ANN ARBOR, Mich. — He approached the table dressed like Jim Harbaugh. Khakis. A blue Jordan sweatshirt with a maize block-M on the left chest. Jordan hat to match.
Then Larry Prout Jr. sat down for his press conference, addressing the media while fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a member of the Michigan Wolverines football team.
On Tuesday evening at Schembechler Hall, it all came together. Team gear. Lots of it. Letter of intent. Photographers. TV. Reporters.
He’s a real player.
And for coach Harbaugh, no less.
“He’s a great example of inspiration. He’s got a great gift of personality and enthusiasm,” said Harbaugh, who is 2-0 with Prout Jr. in the lineup. “He’s not shy. He’s honest. He’s wide-open with a big, big, big heart for us… you know? And we love him back.
“He’s a great guy. I mean, you see it right off the bat — Larry’s just a cool guy. He’s been a part of the Michigan team longer than any of us have…”
At 15 years old, Prout Jr. really has spent more time in Ann Arbor than most of his teammates.
Roughly triple that of seasoned vets, actually.
That’s because the Howell resident was born at Mott’s Children’s Hospital, an Ann Arbor-based facility that specializes in treating youngsters with life-threatening conditions. Since Day 1, Prout Jr. has battled spina bifida, short-gut syndrome and massive omphalocele (a “giant opening” on his abdomen), among many other severe ailments.
“When I was born, most of my major organs were on the outside of my body,” said Prout Jr., who was flanked by his mother and Wolverines QB John O’Korn. “I was not given much of a chance to survive birth, let alone live two weeks outside the womb. I have been cut open and sewn back up many, many times.”
More than 90 times.
“Not all of the surgeries were a success,” Prout Jr. said. “But that didn’t stop my family from bringing me back to the University of Michigan’s Mott’s Children’s Hospital. This didn’t stop my team from drawing up another play to hopefully go on to win another day.”
The Team. The Team. The Team.
Prout Jr. cited that famous line from Wolverines legend Bo Schembechler, applying it to his team of surgeons, family, friends and Team IMPACT — the organization that helped make his dream possible. Success has never been a one-man job for Prout Jr. He values being part of something much bigger.
Perfect fit, because that’s the mantra Harbaugh continues to promote at Michigan. Nobody has more importance than the guy next to them. Win and lose as one. Come together to try again the next week, or, in Prout Jr.’s case, the next procedure.
He never complained, though. Poked and prodded, he always said “thank you” and greeted caregivers with respect — not fear. Tough kid.
He wants to be a running back.
Senior De’Veon Smith already has a place in the backfield for his new teammate — and it’s right next to him, in fact.
“When we first met him in the summer, we all noticed something special about him,” Smith said. “We walked him around the (football) building, and he started smiling. He got up from his chair and started walking around and looking at all of the hall of fame cases and all the (photos of) players.”
One of the meccas of American athletics.
“We went to The Big House,” Smith said, smiling. “I threw him a pass, and he ran all the way down the field and scored a touchdown. He spiked the ball.”
Spending time with Prout Jr. has provided even greater perspective for Smith. And really, it’s done the same for the entire team.
“Being around Larry, you know, makes me really think that I’m honestly blessed to have met him,” said Smith, who reminded himself not to take anything for granted. “He’s an awesome guy to be around. I enjoy his presence,” adding that he couldn’t wait to have Prout Jr. in the locker room before and after games.
Harbaugh said that Prout Jr. should be available for action against Illinois and Iowa.
Football presents challenges at every turn. It’s a lot like Prout Jr.’s life. Get knocked down. Prep for the next snap. Adjust the game plan. Always be ready to make a play.
After all, you never know when your play could have the potential to change the entire game.
During the summer, O’Korn and Prout Jr. also became great friends. They talk all the time, O’Korn said, not just every few weeks. To this day, O’Korn remains impressed by the first workout with his new running back.
He’s glad Prout Jr. chose running back, too. Had Prout Jr. wanted to be a quarterback, O’Korn would have had to scoot to another position.
“We got to go on the field with him, and he was running around, and his mom told me afterward, ‘He hasn’t run like that… ever.’ So just to see how excited he is to be a part of this team really lifts our spirits just as much.”
Prout Jr.’s immediate and obvious connection with O’Korn and Smith has a magnetic feel. Just the slightest of mention of their new teammate puts grins on the faces of O’Korn and Smith.
But how’d it happen? Did O’Korn and Smith seek Prout Jr.?
“I think Larry picked us,” Smith said with a satisfied look on his face.