Meet Larry Prout, the Teenager Who's Become the Heartbeat of Michigan Football

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterNovember 21, 2017

B/R

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Larry eases himself out of his father's black Saturn Astra and into his red wheelchair. He throws on his blue Michigan beanie and blue-and-maize wide receiver gloves. He carefully eases a white Michigan jersey over his gray Orange Bowl fleece. His last name—"Prout"—is etched across the back, just above the No. 8. His feet, outfitted in blue Jordan Brand gym shoes, dangle from the chair as he waits for his game day to begin.

The fact that he is even here, in the shadow of Michigan Stadium on a cold Saturday in early November, is a moment in itself.         

Underneath all of Larry's Michigan gear are scars and holes and two ostomy bags that will carry his waste throughout the night. His torso has been cut open more times than his family can count. His legs and pelvis have been broken intentionally on multiple occasions. His Achilles have both been cut. There are pieces of him, organs and bone and muscle, that simply aren't there.

In his 16 years, Larry has undergone 100 surgeries. He's spent much of his life inside C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, a short drive from where he sits today, surviving and rehabbing and growing stronger. Through it all—the procedures and the IVs and the complications and the comebacks—Larry never lost his smile.

And now that smile has become a symbol for a nation. A fan since birth, Larry is now a member of the Michigan football team. And for as much as the Wolverines have meant to him during his darkest hours, his influence on the program is greater than you could imagine.

In a few hours, Larry will watch Michigan play Minnesota from one of the best seats in "The Big House." But first, he must greet as many players as he can before they take the field. He must shake hands and take photos with his many admirers, all of whom remain in complete awe of the 75-pound ball of life. He must say hello to head coach Jim Harbaugh, a man he knows simply as "Jim."

Photo courtesy of the Prout family

His father, Larry Sr., grabs the handles on the back his wheelchair as the walk commences. Larry hums the Michigan fight song and pumps his fists in excitement.

A giant, authentic smile dashes across his face.


Kathy Prout could sense it. Having already brought five children into the world, she knew something was different. She just felt that something was wrong.

Her routine 20-week ultrasound was supposed to last only five or 10 minutes. She had been through it five times before. This time, though, it took more than 45. When it finally ended, a doctor appeared and delivered the news.

Kathy and her husband, Larry Sr., were told that her son had a 20 percent chance of survival. Larry had spina bifida along with an omphalocele—a large hole in the abdomen that stretched from his sternum down to his rectum. It was essentially a giant hernia that impacted a sizable portion of Larry's body, exposing his intestines behind only a thin see-through layer of membrane.

And this was only the beginning.

"He has 37 different diagnoses the last time I counted. He was missing things. He was missing his colon and we've learned now a few vertebrae and even different muscles. There are a lot of parts of Larry that just aren't there. The first years of his life were about putting him back together." — Kathy Prout, Larry's mom

"He has 37 different diagnoses the last time I counted," Kathy Prout says. "He was missing things. He was missing his colon, and we've learned now a few vertebrae and even different muscles. There are a lot of parts of Larry that just aren't there. The first years of his life were about putting him back together."

Larry was also born with clubbed feet. Although doctors didn't think that he would walk, Larry proved them wrong at the age of nine. Each of his femurs has been broken multiple times to make it possible, while his feet have had multiple surgeries as well.

Photo courtesy of the Prout family

He's also had two kidney stones removed, one the size of a quail egg and one the size of a pool ball. But all of these procedures—and there were many—were secondary to simply keeping him alive.

His spinal cord has been untethered twice, which Larry says have been the toughest procedures to recover from. His pelvis, which had a huge gap at birth, has never been fully closed despite several attempts.

Just last year, doctors removed the feeding tube that was providing nourishment. Eating has not come easy since. Learning to chew and swallow is something that will take time.

Larry still gets the vast majority of his calories and meals through liquids, but he's slowly falling in love with certain items—like McDonald's french fries and Snickers.

In total, Larry has been operated on 100 times—"100 Victories," they're referred to in the University of Michigan hospital. These surgeries are represented on a plaque that sits on Larry's dresser in his room, marking the day—September 5, 2017—of the last procedure. They are also celebrated with "hope beads"—white charms with a small rainbow that make up a necklace that now stretches a few feet long.

