When you volunteer at Michigan Commencement, you have the chance to meet all manner of rising stars. In 2022, I got a kick out of watching Aidan Hutchinson strut his stuff in cap and gown, complete with aviator shades and sister at his side. That day, he graduated from beloved Wolverine to beloved Lion, bringing some of Jim Harbaugh’s “enthusiasm unknown to mankind” to Dan Campbell’s NFL squad. To watch Hutchinson on the field and in the pressroom, it’s obvious he feels his fairy tale came true. And how lucky are Michigan fans this year, riding the the Wolverines’ victory in the CFP National Championship Game right into Detroit’s thrilling post-season gameplay.
A few months back, I received an email from an alum pitching me a story on his fraternity brother who’d attended nearly 600 consecutive Michigan football games. It’s the kind of tip you tend to roll your eyes about; you’re sure you could write the story without even talking to the guy. But you know you can’t ignore it. A guy attended nearly 600 consecutive Michigan football games. You really should meet him.
That guy is John Levinson, BBA ’73/MBA ’75, subject of the story Sometimes the ‘hero’s journey’ takes an unexpected turn. It only took the first sentence of our interview for every preconceived notion of mine to shatter, as Levinson popped into the Zoom window to say, “Well, here’s some background that you may or may not want to know. I have ALS. I’ve been diagnosed with ALS so I was just on the phone with the genetic testing people, which I’ve been trying to connect with for a while.”
Every expectation, trope, and stupid cliche I had cooked up about some crazy Michigan football fan disappeared. Suddenly, my goofy feature about a guy who loves the Wolverines evolved into a poignant message on living each moment as though it’s your last. Ironically, as the interview revealed, Levinson had been doing that all along. Way before he was diagnosed. He didn’t need ALS to kick him into gear to count his blessings, chase his passions, and cherish every breath.
Plus, he has the most fascinating backstory that would bedazzle any struggling screenwriter: family drama (his Jewish grandfather married a gentile and got banished from the family for a while), political influence (his grandfather’s sister was the mother of Michigan politicians Carl Levin and Sander Levin, “the Democrat side of the family”), a commercial empire (the family built much of Birmingham’s early business district), true love (they met at Michigan, of course, and have been married 46 years), and finally, tragically, a degenerative and incurable illness.
As we talked, I realized most of Levinson’s anecdotes were not about the games. They were about his grandmother’s sandwiches at a tailgate when he was 7, his grandfather’s friends on the alumni bus when he was 14, his Delta Chi brothers and pals from his days playing Michigan lacrosse (the team, the team, the team). It’s so rare to encounter someone who embodies the principle that life is about the journey, not the destination. Somehow, I get the feeling Hutchinson might be the same.
Levinson knows his journey will get really tough one day, so he plans to renew his season tickets and buy all the away-games for the 2024 season. He remains practical and optimistic, vowing to keep up his attendance streak until he can’t. After all, he’s in it for the adventure. And like he says, “Some adventures are more complicated than others.”
(Lead image: D. Holdship.)