Surrounded by his family in the front row of Lucas Oil Stadium earlier this month, Chris Hutchison was incredulous. It was there, celebrating a Big Ten championship with his son, that it hit him: None of this should be happening.
"This is his whole career. This is his legacy," Chris said of Michigan senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who had just been named the game's MVP. "I honestly didn't think this team had it in them. I didn't think we were going to be here even two weeks ago."
Michigan being Michigan under Jim Harbaugh to that point, Chris had a point.
Aidan's career had run parallel with Michigan's on-field performance over the last few seasons: sometimes good but never great. An ankle injury slowed Aidan earlier in his career. Michigan winning 10 games, which it has now done four times in Harbaugh's seven seasons, had progressively less meaning.
But college football is all about evolution. Teenagers enter the physical boot camp that is big-time ball. In some form, they exit as changed men, sometimes as champions.
Aidan Hutchinson's transformation has his name among the top of the sport, perhaps even the top of his family. That second assertion, though, may be a stretch. His mother, Melissa, is a veteran of 15 years as a fashion model who is also an artist and photographer. Chris, who starred for the Wolverines from 1989-92, is an emergency room doctor who actually delivered Aidan 21 years ago.
Sisters Mia and Aria are also accomplished: Mia as a professional photographer, Aria as a yoga instructor attempting to be admitted to medical school. All four have helped shaped the complete son, brother and All-American, a 265-pound wrecking ball who practices yoga and meditation.
"You ain't seen nothing yet," Melissa said. "There's a lot more to Aidan than people know."
We've seen plenty so far. The projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft was a 6-foot-1, 155-pound high school freshman. He was bullied as a youngster for participating in competitive dance, a skill that translates to football and helped him develop the balance and skill needed to reach the quarterback.
Then Aidan did some bullying himself. He rolls into the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Orange Bowl as the physical and mental center of the Wolverines. His 14 sacks broke his dad's single-season school record. He had no fear wearing his father's number (97), playing the same position, chasing the same dreams. Both became All-Americans.
"It hit me in high school," said Hutchinson, who added 70 pounds while at Divine Child High School in Dearborn, Michigan. "I knew I was going to be a D-end. I knew I wanted to wear 97. I always wanted to be there, to be in the position I am today breaking [my father's] records, winning Big Ten championships, being an All-American, things that he did. It's so cool to see all this come full circle."
The difference between the two? His father has five Big Ten championship rings from his time as an edge terror.
"He looked at my five rings and thought, 'I'm not ever going to get one of those,'" Chris recalled. "Until [the Big Ten Championship Game], I didn't think it was ever going to happen."
So we've heard.
As for that validation, it's all there now. A week prior to that Big Ten title win over Iowa, Michigan was a touchdown-underdog hosting Ohio State. You don't have to be reminded the Buckeyes had won the last eight meetings. The Wolverines broke the streak with a resounding 15-point win that announced this Michigan coached by this Harbaugh was different … this time.
In that game, Hutchinson broke his dad's single-season record with three sacks, giving him 14 on the campaign for Michigan.
"It was like, 'Who's 97?' He can play," said Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, the victim of those sacks.
All of it was eventually enough for get Hutchinson an invite to New York as the second defender under Harbaugh to become a Heisman Trophy finalist (Jabrill Peppers).
"I know Charles [Woodson] kind of called his shot: 'If Aidan gets three sacks, he's going to New York.' What'd I do? I got three sacks, and I'm in New York," Hutchinson said. "I thought it was pretty cool Charles called his shot. It was pretty bad-ass."
Hutchinson is a unique blend of confidence, humility, articulation, marketability and accomplishment. Who's 97? He's special, really special.
He starts each day with a cold shower "because it wakes me up". In spurning the NFL and returning for his senior season, he gambled on himself.
Harbaugh recounted a story from January when his prized D-end went to the strength coaches and demanded of them, "Make sure you wear me out. Get everything out of me."
"There is an all-you-can eat buffet in here," they responded.
"He ate it up," Harbaugh said.
"When I was evaluating my rush plan for this year, I really believed that no one was going to be able to block me because I have the power, I have the speed. I have the whole package," Hutchinson said.
Following the shootings in Oxford, Michigan, it was Hutchinson who suggested the team dedicate the game Tate Myre, a 16-year-old football player at the high school was killed while reportedly confronting the gunman.
In a serendipitous moment inspired by Hutchinson, the Wolverines wore a Myre No. 42 patch on their jerseys, then scored 42 points in beating Iowa.
"Tate was a warrior," Harbaugh said. "A football player, a wrestler. The best athlete in the school. Could have easily made it out. People were running away from the fire. He was running into it."
Hutchinson is the son of a father who traces his roots back to medieval England. His mother's ancestry goes back to Latvia and Switzerland. Michigan wasn't automatic as a destination. Chris made his son take visits to Notre Dame, Purdue, Wisconsin and even Ohio State. When Alabama showed interest late in the recruiting process, Chris reminded his son that he had already committed to Michigan.
"He said, 'Dad, Alabama is here,'" Chris recalled. "I looked at him, and he looked back. He said, 'I know, I know.' It's one of those life lessons: 'I'm committing, and that's what it means even though this flashy thing comes into town.'"
Two weeks after that performance against Ohio State, Hutchinson was indeed in New York finishing second in the Heisman voting to Alabama QB Bryce Young. That was the highest finish by a defensive lineman since Pittsburgh's Hugh Green also finished second in 1980. Notre Dame's Manti Te'o was the last defender to finish that high in 2012.
"Offensive players can take over the game," Hutchinson said. "That's worded in their position like quarterbacks. But defensive players are not necessarily graded by sacks and stats. I could have a one-sack game and play my best ball. … I could have three sacks and not play my best. It's offensive players who are put in a position sometimes more to be game-changers.
"If you're a game-changer as a defensive player, that's pretty big."
Love for Hutchinson gushed forward after that Iowa game. Teammates on the podium accepting the conference trophy chanted, "Hutch for Heis-man." Offensive lineman Andrew Vastardis said Hutchinson, "showed up every week. He's been a game-changer. Every day in practice, every day in meetings. More committed than any guy I've been around."
With a multi-layered game, Hutchinson appears to be that force who can take over a contest defensively. His 15 pressures against Ohio State were the most against a Power Five program in 2021, per Pro Football Focus.
Depending on the play, he can speed rush, bull rush or beat the tackle off the hop. Throw in fellow defensive end David Ojabo (11 sacks), and No. 2 Michigan goes against No. 3 Georgia with one of the most lethal combined forces off the edge in school history.
"There's been a lot of comparisons to the Watts and the Bosas," Chris said. "I don't think he fits into any of those molds. I think he's a little bit of a lot of those people, somewhere between T.J. and J.J. [Watt], a little bit of [Joey] Bosa mixed in there. I think he's got his own mold."
It took a loyal son and Wolverine to put this season in perspective. The 12-win campaign is only the third in school history. (Ohio State has 10 such seasons, all since 2002.) The Big Ten title was the first for Michigan since 2004. Harbaugh, an underachiever at his alma mater at times in the past, emerged as the national coach of the year.
"It's been a little bit tense at Michigan in previous years," Hutchinson said. "Now that we're back, it's pretty relaxed a little bit. … I feel like college football is better when Michigan is up there near the top."