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May 23, 2012Folks tend to forget that players coming into Ann Arbor to strap on a winged helmet aren't Supermen, their physical giftedness aside. They're by no means perfect, or even fully mature. They're 17- and 18-year-old kids, who have a lot of growing up to do.
One of the most incredibly amazing parts of covering Michigan football for a long time involves watching them do so - especially when they go above and beyond all expectation.
Brian Griese, Steve Hutchinson and Charles Woodson all fall into that category. Not because Griese beat the odds by leading Michigan to a national championship and then went on to an NFL career. Not because Hutchinson and Woodson became Pro Bowl talents at the next stage, two of the best Michigan ever sent to the highest level of football.
Not at all. All three of them are doing something that means more than every football game ever played, times one billion. And they know it.
That trio was at it again last weekend, hosting the Griese/Hutchinson/Woodson Champions For Children's Hearts Weekend at Michigan. Since Griese and Hutchinson first began hosting a golf tournament to benefit C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in 2007, the effort (which Woodson later joined) has raised more than $5 million for the cause.
Griese, Hutchinson and Woodson - as well as hundreds of other Wolverines down through the years - learned early on what it means to give and not just take, as a celebrated athlete. Thursday nights in Ann Arbor became a special time. A crew of athletes headed up to Mott to sit with heartbreakingly ill children, generating awe and providing smiles through tear-soaked times.
Rarely did they come away without both tears and smiles of their own. Every single one of them met face to face with little heroes taking on challenges bigger than two-a-days, rehabbing an ACL tear, or beating Ohio State.
Perspective. Maturity. Real-life lessons.
All of those beckoned at Mott, and some of them took.
Woodson told AnnArbor.com a few years back: "The few times I've been in a hospital like Mott, I think it chips away at you a little bit. And it finally got through to me, you know?"
Woodson delivered the comment in conjunction with providing $2 million of his own funds for Mott.
That's where the winged helmet meets real-life agony head on. Griese, Hutchinson and Woodson could have done their time at the hospital, felt good about themselves, and moved on.
But they didn't.
Something stirred inside of them. Something got ahold of them more deeply than a national championship, more strikingly than a trip to the Super Bowl.
Something or someone, like Faith Falzon.
Little Faith was all smiles at Michigan's Night Of Champions dinner/auction at the Glick Field House last Saturday night. She came up on stage with Woodson, bounced around among the dozens of former Wolverines on hand, and even received an Olympic-style medal for her courage.
But it hasn't been all smiles for the Dexter, Mich., child with the beautiful countenance. She has no function in her colon and rectum, and thus has great difficulty absorbing fluids and the nutrients she requires. U-M doctors recently removed a section of her colon.
Doctors are still searching for a cure. Michigan players and coaches -- along with a special friend on Saturday night - are trying their best to help clear the way.
A host of special auction packages went on sale at the dinner event, most going for between $12,000 and $20,000. One of them involved a Monday Night Football event in Chicago, in which the high bidder received a package to see the Detroit Lions take on the hometown Bears on Oct. 22.
The winner earned round-trip airfare, dinner at Sunda Restaurant in downtown Chicago, and a behind-the-scenes session with Mike Tirico and the Monday Night Football crew at Soldier Field. After that, the high bidder garnered pre-game sideline access and Tirico's tickets for the contest.
Lions quarterback Matt Stafford had already made his entrance on this Olympic-themed evening. He marched in behind a "Quarterbacks" sign borne by kids, along with John Navarre, Drew Henson, Chad Henne and a number of other former U-M quarterbacks.
Stafford then made his own mark for Mott. He bought the Chicago package for $15,000, and immediately gave it to Faith, her parents and her brother, Will.
Faith's mom, Mary Ann Bell, wrote in a blog post: "As [Stafford] won the package, he turned to Will and said, 'There you go buddy, you go to Chicago, and take your family.' The look on my son's face, I will never forget. His chin began to quiver, he was about to cry. He quickly jumped up and gave Matt a hug, and thanked him over and over again."
All kinds of credit goes to Stafford, but he wasn't seeking it. He was just a good guy, doing what good guys do - just like the ones providing the venue for that giving.
On and on the auction went, the dollars piling up for a weekend in New England for a Patriots game (including a private audience with Tom Brady), a "Cheesehead Paradise" experience for a Green Bay game with a view from Woodson's seats, and a golf outing at Kinlock Golf Club in Richmond, Va., with former U-M coach Lloyd Carr and placekicker Jay Feely.
Carr fairly beamed throughout the event, and should have. He's a big reason so many Wolverines got so involved in the Mott effort. He's been neck deep in it himself, for the better part of two decades.
To watch what three of his greatest players have done in this way, for this cause, makes the old coach tear up more than a little. (By the way, the bow tie man himself, Dhani Jones, served as auctioneer, telling a funny story about how Carr threatened to toss him off the team as a freshman for being too vociferous).
"I've got the mike now," Jones bellowed to Carr, as a crowd of more than 1,000 burst into laughter.
That crowd also met Mira Larrison, a little girl who suffered from hypoplastic left heart syndrome, also known as "half a heart." Doctors operated on her while she was still in the womb, creating a necessary hole in her heart when she reached 30 weeks gestation.
She's undergone four heart surgeries now, and has avoided a heart transplant. The "half a heart" tag clearly proved a misnomer, seeing her receive her own, well deserved, Olympic medal.
These are the types of kids who win Wolverines' hearts every Thursday night, and sometimes, far beyond.
Griese, Hutchinson and Woodson got it. They grew up, in ways that Carr and the most ardently football-focused fans could never have imagined.
And that's worth more than 42,000 Big Ten championships.