Teen who survived 2 plane crashes achieves basketball dream
Three years after a plane crash killed the remainder of his immediate family and left him in a coma, Austin Hatch stepped on the court in a preseason basketball game for the University of Michigan this past Sunday. It was a moment that doctors once believed might never happen.
As a high school junior in 2011, just nine days after he verbally committed to the University of Michigan basketball team, Hatch was in a plane crash in Michigan that killed his father, who was piloting the plane, along with his stepmother, and left Hatch in a medically-induced coma.
It was the second plane crash Hatch survived in his young life. When he was 8 years old, his father, Dr. Stephen Hatch, was flying the family in their small plane when it crashed upon landing and killed his mother and two siblings.
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"If I would've thought of this situation before it happened to me, I wouldn't have thought I could make it either,'' Hatch told TODAY's Maria Shriver on Friday. "It really comes down to character, just being able to persevere in the midst of tragedy and adversity."
A 6-foot-6 basketball star in Indiana at the time of the second crash, doctors feared he would never be able to play basketball again. A traumatic brain injury from the crash meant Hatch had to learn how to walk and talk all over again.
He also had to move forward without his father, who had become his lifeline through the grief over the tragedy from the first plane crash. "I'm what kept him going, and he's definitely what kept me going,'' Hatch said. "He was my best friend, my basketball coach, my mentor, my everything."
With his entire family gone, Hatch, now 19, refused to give up on his dream of playing for Michigan, his mother's alma mater.
"I can hear their voices in my head when I face a difficult situation,'' he said. "I can hear my dad guiding me. That's really all I strive to do, is just to honor him with my life."
Hatch moved in with extended family in California to finish high school, working with a private coach to regain his basketball skills. On Jan. 8, he returned to the court for the first time, swishing a 3-pointer on his first-shot attempt in a game for Loyola High School. His coaches and teammates were so overcome with emotion that they rushed the court to embrace Hatch in the middle of the game, and were whistled for a technical foul.
"There were a lot of tears in the locker room,'' Hatch said. "Not that that shot meant that I was totally recovered, but it was a big step in the right direction."
This past spring, he graduated high school and achieved his dream of playing for Michigan on a full scholarship. On Sunday, he played three minutes for the Wolverines during a preseason exhibition game against the Perugia Select Team in Rome, Italy, taking another step in a remarkable comeback. He received a standing ovation from the Michigan supporters in the crowd, which included his grandfather. After the game, head coach John Beilein had him lead the team in the singing of the school's fight song, "The Victors."
"My dad and mom raised me to be an uncommon man,'' he said. "The uncommon man gets up at five in the morning to go work out, to get stronger, when no one else is. It takes an uncommon man to do that when no one is looking."
His father's Bible is often not far from his bedside, and his deep religious faith has helped carry him through the multiple tragedies he has endured.
"Surviving two airplane crashes, either luck is on your side, or there's some sort of divine intervention in your life,'' he said.
Through it all, Hatch has never dwelled on the question, "Why me?"
"Asking yourself that question, it doesn't do any good,'' he said. "The time that you could spend wondering and thinking, why me, that's time that you could've spent working your tail off to get better."