Each of the finalists for the 2017 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award will be featured here. In order to cast your online vote to help determine the 2017 Rare Disease Champion, you can visit our voting page.
University: University of Michigan
Vitals: 6-1, 245-pound senior fullback
Quick Hits: Rushed for more than 3,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in high school and was a National Honor Society student at Glenbrook South in Illinois. … Went to Harvard in 2010 and play JV football as a freshman before being diagnosed with a rare disease that forced him to give up football. … Graduated from Harvard in 2014 with a degree in economics. … Worked for nearly two years on Wall Street at Citigroup after graduating from Harvard. … Was accepted in Michigan’s Ross School of Business graduate program in 2016. … Was granted preferred walk-on status to the Wolverines football team for 2016 season. … Made his debut against Hawaii in September and caught a 15-yard pass. Played in three games during the 2016 season.
INSIDE THE STORY
Growing up parents who were Michigan alum, Michael Hirsch grew up a huge Wolverines fan and always dreamed of playing for the maize and gold.
Coming out of high school in 2010, Hirsch wasn’t recruited as an FBS player despite a stellar career as a fullback. But his dream was always to play Division I college football. And getting a degree from Harvard and playing Ivy League ball was not a bad option.
After one season on the JV squad at Harvard, Hirsch was on the verge of fulfilling a 20-year dream of playing college football for the Harvard Crimson Tide.
Then he was diagnosed with the rare disease Wegener’s disease, a rare disorder that causes inflammation of the blood vessels in your nose, throat, sinuses, lungs and kidneys, in July of 2011.
In a flash, Hirsch was battling a life-threating rare disease and the dream of playing college football would have to stay a dream on the shelf.
Life as Hirsch knew it would be different. Being an elite athlete takes a healthy body, sacrifice and commitment. Hirsch had to battle just to stay healthy.
He stayed at Harvard because he made a commitment to the Crimson Tide. He couldn’t play football, but worked as a student assistant and walked away with a degree that landed him a job on Wall Street.
He loved the competitive nature of his job on Wall Street, but as his health improved that dream on the shelf wouldn’t go away.
If you’re going to chase a dream, why not chase the ultimate dream? And for Hirsch that was playing for the Michigan Wolverines.
He would work all day (6 a.m.-6 p.m.), work out (6-8 p.m.) then study for his graduate school exams (8 p.m.-midnight). Then get up and repeat the process all over again day-after-day in secret.
A lot of dominos had to fall in place for Michigan to become a reality instead of a dream. But he was committed to taking his shot.
The school had to accept him, the Wolverines program had to give him a tryout, his employer had to release him on sabbatical and the NCAA had to clear his eligibility.
In January of 2016 he cleared a big hurdle when he took an unofficial visit to Ann Arbor and met with Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh and shared his story. Harbaugh offered him a spot on the team as a preferred walk-on.
The university accepted him as a graduate student, he was granted his sabbatical, but the biggest hurdle, getting NCAA eligibility clearance, took several months to navigate.
Hirsch received the good news from Harbaugh in April of 2016. The NCAA had granted him eligibility and the 24-year-old known as “gramps” by his teammates was officially a Michigan Wolverine football player.
His dream came full circle in September when Hirsch stormed the field at The Big House, touched the banner on the way out and made his first appearance for the Wolverines by catching a 15-yard pass for a first down in the season opener against Hawaii.
THE RARE JOURNEY
During the spring of his sophomore year at Harvard in 2011, Hirsch thought he had a lingering cold. When he couldn’t shake it, he went and saw the doctors at Harvard who thought maybe he had mononucleosis.
His symptoms lingered until the end of the semester, and after final exams were finished he headed home to Illinois for the summer. His parents, Dan and Karen, were armed with plenty of doctor visits set up to try and figure out what was wrong with their son.
Nobody could figure it out and there now the symptom of blood in Hirsch’s saliva so there was a serious sense of urgency. One day as he went to leave for work, Hirsch went to say goodbye to his mom and his voice was faint and weak.
That symptom led to one doctor, Juanita Mora, knowing exactly what was wrong with Hirsch and being able to diagnosis him with Wegener’s disease.
And it was caught just in the knick of time before it settled in his kidneys and did permanent damage.
Hirsch was immediately put into a treatment plan of medicines, chemotherapy, release and repeat. He went back to Harvard in the fall and his condition worsened instead of getting better.
He had trouble walking, was losing weight and eventually lost roughly 60 pounds, was tired all the time and was injecting himself with a chemotherapy drug every week.
And there was still blood in his saliva despite a variety of different chemotherapy treatments. But a relatively new chemotherapy drug, Rituxin, helped Hirsch turn a corner.
His overall health improved while taking Rituxin, but he will always have to do deal with his rare disease in terms of maintenance.
Hirsch has yearly surgeries on his trachea, he has an annual chemo treatment and tubes will be installed in his ears to repair damage.
But he’s healthy and strong enough to continue being a part of the Michigan Wolverines football program for one more season before his eligibility expires at the end of 2017.
WHAT THEY SAID
“My job was really going well on Wall Street, but outside of work I felt I needed something else going on. So one day I woke up and wrote down what I thought my biggest goal would be. I grew up a huge Michigan fan, my parents met at Michigan. My biggest dream has always been to play football for Michigan.
“So I wrote it down and went to work. Every day is a dream for me. I am so thankful I get to step on the field with these guys each and every day. I don’t take it for granted. My biggest dream has come true.” – Michigan fullback Michael Hirsch