"Three years ago, Larry asked my husband, 'When did they put you back together?'" Kathy says. "We never talked about it, and he assumed we all just started that way.

"He's still learning the world."

Over the years, Larry has developed his own mechanism to deal with the tests and the needles and the unknown that comes with each doctor visit. He hopes to one day write a children's book to help other kids adjust to all the terrifying aspects of a hospital, like coping with needles and blood draws.

His method for coping? He holds his mother's hand, slows his breathing and holds still.

Then, when it's all done, he always says, "Thank you."


Larry lifts himself from his wheelchair and walks toward the front doors of the Al Glick Field House near Michigan Stadium. It is nearing 5:30 p.m., and the Michigan team busses sit idly outside the entrance.

Families and police officers and stadium employees greet Larry as he waits. One offers up his younger brother as his bodyguard.

"I've never seen so many people say hello to you," his sister Molly says to him.

As soon as the players pour out the doors, his focus changes. Larry is completely engaged. He seeks out players for handshakes and fist bumps. Many stop and offer hugs and words of inspiration.

One of the last people to emerge is Jim Harbaugh. The two smile at each other as Harbaugh reaches down to shake his hand.

"How you doing, Larry?" Harbaugh asks before joining his team. "You're looking good."

Photo courtesy of the Prout family

He was born a Michigan Man, his mother likes to say, inside the University of Michigan's Mott Children's Hospital. Take a tour around Larry's bedroom, and this statement has new life.

There is Larry's dresser, which is blue with words such as "Jim Harbaugh," "The Big House," and "Charles Woodson" painted on in maize. There is his blue desk that has "GO BLUE" written in all caps and a giant maize Block "M" plastered in the middle.

There is his vast collection of Michigan hats that hang from the wall, a framed picture of a Stormtrooper decked out in Michigan gear and photos of Larry with the team, including one with quarterback John O'Korn, his favorite player and one of his best friends.

Photo courtesy of the Prout family

"I love the team and the coaches," Larry says. "I love when they come to my house and the fact that they visited me in the hospital. They help me go through some really hard things."

Last year, Team IMPACT, a non-profit organization that aligns children facing chronic ailments with local sports teams, helped connect the Prouts with Michigan football.

On October 11, 2016, Michigan football held a press conference and drafted Larry as a member as the team. Since then, he has made himself at home.

Last year, he attended four home games and an away game. The team also surprised him with a trip to the Orange Bowl. This year, he's been at every home game.

"I love the crowd and the fight song." Larry says. "And I love the guys."

He also goes to practices and hangs around the facility. After a loss, he and his mother will make "Cheer-Up" cookies and bring them to the team. While Michigan does not allow just anyone to walk in and begin socializing with players and coaches, Larry is an exception.

"He's treated like a member of the team," Kathy says. "This is beyond anything we could have hoped for. We had no idea it would be like this."


Larry sits in the Michigan Stadium tunnel, 15 feet from the Wolverines' locker room, with his father, his sister Molly, and his uncle Mike. The family has taken shelter here as the rain falls and lightning flashes nearby, pushing kickoff back more than an hour.

A crowd has gathered around a flat screen showing the Iowa-Ohio State game as thunder rumbles. Larry doesn't budge from his chair, hoping to see a player or coach during the delay.

As he waits, Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck emerges from the visitors locker room and approaches him.

"You've got the wrong colors on," Fleck says while bending down, holding both of Larry's hands.

"I know you root for Maize and Blue, but we're proud of you," he continues. "Keep battling. Keep rowing that boat—that's what we say."

Fleck pats Larry on the leg as he departs. Then he continues his walk toward the field.


Six days after being benched, quarterback O'Korn leans back in his chair inside Schembechler Hall, the team's football complex, and looks like a man completely at ease. He wears a black beanie and a gray sweatshirt with a black vest over it. Sunglasses hang from his collar.

This past week has been one of the toughest of his life, having been removed from Michigan's game against Rutgers and bounced down the depth chart. And yet, O'Korn is still loved in a way most fans who obsess over jersey numbers and performance couldn't possibly understand. And that love—the bond he shares with Larry—is reciprocal.

Photo courtesy of the Prout family

"I've probably felt every emotion there is to feel for a college football player multiple times," O'Korn says. "I'm going through it right now. But I think life is all about relationships and who you surround yourself with. When you go through hard times, it's great to have great people around you. Their family has been that. It doesn't matter if you win or lose. It doesn't change."

