Once the clock hit zero after Michigan’s victory over Ohio State, Aidan Hutchinson thrust both arms in the air and burst into tears. His visualization that he could help change the program’s culture and his legacy, along with four years of pent-up emotion, all flowed out in that moment.
He took a risk by spurning the NFL after his junior year, when he was receiving first- and second-round grades, so he could come back and establish a legacy at Michigan. Surrounded by thousands of fans following a dominant three-sack, 15-quarterback pressure performance that sent the Wolverines to the Big Ten championship game, he knew his decision had paid off.
“He is the epitome of Bo (Schembechler’s) comment, ‘Those who stay will be champions,'” said his father, Chris, an All-American Michigan defensive lineman in the ’90s. “Hopefully in a big way on Saturday night, but no matter what happens in that game, he stayed and he’s a champion.”
An ankle injury in the third game of the 2020 season cut his season short and derailed his goals of breaking out and upping his NFL draft stock. He still wasn’t fully healthy by the summer. He could still function on the ankle, but swelling persisted, and Chris, an emergency room doctor at a local hospital, was holding his breath to see how it would hold up the entire season.
Before the season, Hutchinson had been talked about as a good player with a lot of potential. He had the size and the skills, but it hadn’t all come together on the field.
At Big Ten media days in August, he talked about being 0-2 against Ohio State, remembering sitting on the bench when Michigan lost 56-27 in 2019. He felt the weight of being down by more than two touchdowns and not being able to do a thing about it. The helplessness that he felt that day helped drive him to focus everything he had on this season.
He had two goals entering the season: beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten.
“Hands down, those are the two things that I care about the most,” he said on the ‘In The Trenches’ podcast in August. “And I think if I play well this season, and we beat Ohio State, and we win the Big Ten championship, that will fulfill my legacy.”
As a child, Hutchinson would write down goals in notebooks, and one of his goals was to play for the University of Michigan. In the family’s house, Chris’ white Rose Bowl jersey with the same No. 97 that Aidan wears, is framed on the wall with a plaque that reads “University of Michigan Big Ten Champions 1988-1992.” The jersey sits behind a display of championship rings Chris had amassed during his playing career, five in total.
Positioned on the same shelf as the championship rings are three individual awards Aidan had won at Michigan, including rookie of the year and the Richard Katcher award for the team’s best defensive lineman. There are no Big Ten championship rings or team awards, and that was something Aidan was looking to change.
Another reminder of what it would take to add to that collection, Hutchinson taped a ticket from the Michigan-Ohio State game in 2011, the last time Michigan beat Ohio State, to his dad’s jersey.
“On our mantle, we have all the kids’ pictures up there and there’s a picture of (Aidan) tipping a pass against (Nebraska quarterback Adrian) Martinez when he was a freshman,” Chris said. “I see the big 97 and that’s always been my 97. When he had 9.5 sacks, I said, ‘Well, 9.5 isn’t 11.'”
“He is the epitome of Bo (Schembechler’s) comment, ‘Those who stay will be champions.’ Hopefully in a big way on Saturday night, but no matter what happens in that game, he stayed and he’s a champion.”
Former Michigan All-American Chris Hutchinson, Aidan Hutchinson’s dad
It was coincidental that Hutchinson would have the chance to break his dad’s record against Ohio State, as Chris got to 11 against Ohio State in his final season, too.
But it wasn’t a coincidence the Wolverines entered last Saturday’s game with everything on the line. A win put them into the Big Ten championship game against Iowa and in prime position for their first College Football Playoff berth.
“There’s no question that we, we’re not in the position that we’re in today without Aidan Hutchison,” coach Jim Harbaugh said.
While rehabbing his ankle injury, which sidelined him for spring practice, Hutchinson spent several months working out his body as much as he could and studying film. He kept telling his parents something felt different. He wasn’t simply a freshman going into his second season. He was one of the team’s leaders and had to relay his confidence to the rest of the players.
“When he stepped into his senior year, this leadership role, he’s so unabashed in his approach and his philosophy, his integrity, his enthusiasm,” Melissa said. “Anyone else who had that in them and felt that way, the younger guys, it was encouraged to show all of that and be all of that. Aidan had this open-door approach of everybody on the team needs to bring everything they’ve got and put it all on the table, all their heart.”
He led by example, pushing himself to do one or two more reps when he thought he couldn’t in the weight room. He was excited to play in new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s system. He was a constant presence in the locker room, reminding teammates not only that they have a goal, but that they can achieve it. That mentality wasn’t present during Michigan’s 2-4 2020 season.
“Aidan is a tremendously influential person. Despite not just having the most impact on a field that I think a defensive player can have, I think the role that he has on this team is just so important not just for being a leader, but like, helping the other leaders on the team, like me, and Josh (Ross),” quarterback Cade McNamara said. “Just hearing Aidan’s opinion as well is just super important. He’s contributed so much to the change and the mentality of this team and we truly appreciate him and especially not just his play, but his leadership, as well.”
When the swelling on his ankle subsided through the end of summer and fall camp, he was ready to go. The first four games of the season, Hutchinson tallied 5.5 sacks, more than he had in the previous three years combined. He entered the game against Ohio State with 10 and a chance to break his dad’s record.
With Michigan up 7-0 in the first quarter, Ohio State was faced with a third-and-goal at the Michigan 8-yard line. Hutchinson set up offensive tackle Dawand Jones to the outside, made a cut to the inside and forced his way past Jones, driving until he finally wrapped up Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud to tie his dad’s stat total.
Hutchinson recorded two more sacks in the game to beat his dad and set the Michigan single-season record with 13.
It was a goal to beat his father’s number, but Hutchinson hasn’t been about the stats themselves. He told the “In The Trenches” podcast in August, “Obviously, you can make all the plays you want, you can make all the sacks, TFLs, but you don’t have a ring? There’s a feeling of unfulfillment there.”
The euphoria of beating Ohio State and being on the cusp of a conference title has all been part of Hutchinson’s vision. Now, as a Heisman candidate and the fifth-ranked draft prospect according to both Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay, Hutchinson finally has a shot at putting a few rings on that shelf alongside his dad’s, if the Wolverines beat Iowa.
As the season neared, he realized this was his last attempt to help change the trajectory of this team and how he would be remembered. Questions came in at Big Ten media days in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, about how this year is different and why he came back.
On Saturday, he’ll re-enter Lucas Oil Stadium looking to change everything and prove this year was different.
“I’ve invested so much of my energy. Mental energy, physical energy, into giving this all I’ve got,” Hutchinson said at the time. “I’m back for my last ride here, and when I tell you I have given everything — from in spring ball coaching guys up, working out in summer conditioning, winter conditioning, rehabbing this ankle — I have done everything for my body, what I put in it, to ensure that we have success this season. I’m willing to die for this, I swear.
“I want it more than anyone, I promise you that.”