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COLUMN | GAME STORY | ENTERPRISE | MAGAZINE FEATURE | FEATURE
FIRST PLACE: MAGAZINE LENGTH FEATURE
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Be an uncommon man, Aus, that's what Stephen Hatch used to say to his son.
Uncommon men live their lives with integrity; they always do the best they can; and they don't just say they will practice hard and love harder, they do it.
Be that man, Aus. Be uncommon.
He'd elaborate sometimes, usually after playing a fierce game of one-on-one in the driveway. They'd sit on the sofa, go through the everyday questions about homework and sports, then maybe dig a little deeper. He'd remind Austin, for example, that it was OK to be a typical kid – to go to parties, test boundaries – but that to achieve his dream and play college basketball, he'd have to make sacrifices and maybe do what everyone else wasn't doing instead of following their lead.
Mostly Dr. Stephen Hatch showed his son what an uncommon man was by striving to be one himself.
There were some grand gestures: When the small local airfield, Smith Field Service Center, and flight school was going under, he swooped in to buy it and kept it going. And there were some especially poignant ones: He sang his second wife down the aisle at their wedding.
Mostly, though, there were little moments, small ones not made for public consumption but just for the pleasure of the recipient. Trent Van Horn, Austin's childhood friend, would be lining up a drive for a school-regulated golf match and look over to see Dr. Hatch there, supporting him, even though his own son wasn't on the golf team.
Austin was on the basketball team, so Stephen was a regular at practice, quietly sitting in the bleachers with The Wall Street Journal and a cup of coffee. Stephen was no helicopter parent. In fact, he usually had only two simple questions for Dan Kline, the former college coach who had reluctantly jumped into the high school ranks after the school's would-be head coach resigned abruptly: "Having fun yet, coach? You enjoying yourself?"
Every day he'd go to work, where he saw his job as simply trying to make people feel better. Stephen was more than just a doctor; he specialized in pain management, working with cancer patients, burn victims and others, trying to find solutions to treat and ease their crippling, debilitating pain.
It was as if he was giving his son a manual, a how-to guide to be something more than ordinary, and Austin, so in awe of his dad, drank it all in. He sat like his dad sat and told terrible jokes like his dad did. He got good grades, excelled in basketball, spoke politely and behaved admirably. Every day he strove to be the best Austin he could be, all the time believing the best Austin would have an awful lot of Stephen Hatch in him.
And then Stephen Hatch was gone. In the seconds it takes a plane to crash, all that wisdom, the map Austin was supposed to follow, his beloved role model and best friend ... all gone. Forever.
After several months in the hospital, Austin was finally strong enough to return home. As he walked into his house, in his mind, in his heart, he knew what to expect, but still ...
"It's not like I expected my dad to be there saying, 'Hey Aus, good to see you, man.' But I was like, 'Dad. I know you're not here, but where are you? Where did you go?'"
EXPERTS SAY that one in every 3.4 million people worldwide will be in a plane crash that includes at least one fatality. MIT statistician Arnold Barnett doesn't even have data for a person who survives two.
So how to explain Austin Hatch, the boy who has defied the odds that have yet to be calculated?
He shouldn't be here; that much seems fair to say.
At the age of 8, he was flying home with his family from their lake house in Michigan, his father piloting the plane as he always did. On approach into Fort Wayne, Indiana, something went terribly wrong and the plane crashed, exploding in flames on the side of a small country road in Uniondale.
Austin's mother, Julie; his older sister, Lindsay; and his little brother, Ian – all seated in the back – were killed. Austin, seated in the jump seat across from his dad, believes he survived in part because his father, severely burned himself, threw him from the wreckage.
Nearly eight years later – with some sort of normal re-established after Stephen remarried, to a local woman named Kimberly Neal – Austin and his parents boarded Stephen's plane again to go to Walloon Lake. They were going to celebrate Austin's decision to play basketball at the University of Michigan.
Almost 17 miles west of the lake, in the city of Charlevoix, Michigan, something went terribly wrong again. The plane crashed, and Stephen and Kim, along with their sheltie, Ally, were killed. Another dog, a Labradoodle named Brady, and Austin survived, though the 16-year-old suffered a brain injury so severe doctors thought he might spend the rest of his life bedridden.
If the story had ended there, when the crumpled shell of the plane came to rest in an unoccupied garage, this would be a sad story, one about an uncommon boy – an uncommonly tragic boy.
Except the story is just beginning.
