Plymouth — Little by little, young Aidan Hutchinson added pieces of his father’s Michigan football memorabilia to his bedroom. The framed 97 jersey with Hutchinson stretched across the back and a Rose Bowl logo on each shoulder. The five Big Ten championship rings in a shadowbox. Photos of his father, undersized as a defensive lineman wearing the gigantic shoulder pads of the day, who was a captain and All-American.
Chris Hutchinson’s memorabilia had been stashed in the basement, out of the way, in a home with two daughters and a young son. Life had moved on beyond Michigan football. He had become an emergency room physician at Royal Oak Beaumont, a husband and a father, and while that college football success is part of his fabric, his focus had changed.
Chris never pushed Aidan to football. Aidan found the game himself. It might have been the day he asked for his father’s football memories, and a motivation to create his own.
“I saw it was in our basement, and I don’t know what came over me, but maybe that was the day that I was really inspired,” said Aidan, who was in seventh grade at the time and had not yet played football. “Maybe that was a monumental day.”
The inspiration remains on Father’s Day.
Aidan, who is entering his senior year at Michigan, is also a defensive lineman who resembles his father but is about 5 inches taller. Aidan is a returning captain who has fully recovered from ankle surgery last fall that ended his season. He already has been projected by some analysts a top NFL Draft pick next year.
Chris had his monumental moment watching his son run out from the Michigan Stadium tunnel for the first time, wearing his number. Hutchinson stretched across the shoulders of the 6-foot-6, 269-pounder, and the No. 97.
“I honestly thought that he was going to choose a different number,” said Chris, who was 6-2, 249 pounds during his playing days at Michigan, where he was known for playing bigger than his size. “When it just sort of came up in a random conversation, I was like, ‘What did you say? You chose … you’re gonna do that?’ I didn’t want to jump up and down and raise my pompoms, but I was like, that’s kind of cool and welled up.
“To see the name, to see the jersey, but to see it on an actual appropriately sized defensive lineman, the first time I saw it, it’s burned in my memory. Just seeing that jersey and then seeing (him) in the spring game in it, it was special.”
A conversation with the Hutchinsons
Chris Hutchinson, a defensive lineman at the University of Michigan from 1989-1992, and his son Aidan, who’s currently playing the same position for the Wolverines.
David Guralnick, The Detroit News
Following dad’s footsteps
Others tried to sway Aidan from wearing his father’s number.
“Some people got in my ear about comparisons, ‘Do you want that?’ But I don’t really care,” he said. “It’s kind of ingrained in our family, him being 97, and I just thought it’s only right of me to carry that on and to wear it for our family. You see 97, I want people to think of Hutchinson.”
When people watched the “original” Hutchinson-97, they saw a guy who played with tenacity, heart, smarts and bigger than his frame. Chris was the self-described runt in his family, considering two older brothers are 6-6 and 6-4, his father is 6-8 and uncle is 6-9. But he was undeterred and had 11 sacks in 1992, one off the program record (he had 24 during his career). He’s also second in the record books in sack yardage (99). In 1992, he was the Big Ten’s Defensive Lineman of the Year and named All-American.
Aidan was injured early in Michigan’s abbreviated 2020 season but is frequently described by teammates and coaches as a “beast,” and ESPN’s Todd McShay projects him a first-round draft pick in 2022. He was All-Big Ten third team in 2019 and recently named a CoSIDA Academic All-District 5.
He looks more the part of a defensive lineman than his father, but is he better?
“Well, you can’t compare 30 years ago,” said Aidan, starting off diplomatically. “They had lesser athletes, so I can’t I can’t talk on that one.”
“I can talk a lot on that one,” said Chris, chiming in. “Define better.”
Father and son are as close as can be. They golf together, not well, but they have fun, and they fish together. Chris isn’t about to let his son assume the crown just yet. If it isn’t Chris holding five Big Ten titles and a 4-0-1 record against Ohio State over his son’s head, there are the individual stats he rattles off.
“You know, 11 sacks in a year when they don’t count them during the bowl game,” said Chris, his competitiveness on full display. “I don’t know, five Big Ten championships, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.”
“This is the only ring I have,” said Aidan, cutting in and showing a dark band on his finger, “and I had to buy it somewhere.”
They both started laughing hard.
“That’s what this year is for, though,” Chris said. “Last year happened for a reason (with the injury) and we’re back, and maybe he’ll have a shot at some of these things.”
Chris and his wife, Melissa, were in the stadium at Indiana and watched their son suffer a fractured ankle. The two had, with other parents, pushed hard for a Big Ten season to be played after the conference announced a postponement in August because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That season they lobbied for ended quickly for Aidan.
“It just didn’t seem like it should have happened,” Chris said. “It was like, why is this going on?”
