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'A once-in-a-lifetime experience'

Matt DeYoung • Mar 28, 2018 at 12:00 PM

For a player who averaged more than 20 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game as a high school sophomore, a simple free throw should be no big deal.

But one free throw meant much more than the single point it accounted for on the scoreboard for Austin Hatch.

That free throw — which splashed through the net at Crisler Arena on March 10, 2014 — marked the one and only time Hatch was able to take the court for the University of Michigan men’s basketball team.

It’s the career highlight for Hatch, who became famous for surviving two plane crashes while in high school — crashes that claimed the lives of his mother and two siblings, then his father and stepmother. Those plane crashes also robbed Hatch of a promising basketball career at Michigan.

But don’t feel sorry for Hatch. He didn’t fight his way back from near death — he spent eight weeks in a medically induced coma in 2011 — by feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he worked tirelessly, learning to walk and talk again before eventually fulfilling his dream as a member of the University of Michigan men’s basketball team.

Hatch will be on the bench when the Wolverines take on Loyola of Chicago in the Final Four on Saturday night in San Antonio, Texas. While he won’t play — he’ll be dressed in a blue and gold suit, not a basketball jersey — he’ll do all he can to help Michigan win through encouragement and positive energy.

“Six and a half years ago, I was in a hospital bed, in a coma, and people didn’t know if I was ever going to wake up,” Hatch said. “If I did, I might be in assisted living the rest of my life. I might never get out of a wheelchair. Now look at the situation I’m in — I’m getting ready to graduate from Michigan, I’m getting ready to marry the girl of my dreams, getting ready to live a normal life.”

Who’s that girl                                   

That “girl of his dreams” is Grand Haven’s Abby Cole, who led the Buccaneers to back-to-back basketball state championships during her high school career and went on to earn All-Big Ten honors in volleyball at Michigan during her four-year career with the Wolverines.

Cole and Hatch met in 2014, when she wandered into a political science class 10 minutes late and quickly scanned the room for an empty seat. Hatch noticed Cole — at 6-foot-5, she’s hard to miss — and signaled her to an empty seat next to him.

The rest, as they say, is history. Cole, whose parents, Scott and Dawn Cole, still live in Grand Haven, will marry Hatch this June in Petoskey.

The couple’s engagement made national news when Austin proposed to Abby on the Michigan volleyball court the day she graduated from U-M. Because of Hatch’s fame, and the fact that Cole is also a high-profile student-athlete at Michigan, the video of their engagement went viral.

“Honestly, it surprised us both that people have taken such an interest in our relationship,” Cole said. “We went to an awards ceremony the Monday after we got engaged, and there were reporters there waiting to film us and ask us questions. When we take a step back, we can kind of understand why. The last couple chapters of his story have been pretty public, and it’s almost as if he found the beginning of his ‘happy ending’ at Michigan.”

Happy ending

That happy ending didn’t come easily for Hatch. He arrived at Michigan hopeful that he’d be able to recapture the success on the basketball court that helped him earn Player of the Year honors in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, area for averaging 23 points and 9 rebounds — as a sophomore.

But the injuries sustained in the second plane crash proved too much to overcome.

“I came in as a freshman in the summer and started working out, and I knew I was a long ways from being back to my old self from an athletic standpoint,” Hatch said.

Michigan’s coaches, including head coach John Beilein, quickly realized the same thing. Instead of pulling Hatch’s scholarship, however, Beilein honored the commitment he had made to him.

“I went through my freshman year being on the roster, going to every practice, everything,” Hatch said.

That next semester, Beilein pulled Hatch aside and had a very honest conversation with the young man, telling him to focus on his school work and to come to practice when he was able.

“He told me it didn’t do me any good to be at the gym four hours a day during the winter, going through practice — a majority of which I couldn’t participate in because my injuries impaired my ability to play,” Hatch said.

It was during that 2014 season that Hatch took the floor during an exhibition game and was able to walk to the free-throw line, where he swished a foul shot for his one and only collegiate point.

“His free throw was such a highlight for us both,” Cole said. “He had to overcome so much adversity to get to that point.”

As he walked off the court after making the shot, Beilein wrapped Hatch in a big hug, a smile spreading from ear to ear.

Hatch played in a total of five games for Michigan as a freshman before taking a medical redshirt, which ended his playing career.

Senior moment

Beilein has gone above and beyond to help Hatch remain a part of the basketball team as a student assistant. That’s never been more true than on senior night this spring.

“This was one I really wanted Austin to be a part of,” Beilein said in an interview with CBS Sports. “Let’s petition the Big Ten, see if we can put him in a uniform, have him warm up, do everything short of playing in a game, so Austin could experience what he really deserved, but life threw different challenges at him.”

On Feb. 18, Hatch walked onto the Crisler Center court, accompanied by Cole and his grandparents. Beilein could be seen wiping away tears as he presented Hatch with a framed jersey.

“One thing I’ll say about Coach Beilein is that he has high standards for his team on the court, but he doesn’t care about his players’ talent as much as he cares about his players’ heart,” Hatch said. “He doesn’t treat people differently based on what they can provide for him on the court, and my story’s a testament to that.”

“His senior night was emotional for a lot of reasons,” Cole added. “There were some very happy moments involved and some very bittersweet, some really tough emotions, too. I had my senior night last fall and my parents walked me out. During Austin’s senior night, his teammates’ parents walked them out. We both know that his parents are watching over us.

“When you look at what he’s lost, he could have responded very differently,” she continued. “No one’s gone through what he’s gone through, but he’s remained such a loving and caring person. He really looks for the beauty in life.”

Road to the Final Four

That senior night, Michigan beat Ohio State, 83-72, for its third win in a row. A month later, that winning streak now stands at 13, including four wins to claim the Big Ten Tournament championship and four more wins in the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan returns to the court Saturday against the tournament’s Cinderella team, Loyola.

Cole will be making the trip to Texas to watch the game with Hatch’s grandmother.

“I’m thrilled,” Cole said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. I was telling someone — How often is your fiancé in the Final Four? I want to go support him and his teammates. It’s going to be a great environment.”

Hatch won’t be out on the court taking jumpers or grabbing rebounds, but that doesn’t diminish his role on the team.

“That’s something Austin’s taught me is that you don’t have to be on the stat sheet to make an impact on the program,” Cole said.

Hatch and the rest of the Wolverines will fly to Texas on Thursday night and spend the next two days preparing for Loyola. Hatch said this trip is about business, not pleasure.

“We eat really well, we go to the best restaurants,” Hatch said. “But there’s not really time for anything else. Coach Beilein has made it clear that this is a business trip. We’re going to win basketball games. Everyone’s pretty locked in. Why wouldn’t you give everything you have? If you win this, you’re an NCAA champion for life.”

Life lessons

Win or lose, Hatch has accomplished so much during his brief life. Going forward, he hopes his story can continue to serve as motivation to others who may be facing struggles in their lives.

“When I do speaking events … if I can make one person think a little different about adversity, about overcoming challenges of the situation they’re in, then I’ve done my job,” he said. “I have a captivating story and a unique platform, being a Michigan basketball player. I’ve lost a lot, a tremendous amount, but I feel tremendously blessed to be in the situation I’m in.”

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