Austin Hatch is 20 now. Three-and-a-half years removed from that second crash, he is a freshman at the University of Michigan, and in December he scored his first point – a free throw – as a Division I college basketball player. He is not back to where he was as an athlete – cognitively he can't process the speed of the game as well as he once did – but although he continues to push to get there, that is no longer his priority.
Basketball will be what basketball will be, but his life? Now there's an adventure he knows he's ready for and can't wait to experience.
"It's like [my dad] intentionally raised me to be able to go through this," Austin says. "I mean it wasn't, Austin, nine days after you commit to Michigan and accomplish your lifelong dream, you're going to be in a plane crash and almost be killed. I'm going to die. Obviously he didn't know that was coming, but it's weird. It's funny how, in life, a lot of the things we do are preparation for something bigger, without even realizing it."
STEPHEN AND JULIE were like the fake family posed inside a new picture frame, so perfect as to seem unreal. He was a high school football hero turned doctor, a onetime all-state wide receiver who forged a career in pain management. She was his high school sweetheart – a cheerleader, homecoming queen, a woman whose heart was even brighter than her smile.
Together, the Hatches, who met back in Saginaw, Michigan, where they both were raised, had three kids – Lindsay, the girl who loved the ballet; Austin, the sports nut; and Ian, or Mr. Big as his mom called him, to make the baby of the family feel special. They spent their time as most suburban parents do, going to work or parenting at home, ferrying their kids from one activity to the next.
They were ordinary people yet extraordinary to those who knew them.
"When you talk about people that complemented one another, they complemented one another," says Kevin O'Donnell, Stephen's cousin whom everyone calls Kevy. "That one plus one equals three rule? That's exactly what that was."
When they had time, the family would go up to Walloon Lake in Michigan. Stephen's father, Jim, built a home there in 1976, and ever since it's been the extended family's special place.
Jim and his wife, Peg, had just three kids – Stephen, Michael and Julie-- but Peg was one of 12, so there were always uncles and aunts, nieces, nephews and cousins around, all one big uproarious family raised together.
Stephen got his pilot's license in 1997, and since the lake was a five-hour drive but about a 50-minute flight from Fort Wayne, the Hatches frequently flew there. They spent the 2003 Labor Day weekend at the lake, water skiing, boating and enjoying each other's company, before flying home on Monday, Sept. 1.
The NTSB ruling, in its clinically detached language, determined the cause as: "The pilot's inaccurate preflight planning which resulted in an inadequate fuel supply and subsequent fuel exhaustion. Factors associated with the accident were the low ceiling, dark night conditions, and the utility pole, which the plane contacted during the forced landing."
Stephen, through a lawyer, later rebutted the NTSB claim, believing his plane malfunctioned.
Whatever the cause, the effects were the loss of Julie, 38; Lindsay, 11; and Ian, 5; and a father and son ravaged by grief, left to piece back together two lives.
Austin remembers what happened, at least in bits and pieces – sitting in the jump seat and holding a flashlight for his dad as some of the panels went out; his father, the doctor who worked each day to assuage the pain of others, getting burned so severely from trying to save his family that he needed multiple skin grafts and plastic surgery to recover – but respectfully asks not to linger there.
"I don't think people need to know the details from the grief and everything, do they?" he asks.
Instead, Austin chooses, as always, to follow his father's lead.
The physical scars would heal; nothing would scrub away the anguish, so what was the use in lingering in that dark place? Father and son cried, cried all the time, but mostly they chose to celebrate, not mourn, the lives of Julie, Lindsay and Ian. There would be mementos in the house, and decorations at Christmas.
"I don't think he understood the whys, but [Stephen] knew that through his faith he had to move forward," his cousin Kevin says. "He had to live. He had to live for Austin. You talk about selflessness. That's probably the most selfless thing you can do – live for somebody else."
They lived for each other, really.
Stephen delighted in his son's accomplishments, and Austin basked in the glow of his father's pride. Anyone who saw them together agreed: Their relationship went beyond father-son, deeper even than best friends.
"Trent's my guy, he's like a brother to me," Austin says, "but he always knew that my best best friend was my dad."
Each morning, Stephen drove Austin and Trent to school, and every night, no matter how tired Stephen was from work, they'd play in the driveway. There were no secrets between them, not even any half-truths.
As surrounded and cocooned as they were by the love of family and friends, their worlds were each other.
