Aidan Hutchinson ‘shooting for the stars’ in helping with Lions’ turnaround

Detroit News

Allen Park —  Not even a full 24 hours after Aidan Hutchinson, the Plymouth native, who attended Divine Child and then became a Michigan football standout, was drafted No. 2 overall by the Detroit Lions, the enormity of the moment hadn’t hit him.

Hutchinson joined receiver Jameson Williams on Friday at the Lions’ facility to be formally introduced after both were first-round selections Thursday night in the NFL Draft. The three-day draft continues through Saturday.

“I’m still waiting on it,” Hutchinson said of understanding just how much his life has changed. “I think it’s still going to be a couple days. I was just walking around the building today with my family, and it’s just weird. Growing up, I was a Michigan guy. I’m around Detroit sports so much. To think that I’m a Lion is just — it seems like a wild dream to me.

“It’s wild, but I’m soaking it all in. I’m sure one of these days it’s going to hit me for sure.”

Considered by many analysts to be the best athlete in the draft, the 6-foot-6, 268-pound edge rusher who set a Michigan single-season record with 14 sacks last season, Hutchinson had been projected a top-five pick. Some draft analysts had him pegged No. 1 overall to the Jaguars.

He ran a 4.74 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine and benched 28 reps at Michigan’s Pro Day. He was the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year and as a two-time captain helped the Wolverines to a 12-2 record and a Big Ten championship in 2021.

By all accounts, he was the heart and soul of Michigan’s team last season, its emotional leader and the face of the program. In many ways, as the hometown product now with his hometown NFL team, Hutchinson is considered the face of the Lions, working to build the franchise into a playoff contender as Dan Campbell enters his second season as head coach.

Hutchinson took a wounded Michigan team coming off a 2-4 COVID-shortened season in 2020 and helped guide it to its first Big Ten championship since 2004. Perhaps he could have the same impact on a franchise that has struggled mightily.

“It is a little bit weird that people do say that about me,” Hutchinson said of being the face of the Lions. “I’m just going to come in here and do everything that I can. I’m not going to be too focused on the outcome or like that. I’m going to be focused on the process and focused on just the everyday grind and just getting better as a player to help the team.”

He blossomed last season at Michigan in part because of a scheme change when Jim Harbaugh hired Mike Macdonald as defensive coordinator. Macdonald, now defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, allowed Hutchinson flexibility and freedom in the defense and made him a force in the pass rush.

Hutchinson is a technically sound grinder known for demanding the best of himself in the weight room, in practices and on the field. He returned to Michigan after suffering a broken ankle that required surgery in November 2020 — he had considered leaving for the NFL after that season — and was determined to be impactful.

“Freaky athletic in terms of strength and speed and flexibility,” Harbaugh said late last year while describing Hutchinson. “Just that athletic gene that he has. Blessed from mom, dad, and God. But his work ethic takes all those gifts and accentuates them 1,000-fold. The intensity which he, you see it in the games, you see it down after down, and people applaud that, and they should, because you see guys that take plays off, but Aidan never takes a play off.

“But what you don’t see is what he does in practice. And it’s the same exact thing you see in games, that kind of intensity, trying to win the down every single rep in practice, like it was third-and-6 during the game. Also in the weight room, every single running workout that we do, he’s an animal. It’s completely contagious. But, where do you start, where do you go? There’s just so many superlatives. He’s a football player, he’s a stalwart. Those would be the two words that pop into my mind.”

What Hutchinson sees in the Lions mirrors his approach to the game.

“I think the play style is nasty,” Hutchinson said, paying a compliment. “The whole coaching staff was brought here under Coach Campbell, and I think that’s the mentality. I think I come in and I bring that same mentality. I think that’s why I’m a perfect fit for this scheme and for that Detroit grit. I think I fit that mold.”

Getting to this point has been a whirlwind, particularly the last few days. Hutchinson and his parents Chris and Melissa, and sisters, Aria and Mia, arrived Wednesday in Las Vegas ahead of Thursday night’s first round of the draft.

