“Senior Day” signals the closing of one momentous chapter in a young player’s life and the beginning of another.
It celebrates the accomplishments that have taken place in a years-long journey and the lasting imprint that will be left behind.
Michigan coach John Beilein has probably witnessed more ceremonies and commemorated more players’ careers than most over his roughly 40-year career. But Sunday’s celebration at Crisler Center will likely be a bit more tearful than any other he’s experienced before.
“Yeah, I’ll probably get a little emotional,” Beilein said Friday while getting choked up, “like I am now.”
That’s because roughly 20 minutes before the home finale tip-off against No. 8 Ohio State, Austin Hatch will be among the four Michigan seniors being honored at center court, along with Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson and Jaaron Simmons.
Hatch’s tragic yet inspirational story of perseverance is well-known and has captivated the nation.
On June 24, 2011, Hatch, then a 16-year-old forward at Canterbury School in Fort Wayne, Ind., survived a deadly plane crash in Charlevoix that killed both his father and stepmother. It was the second plane accident he was involved in — a 2003 crash claimed the lives of his mother, sister and brother — and it happened just nine days after accepting a scholarship offer from Beilein.
Hatch suffered severe injuries that left him fighting for his life. He was in a coma for eight weeks with a traumatic brain injury and had to undergo extensive and exhaustive rehab to relearn how to talk, walk, and, eventually, play basketball again.
It led to Hatch missing a year of high school and having to reclassify to Michigan’s 2014 recruiting class. But through it all, Beilein stayed true to his commitment and never wavered on his offer.
While he was never able to make the type of impact on the court he had once envisioned, Hatch still appeared in five games his freshman year and etched his name in the program’s record book with a free throw — his first and only point scored — against Coppin State on Dec. 22, 2014.
Hatch moved to a medical scholarship the following season, which effectively ended his playing career. Since then, he has been with the team as a student assistant/manager doing whatever he can to help and encourage his teammates.
“It’s been a great four years. It’s gone by fast,” Hatch said. “I’ve been thinking about this day for a long time. I never thought it’d actually come.
“It’s crazy. Life is happening now, you know?”
Hatch will graduate in the spring with a degree in organizational studies before marrying his fiancée, former Michigan volleyball player Abby Cole, in June. The following month, he’ll start a full-time job in the franchise development department at the Domino’s Pizza corporate office in Ann Arbor.
Hatch said his time at Michigan has been an amazing experience and he doesn’t have any regrets. In fact, he said he feels “blessed” to be in the position he’s in and to build the type of lasting bond he has with Beilein.
“I don’t think it’s an accident that I ended up at a place like Michigan. I don’t think there’s any better place that I could be in the country given the circumstances,” Hatch said. “There’s no better man (Beilein) that I could play for and have an opportunity to learn from. He really taught me more about life.
“I think the ultimate measure of a coach is — obviously, a good coach wins basketball games and you can see the results that way and the impact he has on his team. But the impact he has on developing his players as young men, I definitely have learned a lot and have grown as a man. I’ll take lessons I learned from him with me the rest of my life.”
For Beilein, it’ll be a bittersweet occasion. He noted he and his wife, Kathleen, have grown close to Hatch throughout the entire process and during his time in Ann Arbor. The two will also attend Hatch's wedding in June.
And while Beilein will be sentimental during the sendoff of Abdur-Rahkman, Robinson and Simmons, his pregame moment with Hatch will hit a bit deeper.
“There’s not a range of emotions, there’s just one,” said Beilein, who wouldn’t reveal whether Hatch would dress for the game. “I virtually see him every day. He’s not always at practice, but he works out. He wants to make sure he’s ready for the honeymoon. He’s ready to be at the beach and look good. He’s just a remarkable person.”
It's no surprise Michigan has recommended Hatch for the Wilma Rudolph Award, which honors student-athletes who have overcome great personal, academic, and/or emotional odds to achieve academic success while participating in athletics.
Beilein said the word he often associates with Hatch is "perspective," which is something he doesn't want to get lost. So going forward, Beilein said he will continue to share Hatch's tale of overcoming tribulations with his team.
“Many of them didn’t know (Hatch’s) story until they came here,” Beilein said. "He’s had to work his tail off to get to this point. It’s one of the greatest stories I think that I’ve ever been associated with and am pleased to be a part of.”
And it’s a story that keeps getting better, with a graduation, a wedding and a full-time job all part of an exciting chapter ahead.
“Life’s good, man,” Hatch said. “It’s coming together.”
Ohio State at Michigan
Tip-off: 1 p.m. Sunday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
TV/radio: CBS/950 A.M.
Records: No. 8 Ohio State 22-6, 13-2 Big Ten; No. 22 Michigan 21-7, 10-5
Outlook: Michigan’s home finale with be a “Maize Out” and will honor its four seniors prior to the game … It’s the first meeting in the series both teams have been ranked since March 15, 2014 … Ohio State has won four of the past five meetings, including the last three.