And then, two years after the accident, Stephen found someone to include in their tight little circle. He met Kim Neal, an active volunteer in the community and single parent for much of her life, at the Y in Fort Wayne.
The couple took some time developing their relationship, mindful of the impact on all of their kids (Kim had two teenage daughters, Maria and Brittnee, and a younger son, also named Austin).
Eventually they decided not only to marry but also to adopt one another's children, eliminating the word "step" from their melded family. They would be simply Mom and Dad.
"What other kid do you know that would have to endure something so intense and life-changing and life-altering that he had to grow up without a mom for a while? And grow up without a sister and a brother and grieve that?" Brittnee Burns says. "And to me what was incredible is that he ... it was hard for me to invite them into my family but that he could invite me as his sister, that his heart was big enough."
It was simpler than that: Austin just wanted his dad to be happy.
At the wedding ceremony, he stood next to his dad beaming, the 10-year-old best man.
A FEW BITES into a deep-dish pizza at the Pizza House in downtown Ann Arbor, Austin starts scrolling through the pictures on his cellphone.
Finally he stops. "Yeah, here, I tweeted that," he says.
It's a picture of a picture, a snapshot Austin's grandma found while scrapbooking. He's maybe 3 or 4, wearing a red sweater with striped sleeves and a toothy grin, contentedly nestled into the crook of his dad's arm.
"My man ... he was one of the greatest of all time," Austin wrote on Dec. 8. That's how he often refers to his dad, that or MOTM – man of the millennium.
His feelings run far deeper than simple adoration or even love; it's reverence, pure and unashamed. Is it fueled by what happened? Maybe in part, but Austin believes he and his father would have had a unique relationship regardless of their circumstances.
He admired his father so singularly that he hardly ever gave him normal teenage grief – no fresh mouth, no eye rolls, none of it – and rarely so much as ignored his advice. His sister Maria remembers that once – just once – he fibbed to his dad, claiming he'd done his summer reading when he really hadn't. When his dad figured it out, there was a stiff punishment – a long-term grounding. Austin remembers the story differently: He had some privileges taken away after missing curfew one night. Either way, Stephen didn't really need to punish Austin. Disappointing his father was worse than any penalty Stephen could mete out.
"First and last time I ever did that," Austin says.
Austin can't explain what it is that made his dad so special. Neither can anyone else, at least not adequately. Stephen wasn't perfect, yet no one can really come up with a bad word to say about him. Maybe it's just that he's no longer here, that the bad traits have been washed away by the sadness, but it seems more than that.
He was real. He told bad jokes and had his own little language – Hatchisms, his family called them. "Watch this smoothie swing," he'd call out from the links, then proceed to shank a 4-iron into the woods.
And yet he was somehow unreal, too, a person of character and conviction so strong people flocked to him.
"Maybe this will help," Kevin begins. Five years ago, Kevin's dad, Mike, was pursuing a late-in-life master's degree. For one of his classes at UCF, he was asked to give a speech about a leader who had taught him a lot.
Mike – a successful businessman in his own right – chose his much younger nephew, and emailed Stephen, asking whether he could share his guiding leadership principles, how he developed those principles and his definition of success.
Stephen wrote back a lengthy note, ending with this:
"Definition of success: "When you are loved by family and friends, admired by your peers, using your talents constructively, and consistently contributing to improving civilization."
THE FIRST CALL to the family on the morning of June 25, 2011, came in to Rioja, a small town in the Spanish wine country, near the French border. Jim and Peg Hatch were there, touring through Spain celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with 15 members of the extended family.
Jim, or Papa as he's called, hurried down the hallway in the converted monastery where the family was staying and woke up his son, Michael.
There had been a plane crash back in Michigan, and they were gone. Stephen and Kimberly were gone.
"We were just standing in the hall," Michael Hatch remembers. "And we talked and cried and wailed and then we made a whole bunch of other phone calls."
And so the phone chain spread across the Atlantic, to the northeast corner of Indiana, waking Maria, Austin's sister, in her home. She and her mom had missed each other earlier in the day. Kim had only just returned from a week volunteering in Joplin, Missouri, tending to victims of the deadly tornado that killed more than 150 people, and wanted to see her daughter before she took off for the lake.
Maria wasn't home, so instead, Kim sent her a text, telling her she was thinking of her.
Almost seven weeks earlier – Mother's Day, in fact – Kim had accompanied Maria to the hospital. Maria was pregnant with her first child and worried something was wrong with the baby, so Stephen arranged an ultrasound to allay her fears. Kim and Stephen Hatch heard their first grandchild's heartbeat that day.
