Home non category How the NFL Draft’s likely No. 1 pick made it all happen

How the NFL Draft’s likely No. 1 pick made it all happen

How the NFL Draft’s likely No. 1 pick made it all happen

WHEN HE WAS IN FIFTH GRADE, Aidan Hutchinson told his dad he was going to play football at the University of Michigan. That’s where Chris had tied the school’s single-season sack record (11) in 1992.

“Aw, that’s so cute,” Chris thought.

It was cute, too: Aidan had never played tackle football and was still two years away from his parents letting him. He was a pretty good lefty quarterback on the flag football field, and an outstanding competitive dancer training at the same studio as his sisters.

But an 11-year-old non-football player declaring himself a future Big Ten scholarship player? Sure, kid, never stop dreaming.

A week or so later, Chris walked past Aidan’s room one day and was reminded of his son’s very insistent, very particular way of embedding himself in his own dreams. Manifesting it, as Aidan would later call it. “I could feel the emotions of getting committed to it,” Hutchinson says. “I was all-in, completely invested in it.”

Aidan began to overhaul his room to match his goal. He moved in select pieces of memorabilia from his dad’s career — his Rose Bowl jersey, his Big Ten title rings, a ticket stub from the 2011 Michigan-Ohio State game he attended with his dad. Aidan learned to journal from his mom, so he began to write every day in his journal that he’d be a Wolverine someday. He tore one page out and stuck it on the mirror. It said, “I will play football at the University of Michigan.”

“Huh,” Chris thought, “maybe the kid will will himself into it someday.”

And he did: Seven years later, Aidan accepted a full ride to play football at Michigan, where he has emerged as the likely No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. But if you look really closely at the big story of Aidan Hutchinson, you can actually see the outline of hundreds of little stories, many of them actually written down in crayon, pencil or pen in advance by Aidan himself.

MELISSA HUTCHINSON STILL REMEMBERS Aidan’s first journal. He was 4 years old. He would sit on the front porch, looking at the sky, and draw page after page of pictures of Star Wars characters — Yoda, Chewbacca, Boba Fett, General Grievous, and on and on.

He’d sit down outside for an hour at a time, meticulously sketching out a stick figure of Obi-Wan Kenobi for a few minutes, then stare off into space, pulling a memory from his brain that he’d re-create on the page. He loved drawing the pictures, but he loved it, even more, when he would finish and hand the journal to his mom.

She’d ooh and ah like all moms are legally mandated to do, and then she’d write the name of the character and hand the journal back to him. It was a literal exchange of love between the two. She cherished these moments, the handing back and forth, the dual contributions, a creation shared between the two of them — and just the two of them — put on paper.

As Aidan began to run out of pages, Melissa slowly realized that he might do five more journals, or 55, or none. She thought maybe this first one might be a time capsule of something they used to do together, so she grabbed her camera and took a picture of him. He’s sitting outside, shirtless, looking off into the distance, wearing little cowboy boots for some reason, writing in his journal — their journal.

She couldn’t decide which she liked better, the journal itself, or the picture of him writing in it. So she kept them both.

FOR HOURS ON END, little Aidan Hutchinson would sit off to the side at his two sisters’ dance classes. The classes offered a little bit of everything, but Aidan paid particular attention to the hip-hop class. He couldn’t believe how fast and fluidly everybody moved, oftentimes in perfect sync, and he especially couldn’t fathom that one of the kids was able to dance with cool hair. “Look at how he dances — with a mohawk!” he’d say.

He was 7 or 8 years old at the time and loved what he was seeing … but he was a bit too intimidated to try it himself. His parents both could tell that if he ever started dancing, he’d love it and be good at it. So one day Melissa bargained with him to take one class.

“Well, it was more of a bribe,” she laughs now. “And he fell for it.”

If Aidan would sign up for a class, she said she’d stop at Target and get him a Bakugan ball, a toy based on the anime series that pops open and transforms into a small action figure. Aidan took the class, got his Bakugan guy, and did five years of competitive dance. “He got his athleticism of today from the dance work he did years ago,” Chris Hutchinson says.

BEFORE HIS JUNIOR YEAR at Divine Child High School, rumors circulated that Aidan Hutchinson had had a growth spurt. He’d had a nice sophomore year as a solid 6-foot-4, 200-pound grinder, but he was projecting more like a future MAC walk-on than a Big Ten star.

On the first day of school, Aidan Hutchinson 2.0 arrived, having exploded 3-4 inches and 30 pounds from a growth spurt, combined with three straight months in the weight room. In fact, coaches walked by one class and noticed Hutchinson couldn’t even fit behind a desk. The teacher had set up a chair alongside the desk, and Hutchinson had to lean over the top of the desk to do his work. He would not be walking on at a Mid-American Conference school.

