Kornacki: Hirsch Defies Odds to Earn Second Chance on the Gridiron

Photo courtesy of Gil Talbot
Photo courtesy of Gil Talbot

By Steve Kornacki for MGoBlue.com

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The best football players, like the best at anything, don't know when to quit.

When they are told they have a "life-threatening" autoimmune disease, they don't give up on their dreams. When they can't play football any more at Harvard because they are undergoing chemotherapy treatments, they become a team manager, doing anything they can to continue contributing.

And, when they recover from numerous complications, surgery, enter into joyous remission, graduate from one of the greatest schools in the world and get a great job on Wall Street, they aren't quite satisfied. They remember their dream of playing college football and decide to pursue that at Michigan, which has one of the greatest teams in the land, because they have always loved the Wolverines.

They defy more odds than just about anybody you can name.

They are Michael Hirsch, and that's his story.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is all about that kind of spirit, and Hirsch will be walking on as a fullback this season. I asked Harbaugh about what Hirsch, 24, will bring to his team.

"What does Michael Hirsch bring?" said Harbaugh. "I'm excited to see what he brings. He's very excited about the opportunity and seems extremely motivated. He appears to want it really bad, and has this second chance, this new lease, that has got to rub off on our team.

"It rubbed off on me. I feel it. So, I would think it's going to rub off on more than just me."

Hirsch wanted to make one thing clear about his mission at Michigan, where he'll be in the one-year master's and management program in the Ross School of Business.

"I'm just so excited and happy to help this team in any capacity," said Hirsch. "Personally, whether I am on the scout team and helping make the defense better or helping in any other way, I am just the happiest guy in the world to be a part of this team and help it become better. I hope it's clear that I just want to help the team in any way possible, and I'll do anything to put the team first.

"Michigan fans would run through a wall to help this team if they had the opportunity, and that's what I'm doing."

Keep in mind that Hirsch never gained one yard or made a tackle for Harvard, but, according to Crimson coach Tim Murphy, still impacted his program in important ways.

Hirsch rushed for 3,375 yards and 50 touchdowns at Glenbrook South in Glenview, Illinois, and was a two-time captain. So, Murphy expected that his greatest impact would come between the goalposts.

"We recruited Mike as an H-Back, our version of a multi-dimensional tight end, and he would have been a very good player at our level (FCS Division I)," Murphy said in an e-mail.

Hirsch played in Harvard's junior varsity games as a freshman.

"I was behind a guy on the depth chart named Kyle Juszczyk," said Hirsch. "He plays fullback for the Baltimore Ravens and actually plays there for John Harbaugh. Coming out of spring ball, I felt like I'd be a special teams guy as a sophomore.

"But during spring ball, I started to feel pretty sick. It felt like a cold, sore throat, ear ache, headaches. I had creaky joints and stuff, and then it progressed. I went home in early May, and it got worse. I saw as many doctors as I could but nobody could figure it out for a month. Then I got diagnosed."

He had Wegener's Granulomatosis, an autoimmune disease that damaged his organ systems. He called the Harvard coaches and told them he was going to fight it and get back.

"I served as a manager -- which I appreciated," said Hirsch. "The whole team was my best friends, my roommates, my guys, and I had committed four years to them. So, I wanted to serve and help out Coach Murphy in any way possible. They were kind to let me keep my locker and still feel like part of the team -- which was huge given what I was going through.

"I helped set up the field for practice and filmed practice every day from the top of the stadium. I did that for three years while I fought the disease."

Murphy said: "He stayed with the program as a student assistant doing a lot of thankless, behind-the-scenes tasks, and he became a highly respected and beloved member of the Harvard football family. Mike never had any 'woe is me' moments, not an ounce of self-pity, and we were inspired by him on a daily basis. Michael will be remembered as a world-class teammate.

Hirsch said Murphy constantly checked in on him "to see how I was doing."

"He even gave me rings from our two Ivy League championships," said Hirsch "I couldn't have felt more supported, accepted and a part of the team. I am so grateful for that."

Murphy saw him as a ray of sunshine but was worried about what he couldn't see.

"I was a bit shocked," Murphy said of the initial diagnosis. "I knew this was serious as a father of three and having recruited 800-plus kids as a Division I head coach for the past 30 years. I have 'lost' some kids, so I was prepared for the worst."

Wegener's was pretty much a death sentence one or two generations ago but various medications have been discovered and, according to www.wegenersdisease.co.uk, has pushed the overall 10-year survival rate to 75-88 percent, with age being an important factor.