Around 11 on the night of June 24, Maria took the call from Papa. Only the phone disconnected before the two could speak and, in the frantic moments as she tried to reconnect, Maria's brain processed the facts that Papa was in Spain, that he was calling in the middle of the night and that her mother had never called to say she had gotten to the lake.
"When I called my Papa and he just said my name, I fell to the floor," Maria says.
After Papa had delivered the news, Maria frantically drove over to her parents' home. Austin's car was in the driveway, but when she called, he wouldn't answer his cellphone. Growing more frustrated that she couldn't reach her brother than worried, she stopped dialing when two of Stephen's friends appeared at the end of the driveway. She explained that she couldn't get hold of Austin.
"And they just looked at me and started crying," Maria says. "They said, 'Maria, Austin was on the plane. He's not ... we don't think he's going to make it.'"
Dazed, she walked into her parents' home and realized immediately how wrong everything was. It was quiet. The dogs weren't barking.
"I just remember feeling, 'How is my whole family gone?'"
The phone rang that same night in Trent Van Horn's home in Fort Wayne.
His mother called him downstairs and told him the news. The Van Horns waited to see where Austin was. When they heard that he was in a hospital six hours away, Trent and a bunch of his buddies hopped in a car, driving through the night to get to their friend.
"I'll remember that night for the rest of my life," Trent says.
By the next day, the news had ricocheted around the country. In Ann Arbor, Michigan coach John Beilein woke up to a string of text messages alerting him that Austin had been in a crash. And in Orlando, Florida, Kevin got a phone call from his father, Mike.
"I was in my home, with my children and my wife," Kevin says. "I remember exactly where I was because it was exactly the same deal with the first one."
JUST NINE DAYS earlier, June 15, 2011, they'd all been at 800 Degrees, a pizza place in Fort Wayne, enjoying one of those moments worth crystallizing forever.
By then Austin was a 6-foot-6 high school sophomore at Canterbury with a sweet stroke and decent ballhandling skills for someone his size. In February, Beilein sat in the stands and saw Austin drop 30 points and 16 rebounds against Bishop Luers, an area power featuring current Indiana freshman James Blackmon Jr.
That was all the Michigan coach needed to see. On June 15, he called to offer Austin a scholarship.
Austin accepted on the spot.
The maize and blue runs deep in the Hatch family, whose Saginaw roots are just 85 miles from Ann Arbor. Austin's grandfather is a graduate, and, as boys, Stephen and Michael would hang over the tunnel on game days as the football players walked on the field, straining to touch the top of their helmets.
Julie Hatch, Austin's mother, went there, too.
"[Austin] probably grew up as the young man rocked to sleep with the fight song," Beilein says. "This is all he ever dreamed of, going to Michigan."
So when the dream became reality, it was cause for a celebration. They all gathered at the pizza place – at least 30 family members, friends and teammates – so many, in fact, Stephen picked up the tab for the other patrons, worried his raucous party was disturbing their meal.
Joyous and proud, Stephen nonetheless hung in the background, content to watch Austin take center stage, happy just to see the joy on his son's face, Austin's high school coach, Dan Kline, remembered.
Nine days later, they decided to go to the lake to celebrate. In 2003, after the crash, Stephen bought his own place there – right next to his father's – and Kim loved it as much as he did.
They took off in the early evening.
Again, from the NTSB report: "Witnesses observed the airplane turn to the right toward the runway, pitch nose up, bank to the left, stall and enter an uncontrolled descent."
The probable cause, the report adds: "The pilot's inadequate airspeed while maneuvering at low altitude, which resulted in an aerodynamic stall. Contributing to the accident was the pilot's decision to not execute a missed approach and weather conditions below minimums."
AUSTIN HAS a picture to share. It is of him alone, a screenshot he took from a newscast.
At a glance, it looks as if he's sleeping – his head tilted to the side, his eyes closed in serenity. But then there is the white tape at his neck, evidence of a tracheostomy tube.
"Why keep that?" he is asked.
He shrugs and smiles. "Because I'm thankful to be alive. I shouldn't be here. I know that. Look at that picture. I mean really look at it. The chances for me were not good."
Austin was airlifted from the scene of the accident to the Northern Michigan Regional Hospital in Petoskey, Michigan, then transferred to Munson Medical Center in Traverse City.
