There’s a thing that happens when people watch Aidan Hutchinson play football up close — like, really watch him — for the first time. It’s as inexplicable as it is consistent. The clarity emerges that Hutchinson is better than they assumed.
It’s a phenomenon that has followed the new defensive hope of the Detroit Lions since he first buckled a chin strap, long before anybody knew or cared who he was. The occurrence has been noted and harnessed, turned to fuel for an engine that burns with the precision of a doctor and the awareness of an artist.
“I love the kid, he’s relentless,” Lions assistant general manager Ray Agnew, smiling ear to ear about Hutchinson’s potential, said recently before getting to the heart of our tale.
“And a much better athlete than you thought he was in the draft process.”
Lions general manager Brad Holmes, also smiling, added: “We pretty much knew he was a high-floor player. … And there are some things that he’s shown that I think some people didn’t even know that he had.”
Beneath the whole package that has become Aidan Hutchinson — the decorated local product who will make his Lions debut Sunday versus the Philadelphia Eagles — exists a battle between two extremes.
One-half grizzly bear. One-half spiritual guru. Gasoline and tranquility.
Complicated and, at times, very tough to figure out. A quiet person when he needs to be quiet. A loud person when he needs to be loud. Someone who hears and sees everything — to a point that it can make others nervous, perhaps even unsettled to the point of questioning reality.
“I think,” Lions defensive line coach Todd Wash began earlier this summer, “he’s a better athlete than I thought he was.”
One extreme of Hutchinson’s personality could be seen during the second half of Michigan’s win over Ohio State last season. The Heisman Trophy finalist literally screamed at OSU’s offensive line to shift its entire protection at him before he de-cleated a tackle in his most viral college play. The other showed up after that game, when Hutchinson — wearing an exuberant smile, signature eye-black smeared across his face — told reporters that he’d recently manifested the victory in a dream. He’d mentally committed himself to the goal of beating Ohio State in his sleep. When he woke up, Ryan Day was doomed.
This is Aidan Hutchinson. The formerly skinny kid from Plymouth, Mich., who wasn’t allowed to play football until the seventh grade. The University of Michigan’s third defense-first Heisman Trophy finalist, following Charles Woodson (who won the award in 1997) and Jabrill Peppers in 2016. The literal son of a doctor and an artist. The guy who makes things look so easy, people question if he’s actually capable in the first place. The player who was too small, until he wasn’t. Not strong enough, until he wasn’t. Not fast enough, until he wasn’t. The perfect recruit.
The Lions draft visit “was one of the most seamless because of how smooth it was and how it was just so easy to talk football with these coaches,” Hutchinson said recently. “I was just praying the Lions were going to take me. It’s a little bit scary when you get in that green room and the Lions are on the clock and you’re just sitting there like, ‘Dear God, please pick me.’ That was kind of what was running through my head.”
The Lions couldn’t turn in their draft card fast enough, taking Hutchinson No. 2 and, perhaps, finding the perfect pillar for Dan Campbell’s club.
— NFL (@NFL) April 29, 2022
To say Chris Hutchinson is a Michigan football legend probably doesn’t do justice to his place in the program’s history. Hutchinson left Ann Arbor in 1992 with five (that’s right) Big Ten title rings as one of the program’s most productive defensive linemen ever. And when it comes to the original “Hutch,” you will not find five players who garner more respect historically within the Wolverines for their toughness.
Chris Hutchinson left his home in Texas for Ann Arbor, Mich., in the summer of 1988. One of the top 100 prep players in the Lone Star State, Hutchinson had his share of offers. He was a quick, 6-foot-1, 220-pound defensive tackle scouts thought would have a shot at becoming a linebacker — but not in the Southwest Conference. Only Baylor offered there. So Hutchinson — who had fond childhood memories of spending summers in Marshall, Mich., with his grandparents, working at a local hardware store for spare change — became a Wolverine.
When Michigan announced Chris Hutchinson’s signing, it added 2 inches and 10 pounds to his height and weight on the roster, and he still looked small. By the summer of 1989, though, everything had changed. Hutchinson’s work in Mike Gittleson’s weight room turned into appointment viewing. He exhausted himself beyond any rational level every day, only to show back up the next and do it again — before going on the practice field and making every offensive lineman’s life hell for the rest of the afternoon. He went from 220 soaking wet to 250 of lean, twitched-up muscle in basically a year.
“Look, when you were a defensive end (my size), there are things you have to do to have a level playing field,” Chris Hutchinson recalls now. “To me, back then, it was: I’m not going to have any regrets.”
He started 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 1989, filling the shoes of departed legend Mark Messner better than anyone dreamed possible. By 1992, he was a team captain, an All-American and the team’s most valuable player. If that were everything, it would be enough. But in September 1992, the day after helping Michigan’s defense hold Oklahoma State to fewer than 200 yards in a dominant performance, 22-year-old Chris Hutchinson walked into a classroom on crutches — due to an injury the day prior — and in the middle of the most important football season of his life, sat down and (successfully) took a six-hour medical board exam.
