LOS ANGELES -- Austin Hatch, a 19-year-old Michigan Wolverines recruit who survived two plane crashes that killed both of his parents and two siblings, said Wednesday that he felt "blessed" to be able to continue his basketball career in his family's honor, his first public comments since the second crash two and a half years ago.
"The emotional pain is never going to subside," Hatch said Wednesday. "Over time, the way I cope with my loss is going to change."
Basketball is gradually coming back to Hatch, a straight-A student who spent the past two years relearning how to breathe, eat, walk and live after surviving a plane crash for the second time in his life.
In June 2011, just 10 days after he verbally committed to play for the Wolverines, his father and stepmother were killed in a crash in Charlevoix, Mich., that left him in a coma for roughly eight weeks with a traumatic brain injury, a punctured lung and fractured ribs. Eight years earlier, the Fort Wayne, Ind., native had lived through another fatal plane crash, losing his mother, brother and sister in that tragedy.
He signed a national letter of intent with Michigan last week, and coach John Beilein has vowed Hatch will be welcome in the program in any role he can play.
"Signing with the University of Michigan has been a goal of mine since I basically woke up from my coma," Hatch said. "Last week, it was kind of surreal to actually see my name on that dotted line. I can't tell you how blessed I feel to be in that position."
Hatch moved from Indiana to Southern California this past summer to live with his uncle and guardian, Michael Hatch, and to take advantage of superior rehabilitation opportunities.
"Basketball is just a game, and I understand that I have bigger goals in life," Hatch said. "My academics come first. Basketball has always been second for me, but basketball has given me something to shoot for."
Although Hatch lost his immediate family, he is with his uncle and grandparents in Los Angeles, where he has been practicing with the Loyola High School Cubs since September and where he will finish school. He'll head off to Ann Arbor with the support of a new extended family at Loyola.
"When you're inches, millimeters away from death, you really understand," he said. "You look at that from a different lens. Every day, the opportunities I have with my family, my friends, all the guys here at Loyola, it's just a great group of people out here."
Hatch averaged 23.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Canterbury School in Fort Wayne, attracting attention from major programs. Hatch and his father chose Michigan primarily for its academic reputation, figuring Hatch could follow his father, an anesthesiologist, into medicine.
Beilein and assistant coach Jeff Meyer stuck with Hatch throughout his recovery, speaking frequently and maintaining the Wolverines' commitment.
"It's exciting as can be that he's going to have this opportunity to play organized basketball again," Beilein said. "We just have to see how all this develops. ... He makes us appreciate what we have a whole lot more, because this young man is just terrific to talk to, to speak with -- to sort of put our lives in perspective sometimes."
Hatch intends to play for Loyola this season, but he won't get back on the court until he's ready to take more than a symbolic step. He could have suited up for Canterbury last season but declined until he raised his game back to a suitable level.
"I still need to work on my fundamentals," Hatch said. "What was once second nature, as a result of the brain injury, I have to think about stuff on the court that I really shouldn't have to think about. That's just going to take time. I've tried to practice things the right way. I've been working very hard since I could work at anything when I got out of the hospital bed."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.