A FEW WEEKS INTO HUTCHINSON’S junior year, Divine Child had a big fourth-and-2 on defense. The quarterback took the snap and the entire offense moved to the left. But then the running back pivoted and got a counter pitch going to the right, and all 11 defenders found themselves headed the wrong way — misdirection had been the perfect call.

The Divine Child coaches thought it would be an easy first down.

But before they could start staring at the sky in frustration with the football gods, they saw Aidan plant his right foot and surge the other way. It was a ridiculous display of athleticism, as though somebody had hit fast-forward on one player and nobody else, and it hammered home what had happened along with the growth spurt: Aidan’s body had caught up with his work ethic and football IQ.

ON THE LAST PLAY of Hutchinson’s high school football career, quarterback Theo Day lined up the offense for a fourth-and-goal from the 18-yard line. Day and Hutchinson had become good friends, and Day was thrilled when Hutchinson lobbied — hard — to play some tight end as a senior. Hutchinson had become the perfect target for a miracle lob to save the season for their senior class in the state playoffs.

Day, now the quarterback at Northern Iowa, took the snap and saw Hutchinson streaking down the middle. The defense knew he was a likely target, though, so it had positioned defenders in front of and behind Hutchinson.

Hutchinson managed to nestle into a spot in the end zone where Day had some space, and Day threw a beautiful ball into a crowd. Hutchinson had a chance at the ball but couldn’t bring it down.

Hutchinson took the loss hard. He changed clothes in the locker room afterward, and teammates tried to tell him that there had been a holding call on the play, anyway, and the team wouldn’t have made it that far without Hutchinson dominating on both sides of the ball.

Hutchinson gave out hugs and handshakes to his teammates but stayed silent before going home with his parents. “He could have caught it, and that’s all that he could focus on,” his dad says.

His Divine Child coaches were worried about Hutchinson the rest of that night and all day on Saturday. Then coaches got a text on Sunday and realized that he was going to be fine. “Can you open up the weight room on Monday?” Hutchinson wrote.

THE LAST GAME HUTCHINSON actually played as a high schooler was the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio. His head coach, John Filiatraut, was jittery on the way. He’d taken the Divine Child job at the same time Hutchinson was arriving in high school, and in many ways, they grew up together over the next four years.

On the day of the game, he was more worried than he thought he’d be — Filiatraut still wasn’t sure how well Hutchinson would match up with the biggest, strongest, fastest kids in the country. “Aidan was the best player in our league,” Filiatraut says. “But what does that mean nationally?”

It meant a lot. Filiatraut had to watch the game from the mezzanine because he couldn’t sit still in his seat, and he spent most of it elbowing coaching buddies as he saw what unfolded on the field. Hutchinson dominated the game, finishing with 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks, including one on a kid named Trevor Lawrence.

“Aidan was as good as anybody on the field,” Filiatraut says. “He looked at it as an opportunity to compete against really good guys, and I think he’s looking forward to the same thing in the NFL. Even if he gets his butt kicked in training camp, he will think of that as a chance to grow.”

AT HIS SENIOR PROM, some of the chaperones got a little concerned at the absolute mayhem on the dance floor. A cluster of 10 kids and then 20 and then damn near the entire senior class of 200 was bouncing up and down to the music, rhythmically morphing into one organism that moved together.

It eventually got so large that it felt like a safety hazard to the adults in the room. So some teachers weaved their way into the middle to make sure everybody was upright and OK. They pingponged around kid after kid after kid before finally getting close enough to see who the beating heart of the organism was.

There was Aidan Hutchinson, shirt untucked, sweaty and smiling.

BEFORE AIDAN LEFT FOR MICHIGAN, Melissa Hutchinson wondered if maybe their journaling had come to an end. But as they were packing him up to leave, Aidan approached her and asked, “Can I take some journals with me?”

Their thing would continue — but probably only until Aidan got too busy and distracted as a college freshman, Melissa thought. She handed him some empty journals, and he took them. She couldn’t help wondering, though, if her little guy was going to go off to college and chuck the journals in the corner of his dorm room.

AS SOON AS HUTCHINSON got settled at Michigan, he began scribbling a long list of specific goals, over and over again. He wasn’t using his journals, though.

He’d started using goal sheets that were easier to hang up on his walls. “I was a little sad at first,” Melissa says. “But I was glad that he still had the desire to write down the things he wanted to achieve.”

On the goal sheets, Hutchinson wrote:

“I want to be an All-American.”

“I want to run a sub-4.7 40.”

“I want to weigh 270 pounds.”

But one goal, in particular, mattered so much to him that he would write it down on a Post-It and stick it on the wall. People would come in and out of his room and the Post-It would sometimes disappear. Hutchinson didn’t mind, though — he would write it down again and stick a new Post-It on the wall to replace the missing one. Just so it was constantly fresh in his brain.

It said, “I will win the Heisman.”