Put simply, there are impressive people in this life. And then there are the Hutchinsons of Plymouth, Mich.
Chris met his wife, Melissa, at Michigan. Chris became a doctor. Melissa has worked in fashion and has run her own photography business for two decades. They are quintessential high achievers in nearly every sense, pushing their children (they also have two daughters, Mia and Aria) to pursue their passions with intense focus, but without losing the joy that made them passions in the first place. They are also in two extremely different lines of work, individually thriving as two very different personalities.
And their son, Aidan, got the absolute best of each of them.
When it’s time to crank the weight room intensity to an uncomfortable level, Aidan Hutchinson can do that. He can do it every day, even when he doesn’t want to, and keep doing it — just like his dad. When it’s time to focus on learning a new system, or to exist in a new environment with people he’s never met and everyone is looking at him to perform, he can stay present and unrattled — just like his mom.
“Aidan always knows exactly where he is,” said John Filiatraut, who coached Hutchinson at Dearborn Divine Child High School. “It’s not staged.
“Aidan is always where his feet are.”
Filiatraut was nervous, on the edge of being terrified. Divine Child opened in Dearborn, Mich., in the late 1950s with fewer than 100 students, two nuns and one athletic department. Over time, the metro Detroit Catholic school turned into one of the finest private institutions in the state, if not the Midwest.
The Falcons have produced some great athletes over the years, important figures in football: former Lions quarterback and broadcaster Gary Danielson, former Michigan defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann, former NFL head coach (and Michigan State linebacker) Pat Shurmur. But make no mistake about one thing.
“We are a small, local school,” Filiatraut stresses before taking a breath and pulling himself mentally back to the morning he prepared himself to watch the best player he’d ever coached perform in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on national television.
“I look out there and I see all these kids from these factories, right. All these Alabama and Georgia (commits),” Filiatraut says. “I think Trevor Lawrence was a quarterback.
“And I was just — oh my god. It was, ‘I love this kid, I do not want to see him go down there and get embarrassed.’”
Hutchinson entered Divine Child, which sits fewer than 10 miles from his Lions locker in Allen Park, as a 6-1, 155-pound freshman. He’d begged Chris and Melissa to let him play football at an early age, but they refused. Once his body developed, and he was old enough to be properly coached, Mom and Dad signed the permission slip for seventh-grade football … with one rule for Aidan.
“I know how rough this can be,” Chris Hutchinson says. “I just wanted him to have fun. Parents would get ticked at me, they’re screaming at the eighth-grade coach about stuff and I’m like, ‘It’s eighth-grade football. Let’s have some fun.’”
That’s pretty much how it stayed for a while. Hutchinson was the small, skinny kid who played harder than anybody else — and made life miserable for most older linemen. Until the end of his sophomore year, that is. Hutchinson hit a massive growth spurt, adding 5 inches and a whopping 70 pounds to his frame, the latter thanks to his time in the weight room. Now 6-6, 225, with no loss of speed, Hutchinson had finally convinced his father and coach he had a future in football.
When Hutchinson committed to Michigan in February 2017, Rivals.com tabbed him a three-star recruit and Scout.com had him as the No. 202-ranked player nationally. But as is the case so often with these recruiting rankings, the actual truth lives in the offer sheet. There were coaches who knew he’d be a steal. He was lightly recruited, though, in part because many schools thought he’d end up at his dad’s alma mater — and also because many didn’t think he’d be that good.
LSU became Hutchinson’s first “whoa” offer in spring 2016; Cam Cameron and Les Miles were both on staff at Michigan when Chris Hutchinson was a player. Mark Dantonio, who made a career out of finding overlooked recruiting gems, knew he had to get creative to overcome Michigan’s advantage, so he offered Hutchinson as a “football player” — Dantonio believed Hutchinson had the frame and growth potential to possibly be a high-round offensive tackle, if he wanted. Hutchinson was also a dynamic tight end in high school. He could play defensive line, instead, of course — if he wanted. The best evaluators could see it with Hutchinson, Jim Harbaugh’s staff included.
But many others got lost in the stars. Hutchinson’s growth spurt left him with an incredibly painful bout of Osgood-Schlatter disease, a common ailment in kids who grow at a faster rate than their bones can handle. The condition, complete with brutally painful lumps just below the kneecaps, went away on its own (as it does) with age — but the constant pain limited Hutchinson’s practice time his junior year. Most high school talent evaluators never got to see Hutchinson at full strength before his senior year. Those who went hard after him did so mostly on instinct.
This entire situation would eventually repeat itself in 2020 at Michigan when, following a late start to the season due to COVID-19, Hutchinson suffered an ankle fracture in Michigan’s third game. He’d entered that year expecting a breakout. Instead, national pundits forgot about him.
It wouldn’t be the first time he eventually showed others that everything would be just fine. Which takes us back to Filiatraut and the All-American Bowl. Hutchinson was invited to the game because he was going to Michigan. The rest of the guys were invited because they were rated as the elite of the elite.