He had, doctors said, a diffuse axonal injury, a severe head injury caused by the movement of the brain inside the skull. It occurs in about 50 percent of all traumatic head injuries and causes swelling on the brain. In severe cases, like Austin's, 90 percent of all survivors never regain consciousness; the other 10 percent are often severely impaired.
"So I go out in the hall and do what we all do – I Google it," says Kevin, who arrived at the hospital within days of the crash and stayed there for weeks, "and I'm thinking, 'Oh God, no.'"
Austin remained in a coma for two months, airlifted again in August to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the top-ranked rehab facility in the country as of 2014. Austin had no recollection of the transfer.
Maria, however, does remember the first time she saw her brother there. He was in a wheelchair, unable even to stand; they had his head supported because he couldn't control his movements, and mittens on his hand to prevent him from injuring himself. She put on a brave face, smiling and encouraging him, congratulating him on his progress.
And then she left the hospital, returned to her Chicago hotel room, and pounded her fists into her pillow until she was spent.
"I was screaming, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" she remembers. "I couldn't believe that he survived for this. You've got to be kidding me."
HE WANTED TO grab the pen. It was sitting there, on a table, easily within his reach, and all he wanted to do was pick it up.
He couldn't, not because physically he wasn't strong enough, not because there was some sort of impediment placed on his body. He wasn't in a cast, wasn't strapped down. Nothing really was stopping him from simply grabbing that pen – except he couldn't. His brain wouldn't let him.
Here he was – Austin Hatch, Division I basketball recruit, scratch golfer, straight-A student – his once strong body imprisoned by his brain.
"I couldn't walk over there," Austin says, motioning a few feet away from a high-top table at an Ann Arbor Starbucks. "I could have done that when I was 2. I learned to walk before I was 2. I know what I should do, but I can't make myself do it."
That was in late August of 2011. Two months later, Austin not only walked into his Fort Wayne home but climbed the stairs to his second-floor bedroom.
Austin chuckles when people ask him how he survived two plane crashes – "Well, I didn't have much control over that," he'll say, shrugging.
He admits he wonders why he survived, especially the second time. Not in a why-me sense but with cosmic curiosity. He always sat across from his father when Stephen flew. On June 24, Austin sat behind him. He doesn't remember why or how that came to be, but that's where he ended up, with big, slobbery Brady on his lap.
The day after the crash, animal rescue officers picked up Brady less than a mile from the crash. He had wandered away, uninjured, and the humane society was able to identify him from a microchip.
But the how – the way he's lived since, defying odds and stunning doctors – that Austin can explain.
Seven years earlier, Stephen Hatch was faced with the same unanswerable questions: Why am I here? Why aren't they? And the same choice: How will I go on?
He answered by embracing a new life with Kim, and flying again, by going back to work and enjoying his friends, by doing the most uncommon thing of all – honoring those he lost by moving on.
And so Austin, the boy who survived two plane crashes, walked and eventually ran and jumped and shot a basketball and even scored a point. He did things no one, not even his own family, thought he could do.
It wasn't that easy. Rehab is grueling and tedious and even depressing, progress often overrun by setbacks. Trent visited Austin in the RIC, and, though he was thrilled to see his friend up and around, it nearly took his breath away to see his buddy, this great athlete he knew so well, struggling to make a lap around a hospital corridor.
Austin needed everything – physical therapists, who helped him learn to walk, speech therapists, who helped him learn how to talk; and occupational therapists, who helped him to bathe himself, dress himself and generally care for himself.
Once, maybe two months after he arrived at the RIC, Austin's uncle took him to a nearby gym and handed him a basketball, an object so familiar it was nearly an extension of him. He held it, then tried to do what he'd done millions of times before – put it over his head as if he were going to shoot.
And he couldn't. He just couldn't lift it. He had lost so much weight – nearly 50 pounds – and lacked the physical strength to lift the ball.
Still, he kept trying.
"I'm not sure what's inside me or how it got in there," Austin says of his determination, "but it has to be my dad."
A little more than three years later, Austin is talking about his college calculus class and prepping for an individual workout with Michigan assistant coach LaVall Jordan. He is not all the way back, nor is he sure that he ever will be. Processing is still a struggle. Once an honors student who barely had to crack a book, he now works with tutors at Michigan, studies intensely and still finds he can't quite retain information.
Similarly, on the basketball court, he can shoot, he can dribble, he can do all the things that a basketball player should be able to do, but stringing them together in real time, at the speed of a Division I basketball game, that's not there yet.
