Ann Arbor — A wave of relief came over Stephen Loszewski after he touched the “M Go Blue” banner and landed firmly on the turf.
He had worried his legs would get tripped up beneath him after he led the Wolverines from the Michigan Stadium tunnel, wearing No. 57 and a winged helmet, before leaping to touch the banner.
But there he was, on his feet, standing in the middle of the field with the Michigan players surrounding him, encouraging him.
It was in one word, he said, breathtaking.
“To go from years of watching it on TV, whether it be from my house or a hospital room, and get to stand on the field,” he said. “I don’t even know if I’ve realized it yet.”
Loszewski, an 18-year-old from Grain Valley, Mo., made a very public “recruiting” trip to Michigan on Tuesday, accompanied by his mother, Kristi, father, Greg, and younger brothers, Devin and Logan.
ESPN cameras were with them all day as he made the rounds before concluding his day in Michigan Stadium and then with a mock news conference, during which he signed a letter of intent to play for the Wolverines before taking questions.
As part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Loszewski, who has battled leukemia the last 3˝ years, had the option of a cruise or something more special. He chose a mock "recruitment” to Michigan, the team he and his family always have supported, the team that always has given him a lift even during his lowest moments in the hospital.
The day-long event took about two months to plan and will be part of ESPN’s “My Wish” series that begins airing July 20. It is the first time a college has been involved in the series.
“We’ve loved this school, and we’ve loved this program, and to meet everybody we’ve met today just seals it,” said his mother, Kristi, fighting back tears. “These people are down to earth and genuine and to do what they’ve done for a kid whose dream would have been to go to this school has been phenomenal.
“They will always have our hearts. They had our hearts before, but they have our hearts forever and ever.”
Love of the game
Loszewski’s trip to Ann Arbor was scheduled a few weeks ago, but after three trips to the hospital in two days, it was delayed. Former Michigan offensive lineman and No. 1 overall NFL selection Jake Long, however, made the trip to Loszewski’s home and the two visited and talked football.
While he recovered, most of the plans for the wish fulfillment were kept secret. Loszewski said his health is improving, although he admitted to being a bit tired at the conclusion of his long day.
“I am a lot better than I was at least a year ago,” he said. “I am within my one month of being cured and done with treatment. It will just mean going to the hospital occasionally just to make sure nothing’s come back. So I feel like this could not come at a better time than right before the end.”
Loszewski’s diagnosis was made March 28, 2011. He had played football since he was a little kid and had completed his ninth-grade season.
The diagnosis, however, marked the end of his football career.
“The greatest moment for me (while at Michigan) was to see him strap the helmet on again when I thought he never would,” said his father, Greg, choking back tears. “It was very, very special, and it’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
Stephen Loszewski always has loved football. He was a center early in his career and then moved to defensive end in eighth grade.
“So I’ve always been a lineman, I’ve always been in the trenches,” he said.
With his career over, he decided to help his father coach his brother Logan’s team.
“I decided to help my father coach because I couldn’t be on the field, but at the same time I could teach the next generation about football,” Loszewski said.
Band of brothers
It was football, specifically Michigan, that helped ease some of his time in the hospital.
“One of the challenges simply is just sometimes being in a hospital room and just because of my condition not being able to leave that room for extended periods of time, and I’m sure that can get to anyone after a certain amount of time,” he said. “Sometimes, just something as simple as something to take my mind off the fact, something to make me feel comfortable in that room again.
“There are days where it gets pretty rough, and to see those guys fighting through what they do on the football field and being able to be tough just reminds me where I was when I played football. I’ve been through physical and mental obstacles before in my life, and this is just another one.”
But what does he most love about the sport?
“It teaches brotherhood, and that’s all there really is to say,” he said.
He experienced that brotherhood again Tuesday, fitting in with his new teammates as he led them onto the field.
Then, Loszewski, from the middle of the huddle, began to motivate, asking the Wolverines, “Who are we?!” to which they eagerly responded, “Michigan!” The exchange was made several times before quarterback Devin Gardner had Loszewski experience what the Wolverines do after a win, singing “The Victors” before the student section.
Former Michigan standout and Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, now an ESPN “GameDay“ analyst, appeared on the field and had a lengthy conversation with the newest defensive line recruit.
“How does it feel to be on this field?” Howard asked him.
“You have no idea,” said Loszewski, sounding a bit overwhelmed.
He then detailed for Howard how his day had gone, saying he visited the weight room, met all the coaches and had a conversation with head coach Brady Hoke.
Later, Loszewski was asked the most memorable thing Hoke told him.
“I’m not going to lie, it was overwhelming, so, just being able to talk to him was amazing,” he said. “But to hear him say, on behalf of the University of Michigan they were interested in recruiting me onto their football team was probably the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Kristi said her son has never been a spotlight guy, and never wanted the kids at school to know he was sick.
In a small town, they all know, though, and Greg spoke about a tight-knit community and friends and teammates who shaved their heads in support of their son.
So, with four hats before him representing Michigan State, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan, at his signing day news conference, Loszewski selected the Michigan hat and placed it on his head.
He then signed his recruitment paperwork.
“As far as my history with Michigan, it’s been the team I’ve been raised on, the team I’ve supported my entire life,” he said. “They have been the team I have watched whenever I was in the hospital. They are the team that has always found a way to inspire me through their ideals and some of the toughest games they’ve had to go through.
“I have to say, I’m very proud to have this opportunity to be recruited, at the least, by Michigan.”