It’s one of those surreal moments in life few can understand or even hope to experience; a dream literally decades in the making just a few nights of sleep away from becoming reality.
Aidan Hutchinson has never played his home football games more than half-an-hour away from the Detroit Lions headquarters at Allen Park.
A Plymouth native, he starred in his high school days at Dearborn Divine Child just 15 minutes away. After going from unheralded recruit to nearly cracking the top-200 in the nation, there was never a doubt in his mind he’d follow in his five-time Big Ten champion father’s footsteps to the University of Michigan.
By his senior year, he’d become a Heisman Trophy finalist playing 30 minutes west in Ann Arbor.
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When Jacksonville selected Travon Walker with the No. 1 pick in April’s NFL draft, the Lions selected Hutchinson, the hometown hero — and now, just a few dozen hours before the Lions host the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2022 season opener, it’s as if this moment were written in the stars.
“I don’t know if it has set in yet, to be honest with you,” Hutchinson said in June. “Like I’m here, I’m a Detroit Lion, it’s just the weirdest thing thinking back to when I grew up and stuff and now I’m here.”
Since his arrival in Detroit, he has gone from the guy saying the right thing in rookie minicamp to turning heads in OTAs to Hard Knocks star (thanks Billie Jean) and finally an on-field force when he recorded a tackle for loss on his second snap in his NFL preseason debut.
All of it leading to Sunday.
“This is it right here,” he said Thursday. “It’s going to be awesome, you hear it’s (the first non-Thanksgiving) sellout since 2017 or ’19, I don’t even know, but man it’s going to be a great atmosphere, so I can’t wait.”
Hutchinson has always had lofty goals for himself, never shy about sharing them. But he isn’t going to put any numbers on what he would call a successful NFL debut, saying the numbers will come if he plays well, not the other way around.
His goal is to turn on the tape and be satisfied in what he sees the following day — “That would be a win in my book.”
Lions coach Dan Campbell earlier this summer told a story about how he was talking about “Hutch” over dinner with his wife and how he’d been a sponge through his first six weeks in the facility.
That has continued through game week, when defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn was asked what his message is to the rookie ahead of the day his NFL dream comes true.
“Play football,” Glenn plainly said. “That’s one thing about him, you don’t have to give him advice about his intensity level, he’s already intense … that’s just natural for him.
“We’re just going to let Aidan be Aidan, and you’ll see exactly what we’re going to get from him.”
If Hutchinson gives the Lions anything near what Michigan received a season ago, it’s going to be elite level production. He set a Wolverines record with 14 sacks to go with 58 tackles, 16.5 for a loss, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
He’s expected to help what was a toothless Lions defense a season ago that ranked near the bottom of the NFL in almost every significant category. Some days were worse than others, like when the Eagles shredded the Lions for 236 rushing yards in a 44-6 thrashing last Halloween.
Aidan Hutchinson might be even more equipped to assist than Lions coaches had hoped when they drafted him. Campbell, general manager Brad Holmes and his position coach Todd Wash have said different versions of the same line throughout the past handful of months: He’s a better athlete than we anticipated.
There have long been signs of his athleticism — like his three-cone drill in 6.73 seconds which was the sixth-best time of any athlete at this year’s NFL combine.
But until you see it up close, it’s hard to understand how a 6-foot-6, 265-pound athlete can be so agile and show such burst off the line. But Hutchinson does.
He of course will have his struggles. He was dominated by tackle Penei Sewell on the first day of pads. He was crushed by tight end T.J. Hockenson later that same week, but “never makes the same mistake twice,” Campbell says.
That’s what can elevate a talented rookie.
HBO’s show documented Hutchinson on the sideline, prior to the debut against the Falcons, saying he was about to (urinate) himself.
While that was likely hyperbole, the magnitude of the moment was not.
With the regular season now here, how will he navigate appreciating the moment, attacking aggressively and remaining disciplined?
“It’s really simple at the end of the day,” he said. “I really never get too wrapped up in the emotions of it. I’m passionate, I have fun, but it’s never out of control.
“It’s for real now, this is where our record starts and where the wins and the losses begin.”