Then the game started.
— Josh Helmholdt (@JoshHelmholdt) January 6, 2018
Hutchinson had 2 1/2 sacks (including one on Lawrence) and was easily the best defender on the field. Nobody in his circle questioned anything ever again.
“That’s when I said, ‘I’m gonna enjoy this,’” Filiatraut said. “He doesn’t need me to worry about him anymore.”
In January 2020, Jim Harbaugh stood on a stage inside a downtown Lansing convention center and explained to a slew of high school football coaches — in detail, via an old overhead projector that had to have come from a 1980s geometry class — what his perfect recruit was. As is often the case with Harbaugh, he’d thought about all this — enough to turn it into something he called Michigan football’s “Fit Score.” Half of Michigan’s evaluation for a player at this time, he said, came from that score. The other half?
“Your brand,” he shouted to no one and everyone at once, “is your tape.”
Harbaugh’s rubric featured a 100-point scale with categories like “leadership, character, football IQ, effort and accountability.” Part of his staff’s evaluation of a player, he told the room, was to press every coach and/or person in a recruit’s life for honest answers to help Michigan assign a grade for each of those boxes. The grades were simple: 90-100 was an A, 80-89 a B and so on.
“We’re looking for an A,” Harbaugh deadpanned before revealing he had one player on his roster — a rising junior — who checked every box on his list. Perhaps for the first and only time while he’d been at Michigan.
Harbaugh was not the first to declare Hutchinson a star before the rest of the world saw it. Chris remembers getting all sorts of steam from every corner of the internet early in Aidan’s college career, when he compared him to the Bosa brothers athletically. At the time, Aidan had 4 1/2 sacks to his name and was sitting out with an injury. Chris, though, had already seen Aidan run even with former teammate Kwity Paye in speed-testing drills, shortly before Paye turned his elite combine into a first-round selection with the Colts.
The questions about whether Hutchinson’s production on a football field had more to do with effort than actual talent rode shotgun with him right through this spring’s NFL combine. If a prospective agent met with the family and even mentioned the word “hustle” or something about being the “high-motor” prospect, they were shown the door. Hutchinson’s motor — both sides of the battery, the power and the calm — is part of who he is. But he told anyone who wanted to rep him to NFL teams that it might as well be a four-letter word.
“Effort,” Chris says, “has a lot to do with your athleticism — (your effort lets you) really tap into some things.”
Then Aidan walked into Lucas Oil Stadium at the combine and showed them why, posting a three-cone time of 6.73 seconds and a short-shuttle of 4.15. The three-cone score (measuring agility) was No. 6 at the combine regardless of position — he beat 12 receivers and four defensive backs with that time. The short-shuttle score tied with that of Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Austin, who has 4.43 speed.
Tape, like anything else, can be subjective. If you’re not careful, you’ll wind up seeing what you want to see — or what you’re looking for — rather than what’s actually happening. Hutchinson’s effort is in his bones and a huge part of who he is. The recipe for harnessing it is basically a family trademark.
But, much like the person, there are two sets of equal extremes when it comes to Aidan Hutchinson the football player. Now 6-foot-7 and 264 pounds, he is as athletic as he is relentless. As quick as he is dedicated. And not everybody is surprised.
“Everything I thought about you, man,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn told Hutchinson on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” before an August practice, “I’m just glad to know it’s real. And I am serious when I say that.”
Dan Campbell, in the same situation, one episode earlier in a conversation with Hutchinson:
“Every day I feel it,” Campbell told him. “You’re speaking without your f—ing mouth. You’re earning it. Keep going, man. Keep going.”
Lions’ Campbell, Hutchinson favored to win 2022 NFL awards
Campbell and his new-look Lions are hardly what we’d call normal. His defensive coordinator and running backs coach nearly come to blows every practice before having lunch together most days. Fans bring one of his best players (Jamaal Williams) boxes filled with anime products at public events. They had a player-taught practice in camp. The “cost of doing business” if you’re going to coach on this team is 40 up-downs; non-negotiable. Campbell quotes Metallica in team meetings.
If there was anything normal about Aidan Hutchinson, his career would’ve ended in the 10th grade and he’d probably be a successful joint pain physician somewhere, with a last name you might remember. That’s not what this is. This is something different. Because while Campbell’s Lions and Hutchinson are both carving their own path in a world filled with copycats, they share something else, too.
If you told both Campbell and Hutchinson the only way they could be around football again was for them to eat glass for breakfast every day for the rest of their lives, their only reply would be to ask for a spoon.
Dan Campbell’s Detroit Lions and Aidan Hutchinson. No one will believe a single thing about either one of them until the proof is six inches in front of their face — and that’s just fine with both. Two steel peas in an iron pod. To quote Metallica’s James Hetfield, one more time:
Smashing through the boundaries, lunacy has found me, cannot stop the battery.
Pounding out aggression, turns into obsession, cannot kill the battery.
Cannot kill the family.
Battery is found in me.
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Getty Images)