"There were several chemo treatments that I tried," said Hirsch, "and the one that really worked and started to get me healthier and into remission is an infusion called Rituxan. So, I would go into the hospital every two weeks and get an infusion. It is used for many things, including cancer."

Hirsch had about eight months of intense treatment.

"I had some serious damage," he said. "I had a hearing problem because my ear canal was damaged, and so they had to fix that. My tear duct on my right side was broken so they had to fix my eye. The biggest thing was that my trachea (windpipe) shrunk down to two millimeters. The average trachea is eight millimeters in diameter, and I was in really bad shape there. I had a bunch of tracheal dilation procedures.

"I went through a lot of stages of fighting this all through college. But in terms of being at risk of something super serious happening, I was at that stage for about the first eight months. If I hadn't taken care of it, I would've had way worse circumstances."

Wegener's is now under control.

"I'm always going to have it," said Hirsch, "but I'm in remission. So, my blood work looks perfectly normal. What the drug I take does is knock out all of your B cells, and so my immune system is a little bit lower. That way, my body can't attack itself as it has with this disease.

"But I'm in remission and have been cleared by every doctor you could possibly see under the sun. If you didn't know it, you wouldn't know I have it."

He graduated with a degree in economics in 2014 and became a credit sales analyst for Citigroup on Wall Street. But something was missing because the longing he had to play college football remained; the Wolverines became his goal.

"I was always a Michigan fan, and being a Michigan fan is infectious," said Hirsch. "The passion my dad and I had spilled over to all my best friends who became Michigan fans."

Hirsch's bedroom was decorated in Michigan football posters. Charles Woodson, Tom Brady, Drew Henson, Anthony Thomas and Mike Hart all were up on his walls. His parents, Daniel and Karen, fell in love in Ann Arbor and also went head over heels for the Wolverines.

"They met as freshmen in the South Quad," said Hirsch. "My dad thought my mom was cute and rigged a secret Santa thing there to have her as his person, and they started dating from there.

"My dad (an investment bond salesman) used to take customers to the Big Ten Football Media Days and bring home some autographs for me. So, this is a dream come true without a doubt. Playing for Michigan is something I've wanted to do since I was five, and I thought the door had been closed on that dream. So, I'm really, really grateful to be here and to be able to make it a reality and help the team out. I never gave up on that notion."

"I plan on going back to the job I had. It was fun and exciting. But last August, I felt I needed a big challenge and a personal goal. I wrote down the biggest one I could think of -- helping the team at Michigan."

He wrote down the steps required on a piece of paper and stuck it into a mirror in his room to study daily.

"If I worked out," said Hirsch, "it would be really amazing."

Doctors had to clear him and did so. He petitioned the NCAA for an opportunity to return as a student-athlete and got it. Then Alex Gedeon, the 2011 Harvard captain, helped connect him to the Wolverines through his brother, current Michigan linebacker Ben Gedeon.

"I got a preferred walk-on option," said Hirsch, now 6-1 and 250 pounds. "It was awesome. Coach Harbaugh called me on a work day and left a message. He said, 'This is Coach Harbaugh. I've got some great news for you.' I called him back, and he was happy about it, letting me know I had two years of eligibility, and he was really excited to have me be a part of the team."

Hirsch was asked to put into words his journey from the depths of Wegener's to the news that he was in remission.

"It's a life-threatening auto immune disease," said Hirsch. "I was probably three or four weeks away from it really affecting me (when diagnosed), but it isn't a cancer. I know that because I took chemo, people link the two. When I was first told about it, I went into shock. It was surreal. I was in the hospital for a number of days and didn't feel it was my life, given the first 19 years of my life I was active and involved in sports and extra-curricular activities. Then I had to learn to live with chronic pain and other issues when things you love are taken away from you -- mainly football.

"It was hard to get my head around it, but I tried to stay extremely positive and focus on things that make me happy. I was extremely lucky that my family (parents and two sisters) were extremely supportive and helpful."

The news of remission was like the tide coming in to free a boat stranded on a sandbar.

"That was one of the better feelings in the world," Hirsch said. "But once I knew I was out of the woods and not in grave danger that felt good, too. It went in stages because it took a while for my body to respond to the treatments.

"It was just a great relief. I hugged my parents and felt like we fought it together. Mom was with me all the time at the hospital, and I was almost happier that she could relax a little bit more than anything else."

It is pinch-me time for a guy who has taken some hard knocks, defied great odds and landed on his feet in a dream.