He started calling orthopedic surgeons he knew and was told Aidan would recover quickly and “never notice it.” There are scars on both sides of his right ankle that healed well, and he went through individual drills during spring practice, but the coaches held him out of contact.
“I just remember hearing those words that your season’s over with, and it really shocked my whole world,” Aidan said. “And then I saw (my parents) in the locker room, and it was pretty emotional because they knew how much work I was gonna have to put in to return. But they there were saying things to try and ease my mind. You’re at that point of shock, and it comes to a point where you just got to be there for your person.”
On the front lines
Chris has been on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic and has been there for hundreds of patients. Particularly during its peak last year, it was mentally draining and physically exhausting.
“He’s a really hard worker,” Aidan said. “When he goes to work, he puts his nose to the grindstone. When he comes home, he leaves it all at work. I’m sure I haven’t heard half the stories, especially the bad ones that are kind of horrific and real sad. You kind of just got to compartmentalize that and leave it there. I really look up to him in that aspect.”
Experiencing the pandemic from his vantage was like nothing else Chris had done.
“It was so different because everything changed,” he said. “All we saw was COVID. There wasn’t an ankle sprain, and there was nothing else. There was just COVID, and we didn’t know what to do with it. We had nothing to do for it. And so every day, we would have meetings and learn, ‘Hey, well, this study is starting to come out and you may want to do this,’ and it was so different than anything you’ve ever done. You felt helpless, and they just kept coming.
“Every week, something would change, and we would act completely different one way versus the other. It was challenging, not demoralizing, maybe a little demoralizing, but it’s just the relentlessness. That’s all we saw day after day, week after week. And it was something you never saw in emergency medicine. That’s part of the why we go into emergency medicine because we see whatever walks in the door. But during the pandemic, the only thing to walk through the door was COVID, and that’s not something that’s normal in the ER.”
The better No. 97
What kept things normal for Chris was coming home to Melissa, their daughters, Mia and Aria, and Aidan, who, like his teammates, went home when the campus shut down last March and had to start working out on his own. Chris saw his son take charge.
“He was still in the same room and still has my stuff on the walls, and he’s taking control of it,” Chris said. “I’ve sort of mentioned a few things along the way, but he’s his own person, his own motivator. And that’s part of the reason why, as a parent, I don’t think you can force somebody into that role that you want them to be because he’s got to want it. And if he wants it, then he’s gonna go make things happen for himself.”
As Aidan heads into this season, he is confident. He has relied on his instincts in terms of playing the game, but he still goes to his father for advice. He will send him clips from practices and ask how he can improve. During games, he will look up at his dad when he feels he is playing well but the stats aren’t showing up, and Chris will calm him as only a father can.
“That’s something that’s been really helpful,” Aidan said. “He’ll even go home and rewatch the games and then he’ll send me clips from his phone watching on the TV. It’s gotten pretty active between us in regard to film, whether that be practice or games.”
They do not avoid thinking about or discussing Aidan’s potential NFL future.
“I think it’s important to prep your mind for that,” Aidan said. “I’ve talked to my mom about this. You gotta visualize yourself at that next level. You got to speak it into existence, speak whatever you want into existence. I’m not one to shy away from saying it or saying I’m gonna be playing in it because you really just got to speak into existence. I’m really confident. I’m really excited for the future and what it has to hold. After the season, it should be a pretty fun couple of months.”
Chris signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Browns in 1993. Medical school became the better option. So he has to admit, finally, that his son is a better version of him as a football player, right?
“From a prospect standpoint? Absolutely,” Chris said. “I mean, who would you rather have, a 6-foot-1¾ defensive lineman or a 6-foot-7 defensive lineman? His frame and everything from an athletic standpoint, absolutely. And then you mix in some of my heart, that sort of thing, and I think it makes him a pretty powerful package, but …”
Of course, there was a “but.”
“To try to compare him to the defenses that we ran, the offenses that we went against, it was very different,” Chris said. “When I see my shoulder pads from old games, I’m wearing like a rooftop on there, and they’ve got these little bitty, like hockey pads on now. It’s completely different. I would love to play with those little tiny receiver pads on. From the equipment standpoint and the way the offenses are now and the rule changes, we’re not holding people to single digits. People are scoring 20, 30, 40 points, so it’s a very different sort of scenario.”
There is a scenario they would all love. Melissa looks to the future and hopes Aidan will wear No. 97 in the NFL.
“I can’t imagine any other,” she said.
It was mentioned that many already consider Aidan the best No. 97 in the family.
“They’ll see,” said Aidan, smiling. “They’ll see this season.”
To which Chris had the final word.
“That is OUR number,” he said, as they all laughed.
This time, dad is right.
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com