Sunshine streamed through the windows of Michael Hirsch's apartment a few blocks north of New York City's Meatpacking District on a warm Sunday morning last August.
Hirsch was an up-and-coming analyst on Wall Street, the guy you would find occasionally shouting across a frenetic trading pit to sell a million shares of this or buy a million shares of that. It was a job that scratched his competitive itch, complete with a daily scoreboard of gains and losses.
He was a Harvard graduate with a reputation around the office as someone who set the bar high and usually managed to clear it. He was two years into a promising career, surrounded by friends and as healthy as he had been in a long time. But Hirsch woke up restless that morning.
"So I went for a walk," he says, "and I realized that I needed something else going on in my life outside of work. Work was great, but I was lacking a major goal."
By the time Hirsch returned home he had a plan. He climbed the four sets of stairs in his Lower West Side walk-up and started hunting for a loose sheet of paper. He sat down and scribbled down each step he would need to take to reach a childhood dream. He tucked the paper in the corner of a long bedroom mirror and looked at himself.
He exhaled. This was a long shot, he knew, but he's a one-upper and the last big goal he had tackled was a doozy. He let his eyes drift to the paper in the corner and read the big bold words at the top: Play football at Michigan.
'Taking chemo like a boss'
Hirsch started his college football career as a JV fullback at Harvard in 2010. Even then he thought he might earn an Ivy League degree and then try to transfer to his beloved Wolverines for a final year of eligibility. He was making headway on the depth chart the following spring when he developed a cold he couldn't seem to kick. When blood started showing up in his spit on his daily walk across the Charles River to get from practice to his dorm, he decided he needed to see a doctor.
The first battery of specialists he saw could not pinpoint a problem. The semester continued and walking through Boston became laborious. His upper sinuses felt clogged, making it hard to hear. His throat was tight by the time he returned home to the Chicago suburbs for the summer, making it hard to speak.
Karen Hirsch, Michael's mother, scheduled an appointment with an allergist. Maybe he had picked up some type of strange germ hiding in the halls of one of the campus' 300-year-old buildings, she thought. The 28-year-old doctor on duty didn't need to run any tests when she heard Hirsch's symptoms. She told him he had Wegener's Granulomatosis, a rare autoimmune disease she had recently studied during her residency at Rush University Medical Center. She sent him directly to the emergency room to pump his body full of steroids and set up a chemotherapy regimen.
Wegener's causes inflammation in the blood vessels of whatever organs it reaches, typically beginning with the respiratory system. It can spread quickly if it's allowed to continue unchecked by modern medicine. The disease had just reached Hirsch's kidneys by the time he was diagnosed on July 2, 2011.
Fifty years ago, Wegener's was a death sentence. There is still no cure. Early detection, treatment and an annual cycle of chemotherapy can now keep it in remission. According to the website of the Vasculitis Foundation, where Karen is now the chair of resource development, "[s]ome patients are able to lead relatively normal lives."
At his first therapy session that fall, Hirsch sank into a big leather chair and pulled out his phone. He opened Facebook and typed: "Taking chemo like a boss." He harbored no intentions of leading a "relatively normal life."
'To do what he was doing was nothing short of superhuman, to be honest'
Back on Wall Street, the 23-year old had a lot of work to do if he was going to revive a football career that had ended on an Ivy League JV squad five years earlier.
Hirsch started each day last fall before 6 a.m. by glancing at his checklist in the mirror before reporting for a 12-hour work day on the leverage credit sales desk at Citi. Then it was off to the gym for two hours followed by dinner and studying for the GMAT until midnight. The next morning he was up before dawn to stare at the bench press totals and test score targets he had sketched out on the sheet hanging in the mirror.
Shortly after he started the routine he called his parents, Karen and Dan, to let them know what he was up to. The couple met as freshmen at Michigan and bought enough Wolverine posters through the years to cover the walls of Michael's childhood bedroom.
"I thought the good news is he'll never actually succeed," says Dan, who like most parents was wary about the idea of a child with health problems running scout team drills against one of the best football teams in the country. "It'll never happen. But, he'll work out hard and he'll eat clean and he'll drink very little and he'll study for the GMAT. Those are all those good things. I figured there's nothing wrong with a hobby that has nothing but good side effects."