O'Korn, who began his college career at Houston, worked with Team IMPACT at his former school. When approached with the opportunity to work with it again—this time with a 15-year-old boy who had undergone more than 90 procedures—he jumped at the opportunity.

Since meeting, the two have spent hours together in Michigan's football complex. They've talked before and after games and practices. After each series, the quarterbacks typically meet in front of where Larry and his family sit. Occasionally, O'Korn and Larry will catch eyes and smile at one another.

But O'Korn's favorite place to see Larry is far away from the football field. Specifically, it's in Larry's home in Howell, Michigan, 30 miles north of Ann Arbor. It is here the two play video games or with one of Larry's many animals. (Larry, for the record, is an expert at "Mario Kart." He also owns three cats, three dogs, two hermit crabs, pigeons and even a pet turkey.)

Photo courtesy of the Prout family

"I love when we just sit on the couch together, and he can be a normal teenager," O'Korn says. "Just one of the guys. At times, he struggles with fitting in because he is so different, but what makes him different is what makes him so great."

While Larry has bonded with many players on the Michigan roster—a roster he tries to memorize each week in hopes of meeting some of the younger players—the bond began here. He wears the No. 8 because O'Korn wears No. 8.

They text every day—oftentimes simply to check in and see how the other is doing. Before each game, Larry wishes O'Korn good luck.

Whenever I leave here, I won't be a part of the Michigan football program anymore, but Larry and I will still have this relationship. I have a friend for life now. — QB John O'Korn

"He's encouraged me to be a lot more positive. He's a hero," O'Korn says. "Whenever I leave here, I won't be a part of the Michigan football program anymore, but Larry and I will still have this relationship. I have a friend for life now."


Photo courtesy of the Prout family

Larry watches from the Michigan sideline, his eyes intently studying O'Korn's every step. His sister stands quietly behind him. The air is cold and heavy, but Larry refuses to wear his coat. Rain continues to fall as the family takes its seats.

Larry sits on the 50-yard line, in Section 23, Row A, Seat 17—perhaps the best seat in Michigan Stadium—alongside potential recruits and players' families. He cheers on the band and sings the fight song. Then, as the game nears, he leans against the brick wall, the only thing between him and the field, and looks back into the crowd, marveling at the view.


Grant Newsome's life changed in a matter of seconds. On October 1 of last year, he went from one of the most promising young left tackles in college football to a young man hoping to not lose his right leg.

Newsome dislocated his right kneecap against Wisconsin so severely that swelling and damage from the injury cut off circulation to his lower leg. Doctors were able to save his leg, but Newsome spent the next 38 days in University of Michigan hospital and underwent six different procedures.

"There were days where I was bitter and angry, sometimes for weeks on end," Newsome says. "And then I would text or talk to Larry, and I would think to myself there is no possible way I could be upset. Not when Larry has gone through 10 times more than anything I'll ever go through in life and he's still so happy every day."

"There were days where I was bitter and angry, sometimes for weeks on end. And then I would text or talk to Larry, and I would think to myself there is no possible way I could be upset. Not when Larry has gone through 10 times more than anything I'll ever go through in life, and he's still so happy every day." — OT Grant Newsome

Newsome first met Larry when he was visiting with O'Korn heading into last season. The two hit it off, and it didn't take long before they were exchanging text messages and communicating every day.

In the days following Newsome's injury, Larry reached out to him in the hospital. When he returned to the facility to begin his rehab, Larry spent many days by his side in the training room.

"It's brought us closer together," Newsome says. "It gave me a deeper appreciation for everything he's gone through. He's had just as much of an impact on me, if not more, than I could ever have on him. He doesn't deserve any of this, and yet he tackles it all the same."

Photo courtesy of the Prout family

After the injury, Larry made Newsome his own necklace filled with "hope beads." It's nowhere near the size of the one Larry has at home, but it serves as a symbol for what he's endured over the past 14 months as his rehab continues. And above all, it's a bond they share.

Larry also gave Newsome some advice on how to handle any visits moving forward: stay calm, breathe slow, hold still and always say thank you.


