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June 24, 2014

Borton's Blog: The No. 1 recruit

Gray clouds hung heavily over Michigan Stadium on Tuesday afternoon, and a few bursts of rain cut loose. Not in Stephen Loszewski's world. On this day, there was nothing but sunshine.

The 18-year-old from Grain Valley, Mo., lived a dream, after seeing too much of a teenage nightmare the past few years. Diagnosed with leukemia on March 28, 2011, his high school years were rife with battles far beyond the football field he had to give up.

He wasn't fighting for extra yardage. He was fighting for his life.

On this day, he didn't try to fight off a huge grin, while his dad and mom fought back tears. The Make-A-Wish Foundation made it happen for him, with ESPN cameras rolling.

Loszewski's wish: To be recruited to become a Wolverine by the Michigan football program.

They did it right, too. Players ushered him around campus. Head coach Brady Hoke met with him personally. He watched film in Schembechler Hall.

He marched down the Michigan Stadium tunnel, surrounded by howling U-M football players, from Devin Gardner on down. Yes, he touched the banner, led the team in The Victors, and even welcomed a Heisman Trophy-winning special visitor.

When it was over, he couldn't believe what it all meant.

"It was almost a little bit overwhelming," Loszewski admitted. "Being from Missouri, you don't see a whole lot of Michigan roaming around. To suddenly be in the heart of Michigan football and what I've admired my whole life was pretty amazing.

"Getting to meet all of the coaches and meet some of the most fantastic players that have come out of Michigan was pretty breathtaking."

Make-A-Wish representative Jamie Sandys noted Loszewski's wish centered on just knowing what it was like to be recruited by Michigan football. That was always his dad's team, and it became the family's program.

On football Saturdays in the Loszewski household, you wear maize and blue - or you get out. Certain Ohio State rooters have been ushered from the premises when Saturday got serious.

So the 18-year-old - whose leukemia is in remission - wanted just a taste of what it might be like to be a Wolverine.

He received a banquet.

"From the time we met him at 9 a.m., he's had players that met him as his personal tour guides throughout the entire campus," Sandys said. "He's met with almost everyone at the executive level in the football department. He had a one-on-one meeting with coach Brady Hoke to discuss his recruitment, what they found interesting about him as a player and the skills he possesses.

"He actually broke down some defensive schemes with the defensive coach, to talk about if he were to come onto the team, what his role would look like and where he could benefit the team."

A lunch break included a trip with players to Mr. Spots, the hallowed hangout on State Street. Then came the trip to the stadium, and even a press conference.

"The whole thing has been mind-blowing," noted Kristi Loszewski, Stephen's mom. "I think we're all going to go home and say, 'Did that really just happen to us?' It truly, truly has been a whirlwind. Everything they have done has just gotten better.

"You get to a place where you just say, 'Can it really get better than this? Can it get much bigger?' We love the school, we love the program, and to meet everybody we have met today … just seals it."

She paused before choking out the final words, beginning to cry. This truly was living a dream, amid an ongoing battle.

The Make-A-Wish sojourn - that will be broadcast on ESPN as part of the "My Wish" series in July - started two weeks ago. Loszewski entertained a rather physically imposing visitor in former Wolverine Jake Long.

Long brought greetings from the Michigan football family to Grain Valley, and Loszewski couldn't believe what was happening.

"When they were able to bring Jake Long to my house, I left myself open to just about anything that could happen," he admitted. "Even then, it was pretty amazing.

"It was really just a casual time. And it was amazing to have someone like Jake Long casually sitting in my house, talking football with me."

Loszewski was going through a time when he needed a lift. He'd made three trips to the emergency room in two days, and didn't know it, but he was supposed to come to Ann Arbor later in the week.

Dad and mom knew, and kept very quiet about it, even on the day of Stephen's graduation. They'd been in on a conference call with ESPN in a parking lot, figuring out details.

"We just sat there and cried," Kristi Loszewski said. "Then we had to go home and have graduation, as if nothing had happened, and keep it a secret for two weeks."