Hirsch started stockpiling protein-packed snacks and shake mixes beneath his desk at Citi. It didn't take long for an office replete with former college athletes to notice that the collars of Hirsch's dress shirts were stretched a little tighter. They called him "meathead" and let him know that the bodybuilder look wasn't all that cool.
His boss and mentor Patrick Kris enjoyed poking fun at the new guy too. Kris knew that Hirsch's medical history made him a little more conscious of his fitness, but after a few months he was starting to get a little bit curious about what he was up to.
"Not to overdramatize what we do, but the energy it requires to go at full speed in our environment for 12 or 13 hours a day takes a lot of you," Kris said. "To do what he was doing is nothing short of superhuman, to be honest."
Hirsch couldn't explain yet why he was pushing himself so hard. He didn't know how his bosses would react if he asked for a sabbatical. He didn't know if he would get into Michigan. Or if Jim Harbaugh would want him on the team. Or if the NCAA would even allow him to play.
So he would laugh along and fire back and reach for another protein bar and watch the scale slowly creep up toward football weight.
'It just hurt so much'
Hirsch bottomed out at 190 pounds when he was at his most sick. He dropped more than 50 pounds in his first six months of treatment while doctors struggled to find an effective cocktail of drugs to attack the disease in the fall of 2011.
It wasn't until he returned home for Thanksgiving that the Hirsch family really started to worry about where this disease was headed. He went for a walk with his mom that weekend that he barely finished. He laid down as soon as they returned home and slept for hours.
"It just hurt so much in all my joints," he remembers. "My knees, my ankles, my toes. As I walked I was spitting blood. That's when we decided, 'Hey, I probably shouldn't be going back to school right now.'"
Doctors upped the dosage of chemotherapy Hirsch was receiving, but it didn't seem to have any effect. They measured his progress by testing CRP levels, a measure of reactive protein that indicates inflammation inside the body. A healthy reading for someone Hirsch's age is between 0 and 4.9. In December, Hirsch's CRP level hit 75.
The family planned a New Year's trip to Miami. Christmas was tough, shrouded in uncertainty. They needed to escape reality for a few days.
Hirsch was sitting by the pool with his sisters when Karen received the results of his most recent blood work via email. She let loose a huge sigh of relief and ran to find her kids. The numbers were dropping. The drugs were finally starting to work.
"I felt so great for my mom and dad and my whole family because they had been so worried," Hirsch said. "It was a really nice experience that we were all there together. I began to feel pretty optimistic about my ability to turn things around."
When the spring semester started at Harvard, Hirsch was back on campus.
'What's the next step to get Michael Hirsch on our football team?'
Forty pounds and four years later, almost to the day, Hirsch pulled up to Michigan's campus in an Uber. He was dressed in boots, jeans and the bulkiest sweatshirt in his closest. He'd made some serious progress on the checklist taped to his mirror, but he still had a ways to go. The boots made him look a bit taller, the sweatshirt a bit thicker.
Hirsch walked into Schembechler Hall for the Wolverines' annual walk-on meeting. He had been in the exact same place half a decade earlier as a hopeful high school senior who had run for 50 touchdowns during his career in the Chicago suburbs. He actually received a last-minute invitation to try his hand at walk-on tryouts in 2010, but opted to stick to his commitment to Harvard's program. There was a lot more rust this time around, and no guarantees.
He recognized the timid look of the 18-year-old guys around him staring at their shoelaces or whispering with their parents. Hirsch knew he had to be aggressive. He spotted offensive coordinator Tim Drevno on the other side of the room and approached him, ready to unleash an elevator pitch he had been practicing for weeks.
"He's such an intelligent guy and he's just a joy to talk to," Drevno says. "We really felt like he wanted to come here and do something special. I just really enjoyed him. He's played at Harvard, that's good football. We said, hey, this guy just wants a chance."
Drevno told Hirsch to return the next day to meet with the head coach.
Hirsch sat in Jim Harbaugh's office expecting to be awestruck, but the nerves never came. He laid out his whole story -- the disease, the job on Wall Street, the long days, the Michigan posters hanging in his childhood bedroom -- in 20 minutes. Harbaugh nodded along and smiled.