Maybe worst of all is his memory. He doesn't remember the crash – a blessing – but he also has only fuzzy recollections of the two months that preceded it. If he hears a story – like the one about the party at 800 Degrees – he sort of remembers it. He likens it to a multiple-choice test, where the answer becomes obvious once he reads it. Once someone tells him a story – Trent, for example, reminded him that before the crash the two boys and their dads played a round of golf – the memory is almost there, gray and hazy, if not in Technicolor.
Those last two months, of course, also were the last two months of Stephen Hatch's life, and it seems inconceivably cruel that someone who has been robbed of so much has to lose that, too.
Austin wants those memories back desperately, but he doesn't necessarily need them. He still has conversations with his dad about all sorts of things. Last semester someone asked him to go to a party two nights before his calculus final. The class had been a struggle for him, but the draw of a night off was tempting.
So he did what many kids do when confronted with a conflict – he asked a parent.
Aus, how would you feel if you didn't do well on that test, not because you couldn't but because you didn't prepare?
Austin stayed home and studied.
It seems like too much, trying to fulfill a legacy of a man who's no longer here, that the effort to be uncommon is actually an uncommon burden for someone already carrying so much.
"Heavy? Yeah, so heavy. Oh, oh so heavy," Austin admits.
And then he pauses and his face actually lights up as he gathers his next thought.
"I know what you mean by heavy, but it's exciting to me because I have a chance to honor my father even though he's dead."
IT'S A WEEK before Christmas, and the student population is thinning at the University of Michigan. Austin already has completed his exams and, once the last basketball practice finishes, will head home for the holidays.
Where is that? Austin owns a home, inheriting his father's beloved lake house after his death, but a 20-year-old isn't exactly ready to live alone. So where does Austin call home – not in the sense of sending the mail but in the sense of comfort and safety?
"Maria's house, that's like home to me. When I say I'm going home, it's Fort Wayne. I have a lot of [places to go] that aren't my home. That's how it is unfortunately for me. I guess I don't really have a firm home location, but it's like worrying about what I can't control. It is what it is. My situation is tough. I'm not going to lie."
Before their deaths, Stephen and Kim named Maria as Austin's legal guardian. She had no idea, not until Michael Hatch pulled her aside at the hospital in Michigan a few days after the crash and told her. Not even a mother yet herself – her daughter, named Kimberly after her mother, was born in December 2011 – she suddenly found herself in charge of a 16-year-old boy.
So that's where Austin went, to Maria's home in Fort Wayne, when he was discharged from the RIC, and that's where he stayed for the better part of two years.
He audited classes in the spring to reacclimate academically before re-enrolling at Canterbury in the fall of 2012. He joined the basketball team as a player/assistant, sitting on the bench in his suit and tie, and continued with his rehab, relying on local physical therapist Zach Beiswanger.
They met as many four times a week, working on agility and strength, helping Austin trust the body that once had been able to do so much.
One day, Beiswanger drove Austin to Beiswanger's alma mater, the University of Saint Francis, an NAIA Division II school in Fort Wayne. Beiswanger played hoops there, and he ranks sixth on the school's career steals list.
He challenged Austin to a little one-on-one in the school's gym. They didn't shoot to see who got the ball first. Austin had the first possession – "Fitting, right? The kid coming back from traumatic brain injury, he gets the ball first," Austin says, laughing – checked the ball over to Beiswanger, pivoted away from him, back toward him to face him up and then stepped on his toes, an old-school tactic meant to slow down the defender.
"Yeah, I had a traumatic brain injury, but if you check it up, you gotta come to play now," Austin says. "I'm not going down easy."
Academics were a little more complicated. Austin came back to Canterbury as a junior, a year behind his classmates but, thanks to the advanced coursework he'd taken earlier, could have graduated alongside them.
His family, especially his uncle Michael, worried about his cognitive recovery, thought he ought to take an extra year before heading to college. By then Beilein had made it clear that, if and when Austin was ready to come to Ann Arbor, Michigan would honor its offer and reward him with a scholarship.
The pull to get to Michigan was strong, the hope of walking alongside his friends even stronger, and the idea of staying at Canterbury for another year wasn't exactly popular. Finally, the family came up with a solution – Austin would move in with Michael in Pasadena, California, and finish his high school career there.
Austin wasn't on board right away, but eventually the thought of a fresh start – especially when all of his good friends would be already off to college – appealed to him. In August of 2013, he enrolled at Loyola High School, a Catholic school in Los Angeles.
