Saturday night, around the bonfire, Vasher recalls Lewis video chatting with De’Veon Smith.
Smith wanted to know if Harrison really was that cool.
“Yeah man,” Vasher recalls Lewis saying. “We’ve gotta bring you up here sometime.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Harrison is Northeast of Ann Arbor. It is Northwest.