Friends and teammates would chuckle at the notion of a defensive player winning the Heisman or even being a finalist in an age when it can feel like only quarterbacks have a chance. But Hutchinson was insistent — he’d get there someday. “I’m gonna do it,” he said, over and over again, occasionally mentioning a quote his mom sometimes says: “If they don’t laugh, you’re not dreaming big enough.”

Three years later, Aidan Hutchinson got 78 first-place votes and finished second in the Heisman voting.

AT THE END OF SEPTEMBER 2019, Michigan coaches started needling their defensive ends, Hutchinson and Kwity Paye. They were heading into an Oct. 5 matchup against No. 14 Iowa and its terrific tackles, Tristan Wirfs and AJ Jackson.

“Those guys are future NFL guys,” the coaches told them, lips pursed in faux concern. “Hope you two are ready. They’re good enough to really embarrass you out there.”

So all week leading into that game, Paye would look across the room at Hutchinson during position meetings and they would both shake their heads. They knew that the coaching staff was just trying to get them all riled up … and it was working.

And on that Saturday, they personally destroyed Wirfs and Jackson. Hutchinson and Paye (a 2021 first-round pick of the Colts) combined for 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss. Iowa panicked trying to help Wirfs and Jackson, and Michigan finished the day with eight sacks as a team in a 10-3 win. In the huddle between plays, Paye kept screaming at Hutchinson, “We’re killing these guys!” but Hutchinson didn’t say anything back.

Near the end of the first half, they got into the backfield so fast on one play that they collided with the quarterback. In the huddle after that play, Hutchinson made eye contact and finally opened his mouth. “Let’s do it again,” he said.

Now, Paye says: “That’s the day I said, ‘Aidan Hutchinson is a monster.'”

AGAINST INDIANA IN 2020, Hutchinson limped off the field with an apparent leg injury. He walked off on his own, though, so everybody was surprised — including Hutchinson himself — when X-rays showed he’d broken his ankle.

Eventually, the team trainer hiked up into the stands and told Melissa and Chris to come down to the locker room. Chris, an emergency room doctor since his own playing career ended, got copies of the X-rays and tried to comfort his son, who was as dejected as they’d seen him since dropping the pass in his last high school game.

“It’s a straightforward break, Aidan, so I think once you heal and rehab it, you will be fine,” Chris said.

But Aidan just stared at the floor. They took him back to the house and set him up in the living room, where he could put his leg up and stay put. Chris moved his gaming console out that night, and they all went to bed.

In the morning, Chris came in to check on him, and before he could even say good morning, Aidan said, “I believe you about my ankle. I will attack my rehab, and I will be 100 percent again.”

Chris isn’t sure if Aidan physically wrote that down. But for him and his son, it was as good as journaled.

FOR A WEEK leading up to last year’s Northern Illinois-Michigan game, one of Hutchinson’s former Divine Child teammates, Liam Soraghan, texted his friend about their upcoming matchup. Soraghan is a good blocking tight end for the Huskies and stands 6-foot-7, 261 pounds … but even he knew he was an underdog against the nation’s most disruptive defensive player.

So the trash-talking began early and in earnest. Once they were on the field, Soraghan doubled down, yelling, “I’m here all day, Hutchinson! You think you’re so big and so tough, but I know you!”

As usual, Hutchinson didn’t say much back, later telling him, “I was trying to get our defensive signals in and you just kept yelling at me!”

The two went head-to-head on 10 to 15 plays. Hutchinson ate up Soraghan on one pass rush, swiping Soraghan’s giant hands down and blowing right past him en route to nearly sacking QB Rocky Lombardi.

But Soraghan smiles proudly remembering a running play on which they engaged, then Hutchinson pursued downfield as Soraghan ran alongside him. A few yards downfield, Soraghan got his hands under Hutchinson’s shoulder pads and put him down on his back. “I caked him,” Soraghan says. “I got him good.”

When Hutchinson is asked about the play, he smiles, but you can smell the competitive side of him getting back up. “If that makes him happy, if that helps him sleep at night, then so be it, I guess he blocked me,” he says.

After the play, Soraghan was on top of Hutchinson, face mask to face mask, and he looked down and said, “You’re never going to hear the end of this one.” Hutchinson couldn’t help but give Soraghan a congratulatory smirk from his back.

A source close to Soraghan says Hutchinson has, indeed, not heard the end of that one.

BEFORE AIDAN’S LAST OHIO STATE GAME, Chris and Melissa settled into their seats behind the Michigan bench. Aidan and his dad had been going back and forth about beating Ohio State for four years now, with pressure building as Aidan’s Wolverines teams whiffed in their biggest rivalry game. The father and son love each other immensely, but there’s a competitive streak that both also enjoy. Chris had gone 4-0-1 against Ohio State in his career and at one point held Michigan’s single-season record with 11 sacks.