AS THE LOYOLA players ran up and down the floor scrimmaging, Jamal Adams looked to the side and saw Austin standing off by himself. He'd seemed a little off all day, more quick to react in exasperation or frustration over even the smallest of mistakes.
Adams, the Loyola coach, walked over to see what was wrong, and Austin turned to him, in tears.
"Today's my dad's birthday," he said.
Austin asked for a minute to collect himself, climbing to a seat high up in the bleachers while practice continued. Pretty soon the starting five left the floor and while the subs went in Adams looked up to the bleachers to check on Austin.
Every single starter was there with Austin, some of them crying with him.
Adams says little by little, the game stopped. Practice was over. The rest of the team, including all of the coaching staff, joined Austin in the bleachers, and for the rest of the afternoon they listened if he wanted to talk, respected his silence when he didn't and cried with him.
"Hands down the best moment in basketball that I've ever been a part of," Adams says.
Moving to California wasn't easy – Austin missed his family, his friends, his dog, his home – but he was able to repurpose himself academically as well as athletically. Most mornings at 5, he met with Rasheed Hazzard, son of UCLA great Walt Hazzard.
Let go by the Lakers in 2011 during the lockout, Hazzard was overseeing a nonprofit named for his dad, the Walt Hazzard Hoop School. He was at a professional and personal crossroads, trying to figure out whether he wanted to get back into basketball and, if so, in what capacity, and trying to deal with the loss of his own father, in November 2011.
There they were, then, two fatherless sons struggling to find themselves and find ways to honor their fathers through the game they shared. Hazzard saw himself, 38 years old and lost, feeling sorry for himself, then watched Austin, with a lifetime of suffering stuffed into 18 years, shake himself out of even the briefest of doldrums.
On days when Austin was tired or frustrated, he'd stew briefly, only to eventually tell Hazzard, "You know, Coach Hazz, right now my dad would be lookin' at me going, 'Austin, get your butt up and get out on that court. You know how blessed you are to still be able to do what you love to do?'"
Who was the coach, and who was the student?
"As much as people think I did for Austin's life, he did that much for me and maybe more," Hazzard says. "I tell him all the time, 'You don't really realize that you saved me in a lot of ways.'"
It was more than just Austin's determination that moved Hazzard; it was the way he believed, believed that he would get better, believed that his dad was helping him, believed that he was on the right path. He set what seemed like impossibly high standards for himself, yet realized them because he knew he could. And he knew he could because his father always told him he could.
By the time he was through working with Austin, Hazzard was determined to get into coaching. This year he was hired as an assistant with the New York Knicks.
By Thanksgiving, Hazzard told Adams that he thought, in the right situation, Austin could handle playing in a game.
The right situation came on Jan. 8, 2014. After Loyola built a big lead in its first league game, against Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, Adams walked down the bench and told Austin to check in.
On the video shot by a student manager, Austin is at the low post on the left side when one of his teammates motions to him and sets a screen as Austin pops out to the wing, just beyond the 3-point line. From the bench, other teammates yell: "Yeah, Hatch. Send one, Hatch," and "Bang, bang." As the ball goes up, arcing from the 3-point line, someone yells, "Oh my God," because it's clear the thing is going in.
It barely wrinkles the net, swishing through with perfection. In the split second after, as the gym erupts and the players take the first steps to charge him, Austin simply turns and heads downcourt, ready to play defense.
Hail! To the victors valiant
As the pep band cued up the familiar fight song, out came the Wolverines for their Dec. 9 game against Eastern Michigan, dividing in two for the pregame layup lines as every team at every level does before every basketball game.
Maria had to sit down. She can't count how many times she's seen Austin do the same thing. When he was in high school at Canterbury, she was such a regular at his games – usually sitting alongside Stephen, their father – she joked she should have been Austin's PR agent.
So when she and her husband, Jason, drove more than 140 miles from Fort Wayne to Ann Arbor, she went on muscle memory, treating the trip as she did every other trek to a gym to watch Austin play.
And then there he was, Austin Hatch, No. 30, wearing the maize and blue, but this time, after everything, it was different. This was the same boy she saw in the hospital room, the one strapped to his bed so he wouldn't injure himself, and he was in a layup line.
For what seemed like forever, Maria couldn't speak – or didn't want to – afraid to lose the moment. When she did come out of her reverie, she turned, almost instinctively, to say something to Stephen, and was overcome with such wrenching pain it felt like she quite literally had a heartache.