Photo courtesy of the Prout family

Larry puts on a white poncho as the rain continues to fall. Throughout much of the first quarter, he is quiet as he takes it all in. Then, running back Karan Higdon breaks free for a 77-yard touchdown run, and Larry erupts. He stands and pumps his fists and gives fans around him high-fives. But unlike the rest of the crowd, he does not sit down right after. He stays standing for a few minutes, even when both teams return to the sideline.

On occasion, Larry Sr. looks over at his son and smiles. But no one in the family says much throughout the evening as Michigan runs past Minnesota 33-10, in part because nothing further needs to be said.

With time ticking away, Larry and his family head down to the field, hoping to greet as many players as they can once the game ends.

As his father pushes his wheelchair around the outskirts of the field toward the other side of the stadium, fans in the front row applaud Larry. Others yell for him by name, hoping he acknowledges them. A few even beg for selfies, which Larry stops to take.

Hundreds upon hundreds of hands reach down, hoping to make contact with the great Larry Prout.


The blue, maize and white envelopes are still crisp. They were opened with the utmost care and have clearly been maintained since. Inside each envelope is a handwritten message from Jack or Jim Harbaugh.

For the Harbaughs, football is the family business. Jack, Jim's father, coached for more than 40 years before retiring after the 2009 season. At 78 years old, he now serves as a senior adviser for his son on Michigan's staff.

Over the past year, Jack found an unexpected friend and pen pal in Larry—to the point that Larry now refers to Jack as "Grandpa Jack."

Photo courtesy of the Prout family

When Jack first heard of everything Larry was going through, he knew he needed to meet him. Now, more than a year later, he writes "Grandpa Jack" above the return address on his letters to Larry.

Each time they met up at the facility, the two would talk. Not just about football, but about life. After one home game this season, Jack found Larry in the tunnel on his way out of the stadium. He grabbed Larry's hand and guided him into the locker room, bringing him closer to the team than ever before.

"We have a thing in our family, and it goes back a long, long way," Jack says. "Attack each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind. Each and every time I see Larry, I think to myself he epitomizes that more than anyone I have been around. He faces everything with such a positive outlook. It just brings great joy to me."

"We have a thing in our family, and it goes back a long, long way: Attack each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind. Each and every time I see Larry, I think to myself he epitomizes that more than anyone I have been around." — Jack Harbaugh

Jack's son Jim, of course, has garnered a reputation as being one of the elite coaches in football and also one of the game's original personalities. But to Larry, Jim Harbaugh isn't the savior of Michigan football—the coach who returned to his alma mater at precisely the right moment to make it relevant again.

He isn't the eccentric coach capable of generating a headline at any point in the calendar year. He is simply "Jim."

While so few around Ann Arbor would never dare address the football team's CEO without the word "Coach" attached, Larry and Harbaugh have their own unique relationship they maintain through letters.

Photo courtesy of the Prout family

"The first thing that caught everyone's attention was the amount of surgeries," Jim Harbaugh says. "It's remarkable. I knew then that I wanted to meet this person and find out about Larry Prout. Then you meet him, and you're blown away by the hope and the love and the spirit of the person and his family. Any time you're around Larry, it's a gift."

"He loves us," Harbaugh adds. "And we love him right back."


Larry stands on the field near the tunnel, free of his wheelchair, shaking hands and hugging players who jog off the field. Then he finds him, the backup quarterback who didn't play a single play in the victory. His night is made.

O'Korn bends down on one knee, helmet still on, and speaks to his friend. As soon as they're done, O'Korn gives Larry the biggest and most important hug he's had all day.

Photo by Adam Kramer

The Prouts exit through the tunnel and begin the walk back toward the car, seven hours later. It is after midnight—well past Larry's typical bedtime. He squeezes into the back of his father's car with his sister. Less than 15 minutes into the drive home, he is sound asleep.

Tomorrow he will rise and send O'Korn and Newsome their daily text messages. He will pen Grandpa Jack a handwritten note, telling him he's sorry he missed him at Saturday's game. He will begin thinking about the team's final home game, which is this Saturday against Ohio State.

He'll be there, smiling, and defying all odds. For the first time since joining the team, he will be in the Michigan locker room prior to kickoff. He will then take the field with the players and coaches. 

As important as this rivalry is to the sport and to Michigan, the outcome will pale in comparison to all that leads up to the first kick. A single win, no matter how big, is just one victory. 

For Larry, 100 victories later, this is merely a game.

         

Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs