Michigan gives 'recruit' first-rate day
Growing up in a family of Michigan football fans in Grain Valley, Missouri, Stephen Loszewski had a wish that he would someday play football for the Wolverines.
His leukemia diagnosis in the spring of 2011, during Stephen's freshman year of high school, did more than put his wish on hold -- it changed his reality overnight.
Leukemia took away high school football and the normal social life of a teenager and replaced it with chemotherapy, nausea and the social isolation of hospital rooms (though his friends and teammates stayed close). He has been in remission since his sophomore year, but even though he was able to stay in the game he loves by helping his father coach youth football, a return to the playing field was ruled out.
So when it came time for Stephen, now 18, to choose his wish, he sought the chance to be treated like the Michigan football recruit he could never otherwise be.
"Instead of just asking, 'Hey, could I get some really good tickets to a Michigan game,' I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity that I had," Stephen said. "I figured maybe I could get them to pretend to recruit me somehow."
What Michigan gave him was more than he had asked for. Way more.
Stephen was tired and not feeling like answering questions from what he thought was a local TV news crew in the family living room. But he started to suspect something was up when his mother handed him a letter from Michigan coach Brady Hoke.
"Shortly after that, someone knocked at my door saying they were looking for me. That's when the dots really started to come together," Stephen said. "It turned out to be Jake Long -- one of my all-time idols as a Michigan player -- and he was at my house with letters from every single one of the Michigan coaches."
A few weeks later, the family -- Stephen, his parents Greg and Kristi Loszewski, and his brothers Devin, 16, and Logan, 14 -- arrived at the Ann Arbor campus, where it was greeted by Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner and recruiting coordinator Chris Singletary.
Stephen's recruiting visit began the next morning with a meeting with Hoke. "Everything about how he runs the team and his strategy is 100 percent Michigan football, so I idolize him," Stephen said.
What followed were activities any Michigan recruit might experience: meetings with assistant coaches, a tour of the school's impressive collection of memorabilia and visits to the indoor practice field and weight room. There was a video session in which Stephen, a defensive end before his diagnosis, was shown what his responsibilities would be if he played for the Wolverines.
Then Gardner handed Stephen his phone. On the line was actor Mark Harmon, the star of one of Stephen's favorite TV shows, "NCIS."
"Mark is a Michigan man by birth and well-known on campus, so Devin, who had his number, did me a favor and called him," Stephen said. "And sure enough I had a phone conversation with Mark Harmon while standing in Schembechler Hall.
"Up until that point I had managed to collect myself. I was back to shaking in my boots, not knowing what to do with the energy."
(A few days later, one of the NCIS hats that Harmon wears during the show arrived at Stephen's house.)
More meetings followed, including one-on-one sessions with Hoke and athletic director David Brandon, before Stephen got what he thought would be the icing on the cake -- a visit to The Big House, 109,901-seat Michigan Stadium.
"To my surprise, they led me into the locker room and the entire Michigan football team for 2014 was waiting for me with my own helmet, a set of wide receiver gloves and my own jersey that had my last name on the back and my number in high school -- 57," Stephen said. "I almost broke my glasses putting my helmet on without even thinking."
Then came a truly memorable moment you can't buy anywhere: Stephen led the team out of the tunnel onto the turf of The Big House and tapped the "Go Blue" banner as cheerleaders and marching band members sang and played "Hail to the Victors."
"When you aspire to be a Michigan football player, that is what you dream of," Stephen said. "At that point I could have been done. Everything I could imagine had been done 100-fold."
"To watch him run out of the tunnel with that team -- you couldn't put words on it," Kristi Loszewski said. "All you could do was cry. It was like that hole that was made there in his heart three years ago ... they filled that hole for him."
Stephen met Michigan Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, caught a couple of touchdown passes from Gardner and was asked to "break the team down" with a quick speech at midfield.
Stephen hopes to return to Ann Arbor as a transfer from Metropolitan Community College-Kansas City. He graduated from high school last month and is hoping to hear soon that he has been given a clean bill of health.
"[The wish] actually helped my mood a lot," he said. "In the years leading up to that moment had been a lot of news that wasn't in my favor: You're too sick to do this, you can't do this because it will affect your immune system, you can't play football because you have a portacath, we can't take the portacath out -- a lot of couldn't, shouldn't, wouldn't.
"To suddenly be told, yes, you can have what you want after three years of a lot of no ... I feel like finally, OK, things are looking up."