When she had arrived at the game, seated with the other Michigan parents and families, Maria was so moved by all of them. They greeted her like an old friend, hugging her and telling her how much they adored Austin, what a great person he was. She sensed immediately that they were genuine, that they cared for the person not just for the product of some sad story.
She was grateful to them, relieved that Austin had found an extended family in Ann Arbor, people who would nurture him and help him grow.
"As much support as Austin has, you want your parents there," she says. "Your parents can't be replaced. They can't be. I just wished they were there to experience that moment."
Austin wishes that, too, of course. He suggests a breakfast meeting at Afternoon Delight Cafe, a quirky little eatery downtown. It was one of his mom's favorite places when she was an undergrad, her old college friends have told him, so he visits when he can. The food is good, but it's really the feeling that she was there, that she is there still somehow, that draws him in.
He knows his dad would be a regular at Michigan games if he were still here, probably dressed head to toe in the maize and blue. Oh, how Stephen would have loved to see his boy out there, reaping the benefits of all those pickup games and all that instruction.
Except maybe Austin wouldn't have needed him if everything had remained normal. The last time Beilein saw Stephen, he told the coach how Austin had let him down easy, explaining that he had other people to coach him and that his dad didn't need to be so hands-on anymore. Stephen laughed when he shared the story, but he knew his son was right. It was time to let him go.
It's funny, really, how now that Stephen is gone Austin needs him more than ever.
He is the motivation that sends Austin into the Crisler Center in the middle of exam week. Michigan isn't practicing, but Austin has asked Jordan, the assistant coach, to work him out. Austin arrives early, before Jordan, but rather than waste time, he asks a manager to shag rebounds for him as he sets about designing his own shooting drills. By the time Jordan arrives, Austin already has a good sweat worked up.
"Remember the goal," Jordan says as Austin works on a regular drill, trying to make 50 15-foot shots in 15 minutes. "You beat it last time. Make sure your feet beat the ball."
Everything is positive and encouraging, but everyone – especially Austin – knows the player he was. Beilein once likened him to a basketball version of Tom Brady because of his innate ability to know where the ball was going before everyone else in the gym.
He's not that player anymore. Remembering and executing a series of drills is difficult.
But the brain is wildly unpredictable. There is no concrete prognosis for Austin, and so, if no one is telling Austin what he can't or won't do, he will determine what he can and will do.
His basketball dream, the one he shared with his dad, is still very much alive. When he speaks about his basketball future, he always says when and not if, then reminds you that he said when and not if. If positive thought were all it took, Austin would be national player of the year by the time he graduated.
Who knows? Maybe he will be. But even if he's not, Austin is OK with that. Basketball was important to his father, but not important enough to sacrifice smart choices. If Austin hadn't delivered on grades, if he hadn't met expectations, Stephen would have shelved the sport without a second thought.
Tucked away in his office, Beilein has a tape of that game against Bishop Luers, the one he scouted when Austin was a sophomore. He wants to show his players so they understand the caliber of player Austin was, why he earned the scholarship he's receiving. He just doesn't know when.
"Do you feel happiness or sadness when you see this?" Beilein says. "I don't know."
"If I never get my game back and, in my senior year, I'm still the guy who gets subbed in with less than a minute left, hit a free throw and the crowd goes crazy – I'd rather be that and the man my dad wants me to be than the star basketball player."
Trying to be more than a cool story. That's what it said under Austin's name on his Twitter page.
In so many ways, people have treated his arrival at Michigan as the end, as the final triumph over adversity. But he's a college freshman, just taking his first steps toward self-discovery. This is really the beginning – of adulthood, of the rest of his life.
For more than 11 years, Austin has been known for what has happened to him, defined by tragedy – Austin Hatch, the boy/teen/Michigan basketball player who survived two plane crashes, ... – and he understands that clause between the two commas will always be a part of him. But he longs to be something more than the cool story, to be known for what comes after that second comma.
It's more than craving normalcy, though simply being Austin, the kid in English 225, is a welcome change, as well.
It's yearning for what's going to come next, to see how he will take these tragedies and turn them into something powerful and useful – to use his talents constructively, and consistently contribute to improve civilization, as his father said.
Be uncommon, Aus.
That's who Austin Hatch plans to be.
• Second place: Kevin Armstrong, New York Daily News: Army's Kelsey Minato
Is A Thrill A Minute
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