At one point, Hutchinson had three different television stations in his room for interviews Thursday morning on top of other media engagements, marketing appointments, then a haircut and a suit fitting. By mid-afternoon, the family, along with Hutchinson’s best friend, Michigan defensive lineman Julius Welschof, granted permission by Harbaugh to take a brief break from offseason conditioning to make the trip, headed to the draft.

The final wheeling and dealing as the minutes ticked off before the start of the draft left the Hutchinsons unclear whether the Lions, Aidan’s preferred destination, were still in the mix.

“You get to the green room, and you hear he could go 4 (overall), and he’s like, ‘Oh my God, is this really going to happen? Am I going to be a Jet?’ because he really wanted to stay home,” his father Chris said Friday. “Obviously, it would be great to be No. 1, but he got to the point that gets dumped in your lap and you’ve got all this stuff you’ve been dealing with all day.”

They were all feeling the nerves of the moment, all of them all-in for Aidan to be drafted by his hometown team.

“Aria said, ‘If he’s not a Lion, I’m gonna cry, and they think it’s tears of happiness when the other team drafts him, and it’s not,’” Chris said.

Hutchinson, who had a distinguished Michigan football career, a captain, the 1992 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and an All-America selection, is now an emergency room physician at Royal Oak Beaumont. As they drew closer to the moment where Aidan’s future would be made clearer, as the anxiety level picked up, Hutchinson, calm and cool as a captain, emergency room physician and dad, gathered them for a family huddle.

“And to sort of breathe it out,” he said. “That was this whole, you could be 1 through 4, thing and you’re just trying to erase everything and try to keep the family focused and remember your original goal — it doesn’t matter where you go.”

It was difficult, he said, to get them focused because of the relentlessness of the draft process, but they all took a deep breath. He kissed his son on the right cheek in the final minutes before showtime.

Only 45 minutes after the start of the draft, they were off to dinner while Aidan, now a Detroit Lion, spent another two hours on site handling media responsibilities.

“We’re driving back, and we’re like, ‘What the hell just happened?’” Chris said.

The next day, they were in Allen Park as Aidan and Williams, the Lions’ first-round receiver, were formally introduced.

“We haven’t had a chance to pinch ourselves,” Chris said, taking out his cell phone to show the nearly 300 text messages he still had to answer.

Aidan and his sister, Aria, who went through Michigan’s virtual graduation during the COVID pandemic, will both participate Saturday in graduation at Michigan Stadium. That’s where Hutchinson played his final regular-season collegiate game and finished with a flourish, recording three sacks in the Wolverines’ win over rival Ohio State launching him into Heisman Trophy consideration. He graduated in December but with final exams and the Big Ten championship, he didn’t have time to go through the winter semester ceremony.

Now that he’s remaining in his hometown, the jokes have started. Will he live at home with his parents?

”It’s been discussed. I think I’m going to live in the basement,” Hutchinson said Friday drawing laughs. “It’s definitely going to make the transition easier. I don’t know where I’m going to live yet. I found out a couple hours ago that I’m going to stay in Detroit. I’ve got to go house hunting real quick. I’m excited. Just being home is definitely going to make this transition to the NFL easier.”

For the record, Royal Oak sounds like his landing spot, just far enough from Plymouth and close to his father’s work so he can drop by anytime.

“I’m sure he’d love that,” his father said, joking.

The craziness of the last few months will soon start to slow, and Hutchinson will zero in on his rookie season and helping the Lions, the team he grew up watching. He admitted to not a lot of great memories, but he is all about goals and setting the bar high. Elevating the Lions to a contender is a priority.

“We went through the 0-16 season when I was growing up,” Hutchinson said. “I’ve been to a couple Lions games before, and the atmosphere is just great. When the Lions are winning ball games, it’s like, ‘Happy wife, happy life.’ The fans are just so into it. I just hope that when we’ve got the right pieces going, I think the coaches are right, we can start to get this ball rolling a little bit.”

He is clear on how he hopes to get things rolling for himself in his professional career.

“Just know that I’m always shooting for the stars,” Hutchinson said. “Whatever that may be in your head for me, that’s what you can think. That’s always how I’ve done it. I’ll be shooting for the stars.”

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