Finally, Harbaugh picked up his phone and dialed. He turned it on speaker phone and someone from the Michigan compliance office picked up on the other.
"What's the next step to get Michael Hirsch on our football team?" Harbaugh asked.
'Touch the banner'
The final bullet point on the note hanging in Hirsch's mirror reads, "Touch the banner" -- a pregame tradition for every Wolverines football player who takes the field for a game at the Big House. On Sept. 3 this year, Michigan's team poured out of its locker room for its season opener against Hawaii. The players burst through the stadium tunnel and onto the field, jumping up to touch the giant banner stretched above midfield. Hirsch, wearing a No. 41 jersey, was one of the last players on the field. He reached up, tilted his head back and roared as he slapped the blue cloth with both hands.
Michigan opened a 56-3 lead in the fourth quarter and the crowd started to thin. With 10 minutes to play, Hirsch's family and the contingent of friends with them started to notice teammates walking up to Michael on the sideline to pound his shoulder pads or tap his helmet. Karen choked back some tears and said a little prayer. Dan fought the lump in his throat.
Hirsch slipped on his helmet and joined the huddle before a third-down play. Then he slipped out of the backfield where quarterback Shane Morris hit him with a short pass. He turned and sprinted upfield for a 15-yard gain. His name boomed out of the public address system and bounced off the stadium walls he had dreamed about a child, where his parents had fallen in love. He flipped the ball to an official and trotted to the sideline.
"I think 30 or 40 guys, offense and defense, all came up and gave me hugs," he says. "I think they understood how much it meant to me just to get out there and try to help at all."
After the catch, most of what remained of the 110,222 fans inside Michigan Stadium clapped politely for another first down. The two dozen people wearing No. 41 T-shirts in Section 24 went absolutely bonkers.
'He kind of created a hero for me'
Thirty-some rows above them, Joe Szymczak heard the commotion and wondered what was going on. He, too, was wearing the No. 41 on his shirt.
Szymczak celebrated his 69th birthday at a Michigan football game in September. By his count, he has seen the Wolverines play in person 347 times. The retired schoolteacher from Bowling Green, Ohio, said he first started going to games in 1964.
"Lately, I haven't missed too many," he says. "Probably since around '83."
Doctors diagnosed Szymczak with a slow-progressing case of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in July. He sat for his first chemotherapy session a week before the Hawaii game. His friends and family worried that the treatments would interfere with the football schedule.
Szymczak and his son, Tony, heard Harbaugh mention Hirsch's story this summer during a radio interview when he was in need of a pick-me-up. He decided he wouldn't be missing any Michigan games this year. Tony reached out to Hirsch on Facebook, who tried to get a jersey to send to his newest fan. When NCAA regulations got in the way, Tony ordered a custom 41 jersey online.
Szymczak moved to a handicapped seating section this year so he could climb fewer steps if his treatments were zapping his energy. As the clock wound down on the Hawaii game, he opted to take the long way to the section exit. He hoped he could bump into the folks in those No. 41 shirts and show them his. He did, and they invited him back to the house where the family was staying that weekend. When Michael arrived an hour later to a standing ovation, Szymczak waited on the front porch and smiled.
"He kind of created a hero for me," he said. "When you find out you've got a situation like that you're looking for anything that's positive. And my god, what could be more positive than what that kid has done?"
The unlikely friends have stayed in touch since they crossed paths that Saturday evening. That Szymczak landed in the same section as the Hirsch family was a strike of serendipity, fate bending to the will of a story that already had beaten so many long odds.
What if Hirsch's bosses at Citi had not been willing to give him a sabbatical to chase a long shot? What if Michigan didn't need another fullback? What if the NCAA decided not to reset his eligibility clock that started in 2010? What if the extreme exertion on Hirsch's body had done anything to jeopardize his health?
Any one of those stumbling blocks could have ended his chances to play football at Michigan. Not one of them was among the things he could control. There was no box he could check or plan he could tuck in the corner of a mirror that would guarantee any of them would break his way.
But not one of them could stop him from trying.
"Yeah, not really," he says. "I liked it. It just felt good to have an awesome purpose, even if it wasn't going to work out. It was really about building toward a goal. To fight for a dream, that doesn't ever feel inconsequential."