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May 19, 2013

Champions For Children's Hearts brings U-M, Mott together

In 2007, former Michigan teammates Brian Griese and Steve Hutchinson had an idea that would simultaneously raise much-needed money for the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and give former Wolverines a chance to travel back to Ann Arbor and reunite.

Initially, the fundraiser - which has since blossomed to become the Griese/Hutchinson/Woodson Champions For Children's Hearts Gold Outing - was a small operation.

Event chairman Dave Brandon, who is now Michigan's athletic director, remembers the charity's humble beginnings.

"[My wife] Jane and I and Lloyd and Lori Carr were chairing," he said at Sunday's gold tournament. "We worked really close with them on this. When you start up something like this, you never know where it's going. We hosted the first dinner at our home. That's how small it was. It was Brian, Steve and a bunch of the guys. Now, thank God we're not hosting the dinner at our house, because it's gotten so big.

"Brian and Steve got this thing off the ground, and Charles [Woodson] came in and took it to another level. They put they name on it, and it's a testament to those guys how they get everyone back for this. They get on the phones and say, 'Get your butt down to Ann Arbor.'"

Dozens of former players - from David Bass to John Navarre to Marcus Ray to Jeff Backus to Jake Long - came back to help raise money for the event.

"I love it," Long said. "This is something I look forward to every year, being able to come back and raise money for such a great cause in Mott. The millions and millions of dollars that Steve, Brian and Charles have raised is just amazing. I'm honored to be a part of it."

Although final numbers have yet to be tallied, the event is projected to raise over $1 million again.

"It's amazing, the turnout and the amount of money that comes in every year," Hutchinson said. "Through 2008 and the economic crisis - in this state and with Detroit having its own financial problems - for the community to come out and support the way they have, it speaks volumes of the character of everyone involved.

"The main focus is, 'How can we help Mott.' The first five year, we were focused on building up the event. Last year, we added Charles' fund. Our goal now is to make Mott the best children's hospital in the country. It's one of the top 10 right now, and our goal is to get it No. 1. Michigan is trying to be No. 1 in everything, academics, athletics, everything. So we want the hospital to be No. 1.

"We couldn't have imagined that the money coming in every year is where it has gotten. We're raising over a million dollars every year. For a one-day tournament and a one-night gala, it's crazy."

For Brandon, the fundraiser has a special meaning. His twin sons, Nick and Chris, were treated as premature babies with a rare blood disorder at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.

"The place keeps bailing me out," he said. "I'm a grateful parent, and now I'm a grateful grandparent. I'm just one of thousands and thousands of stories out there of people whose lives were changed by Mott. Whatever Mott wants, Mott gets, as far as I'm concerned."

The Michigan athletic department has also had a strong bond with the hospital, but Brandon is exploring more and more ways that the two parties can come together to raise money and awareness.

"What we're working to do is strengthening the relationship between athletics and Mott, because it's such an important opportunity for both sides to benefit," Brandon said. "We're helping to raise a lot of money, but that Thursday night trip for our student-athletes is really important for us. It's part of our community service message, and to see these guys come back years later and still feel a connection, it's really positive. From my perspective, we want to build it and make it great.

"An example of that is the spring game. We played that spring game for decades, and we just opened up the gates and didn't have any sponsors. We didn't ask anybody for anything. In the last few years, we have turned it into a fundraiser for Mott. We have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those are the kinds of things we can build upon and help the hospital."

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