The secret was out when Long popped in, but Stephen still thought the camera crew coming into his home was a local TV station. He'd just returned from the hospital and wanted to beg off on any interviews.

Kristi Loszewski recalled: "When we brought him home from the hospital, he said, 'I don't want to talk to them. They can come back. I want to go to bed.'"

He eventually assented, and partway through the interview, Long let him know that he was chatting with the big boys from Bristol.

When he hit Ann Arbor, everything ramped up. He had a locker at the stadium with his name on it, filled with Michigan gear. He led the team down the tunnel, their shouts echoing in his ears.

And he sounded very much like a freshman concerned about making the banner leap.

"You want to talk about tunnel vision," Loszewski said. "Quite frankly, I was just really focused on not letting my legs trip up underneath me when I tapped the banner. But once I hit the banner, got to the ground and realized I hadn't fallen, I took a second to look around me. I've got to say, it was pretty breathtaking, to go from years of watching it on TV - from my house or a hospital room - to getting to stand on the field."

He'd already gotten the nod from Hoke, sealing the deal.

"It was overwhelming," Loszewski said. "Just being able to talk to him was amazing, but to be able 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."

The former defensive end didn't let the moment overwhelm him, once he hit the banner and became surrounded by Wolverines. He cut loose a primal scream, and demanded of them: ARE YOU READY TO BATTLE WITH ME!

They roared their approval, and he shot back more challenges. They roiled together, just like on game day, back-and-forth in an emotional release.

Loszewski led the team in "The Victors," after some pointed and prodding guidance by Gardner. Then came Desmond Howard onto the field, coming up from behind the guest of honor.

Howard flew in especially for this day, and he engaged in an extended conversation with Loszewski. They shared their mutual dislike of all things scarlet and gray, reminisced about end zone catches and punt returns that proved to be Buckeye busters, and just reveled in the moments together, as Loszewski's family: Greg and Kristi, along with Stephen's younger brothers Devin and Logan, looked on.

The players hugged him, one by one, as they departed up the tunnel. And when Loszewski arrived at a press conference in Crisler Center and faced four hats on the table - Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State - the choice was easy.

"I just want to say this decision couldn't have been less difficult," he said. "This is a team I've admired all throughout my childhood. I've decided I'm going to go with the big blue."

He put on the Michigan cap, and all was right with the world.

It hasn't always been that way, the past few years. He lost the chance to participate in sports following his freshman year, helping his dad coach younger players instead.

Always, there were more check-ups, trips to the hospital, and far too many confinements. That's where the Wolverines played a role, even before he became one.

"One of the challenges is simply being in a hospital room, and because of my condition, not being able to leave that room for very extended periods of time," he said. "I'm sure that can get to anyone. Sometimes, it's something as simple as taking my mind off things, something to make me comfortable in that room again.

"There are days that get pretty rough. To see those guys fighting through what they do on the football field, being able to be tough, reminds me of 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."

Greg Loszewski, a lifelong Michigan fan, noted there have been many standing alongside.

"We have not fought alone," he said. "Our community has been amazing. The school district has been amazing. Everybody in the community knows the Loszewski boys … they have been very supportive of anything we've needed.

"He had a lot of friends who, as soon as they found out, immediately shaved their heads in support of him. He went back to school the next day, and there were a dozen kids who had already shaved their heads. There had been a lot of support."

Then, dad himself grew emotional.

"The greatest moment for me," he said, fighting back tears, "was to see him strap a helmet on again, when I thought he never would. It was very, very special. And it's a moment I'll never forget."

It was a winged helmet, and for a family of Michigan fans - which named family Chihuahuas "Bo Schem" and "Desi" - an encouraging bond became cemented beyond all fracture.

"These people are just down to earth, and genuine," Kristi Loszewski said. "To do what they've done for a kid, whose dream would have been to go to this school, has just been phenomenal. They will always have our hearts.

"They had our hearts before, but they have our hearts forever - forever and ever."

Stephen Loszewski himself fielded a question on what he likes best about the sport of football. He kept the response brief, and perfect.

"It teaches brotherhood," he said.

It was never more so, than on an overcast, brilliant afternoon at Michigan Stadium.




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