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Meet Michael Hirsch, the Odds-Defying University of Michigan Football Player We Should All Root for

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To the average fan in the Big House on Sept. 3, the day of the University of Michigan’s home opener against Hawaii, number 41 was just your standard fullback catching a pass from the quarterback.

But for the man in the jersey, and his family and friends cheering like crazy in the stands, it was a lifelong dream — one that for a time, seemed truly impossible — fulfilled.

Playing for Michigan was a goal Michael Hirsch has had since he was a kid with a blue-and-maize-covered bedroom, born to parents who met in Ann Arbor and bleed blue. But instead he graduated from Harvard — a school he was originally recruited to play football for — in 2014. He never had a chance to take the field with the varsity team, however, after being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease that stopped his college football career in its tracks.

Though offered the option to try out as a walk-on for Michigan, Hirsch settled on Harvard for obvious reasons: a chance to get an Ivy League degree at a school with a solid football program.

His freshman year, he played for the junior varsity team, and was set to move up to varsity the next year. But as his second semester went on, something started to feel off. He was aching all over — headaches, earaches, sore throats. He saw a few doctors, but none of them seemed too concerned, generally just giving him a prescription for some antibiotics.

After he came home for the summer, he started to notice blood in his saliva, and it became clear that whatever was ailing him wouldn’t be cured by a simple round of drugs. With his mother, Karen, Hirsch started visiting doctor after doctor, practically daily, to figure out a solution. It took a trip to an allergist to figure it out: he had Wegener’s disease.

Wegener’s is a rare autoimmune disease — nationally, there are fewer than 200,000 cases per year, and it’s even more uncommon to find it in athletic, 18-year-old men. After his visit to the allergist, Hirsch went straight to the emergency room, on July 4, 2011, and was soon pumped full of steroids and other drugs in an attempt to treat him.

Life, Interrupted

Hirsch was able to go back to Harvard in the fall, partly because one of the nation’s top doctors for dealing with Wegener’s is located at nearby Massachusetts General Hospital. But despite the drugs and chemotherapy treatments, things weren’t getting better: he was still in tremendous pain, and regularly spitting up blood. After undergoing a C-Reactive Protein Test to check for inflammation in the blood, his results were at a level of 75, compared to the average person’s 1 to 4.

He took an extended winter break, staying home from school for 10 weeks, and gradually, the medicine started to work. To further reduce the inflammation, Hirsch underwent nine surgeries over the course of the rest of his college career, five on his trachea, three on his ear and one on his right eye. 

“Throughout the rest of college, it was a lot of maintenance, almost like a bush that needs pruning,” he tells PEOPLE. “I was constantly fighting. My blood work was better, but with the residual effects of the inflammation, it took a lot to really get the disease under total control.”

Courtesy Michael Hirsch
Courtesy Michael Hirsch

Despite the improvements in his health, he wasn’t in the physical shape to play for Harvard’s varsity squad. Hirsch stayed involved with the team, though, taking on the role of team manager. But he felt that something was missing.

“I always wished I could be out there with them,” he says. “It was pretty tough. You’re at the game, but you’re physically and metaphorically the furthest away you could be. I was nowhere near playing on the field.” 

Despite the medical setbacks, Hirsch graduated from Harvard on schedule, in May 2014, with a job lined up at Citigroup in New York City. He chose a career in finance because of the similarities to sports: competition and high stakes.

“Making big trades to the firm is almost like making a big play,” he says. “I thought it would fill that void a bit.”

But despite the athletic parallels of his post-college career, Hirsch still felt the tug of football. “It was my first love,” he says. “I wasn’t ever over it. I didn’t feel like I had closure. I would dream about playing all the time.”

After a few games of basketball with friends, Hirsch noticed his stamina was up and his breathing was better. Physically, football started to seem like a possibility.

“I was running around, and for the first time in years, I wasn’t wheezing, and I thought, ‘Hey, maybe I can do this,’ ” he says.

So one Sunday in August of 2015, he came home and made a to-do list, hanging it on his mirror, and began working toward his goals in real life. At the top of the list? Playing football for Michigan.

A New Vision

With his focus set, Hirsch applied to a masters program at Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

A former teammate from Harvard — Alex Gedeon, whose brother Ben is a linebacker for the Michigan team — connected Hirsch with head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff. Their conversations started with short, concise emails (as to not lose their attention, Hirsch says) and developed into phone calls with Hirsch, chats with his Harvard coach and ultimately, a request for some of his old tapes.

“I wasn’t going to leave work to go back to school unless I was playing football,” he says.

After a few unofficial visits for walk-ons, Hirsch earned a spot on the team — and weeks later, a spot in the masters program. The last step was the hardest, though: he had to win back his NCAA eligibility, submitting every medical document, blood test and piece of correspondence that proved he was unable to play throughout the bulk of his years; that his eligibility “clock” should have stopped when he received his Wegener’s diagnosis.

Obviously, it worked. “My heart jumped out of my chest, I was so happy,” Hirsch says of getting the call from Harbaugh that he’d won his case with the NCAA. “Just knowing that this was actually going to be able to happen. It was one of the best days of my life.”

Courtesy Michael Hirsch
Courtesy Michael Hirsch

Fast forward a few months, and Hirsch was in Ann Arbor, on sabbatical from his job at Citigroup, preparing for the season’s home opener against Hawaii. It took some more work to get there: namely, adding 40 lbs. and getting into the shape befitting of a Michigan football player. But when he was able to put on that maize and blue jersey, touch the banner and ultimately play in a Michigan game, all the hard work was more than worth it, for him and his family. 

“All this pressure I had put on myself was off, because I had achieved my dream,” he says. “I walk around with a smile on my face 24/7. I don’t take anything for granted, but I’m just really happy.”

Hirsch is different from many of the other players — a few years older (at 24, he’s the oldest on the team) and in graduate school, he’s gotten a few “dad” comments from his fellow players. He’s also a bit more health-conscious than his teammates, given his past. Though he’s now in remission, and hasn’t had to have a surgery in more than a year, Hirsch still gets frequent blood tests (his last one, taken two weeks ago, was “perfect,” he says). 

And when he leaves Michigan next spring, he’ll be doing so with a sense of inner peace that he didn’t have the last time he collected a diploma. 

“I used to have a dream all the time that I was playing, and since the game, I haven’t had it,” he says. “I’ll definitely feel a sense of closure.”