As November rolled around, the Big Game got even bigger for Michigan. A win and the Wolverines had a clear path to the College Football Playoff. And Aidan had crept to 10 sacks on the season, with one last chance at his first career win against the Buckeyes.

Melissa couldn’t take the pressure, roaming all over the stadium for a while, then sitting down and meditating in her seat to try to settle her nerves. By the second quarter, though, she started to feel a sense of calm. Aidan was in the midst of a day on which he generated what is a Pro Football Focus record, 15 QB hurries, and he eventually stood behind the bench and mouthed up to his parents, “They can’t block me.”

It was then that Chris officially knew his sack record was toast. And it was. Aidan finished the game with three sacks and ended 2021 with a new school record of 14.

DON BROWN HAS BARKED at a lot of football players in his day, and he can still remember the first time he yelled at Aidan Hutchinson. Brown’s words come pouring out from underneath a thick mustache, and if Football Coach University ever needs a mascot, he’d be a great pick.

Brown was the Michigan defensive coordinator from 2016 to 2020, and he thinks it was sometime in Hutchinson’s freshman year when he first had to get after him for letting a lineman get lower than him and drive him out of a play.

Most freshmen’s eyes get wide and their hair blows back when Brown lets it fly after a mistake, but Hutchinson didn’t flinch. In fact, Brown ended up a little rattled himself. The more he tried ripping into Hutchinson, the more riveted Hutchinson seemed, absorbing the harsh criticism in a way that conveyed he wanted every ounce of it.

As Brown wound down, he realized he was probably never going to yell at Hutchinson again. And he didn’t. “Sometimes my head comes off and my teeth fall out of my face,” Brown says. “But it never bothered him. You couldn’t rattle his cage so I didn’t even try.”

OVER THE YEARS, the Hutchinson house, nestled about halfway between Ann Arbor and Detroit, has always been a borderline humane society for animals, mostly cats and dogs. That meant Aidan and his two sisters learned to love pets — and experienced the heartbreak of losing a little buddy, too.

At some point early in Aidan’s Michigan career, he started thinking about getting a pet. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to deal with the heartbreak again.

“Why do we keep getting animals just for them to die X numbers of years later?” he asked his mom.

“It’s better to love someone than to never love at all,” his mom said.

Damn, that’s how you do it right there, Aidan thought.

THIS SUMMER, Aidan called his mom. “I’m ready to be a cat dad,” he told her. He’d gone back and forth about whether to get a cat, or a dog, or both, and decided it’d be too hard to get a dog until he gets drafted and can settle in someplace for the long term.

Melissa was the adoption ringleader, setting up family outings to go to shelters and the ASPCA on the weekend. After a few weeks, Aidan had found his two new cat friends. Momo, a female, is shy around everybody except for Aidan, then she scurries along under his feet like an untied shoelace. Mitty, a male, is more outgoing and has the paws of a future bank robber. Aidan’s roommate recently sent Hutchinson a video of him in his room, with a mysterious intruder jostling with his room door … then the door swings open and it is Mitty, standing upright, having finished casing the joint and decided to bust in.

When Aidan was away from Ann Arbor training for the combine, his mom FaceTimed with him once or twice from the apartment so he could say hello to his little buddies. “They’re getting so big, mom,” he sighed. “I can’t wait ’til they can come live with me wherever I end up.”

After the combine, during a Zoom from his apartment, Aidan smiles and points to his right. “They’re perched up right here at the window looking out,” Aidan says. He clarifies that he is not just a cat guy — “I’m an animal guy,” he says — so Mitty and Momo will have a dog friend or two in the near future.

“You have these animals for different parts of your life,” he says. “They’re there for you and yes, that goodbye is so freaking hard. Just the moments you have with them at that moment in your life makes it all worth it.”

JUST LIKE FOUR YEARS EARLIER, the Hutchinsons went to Ann Arbor in February to help Aidan pack up his stuff. This time, he was headed to California to train.

Toward the end, Aidan loaded up his bags and hugged his dad, then his mom. Their little boy was 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, headed for a multimillion-dollar career as an NFL player. Most draft projections now have him going No. 1 to Jacksonville.

Before he left, Aidan handed his mom something. He had actually been doing a little journaling, not just goal sheets, during his final year at Michigan. The journal had all of his notes to himself, that he’d be an All-American, he’d get faster and stronger, he’d break his dad’s sack record, and he’d win the Heisman. She shook her head that he had done damn near everything he wrote down.

It’s a manuscript of a young man who manifested his own stardom, who thought he could write it into existence, and it was perhaps the last chapter in the 18-year tradition that he and his mom have shared. What a perfect storybook ending for her, him and General Grievous. Melissa could live with that.

But as Melissa flipped through the pages, she heard the sound of Aidan’s voice. “Mom, can I get a new one to take with me?”

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