DETROIT — Section 131 in the lower bowl of Ford Field was on its feet on Thursday night as Chase Winovich celebrated his first in-game sack as an NFL defensive end. You’ve rarely seen a more enthusiastic group at a preseason game.
Within this group of several dozen Winovich family members and their friends was 18-year-old Larry Prout Jr. Admittedly a bit quieter than the more boisterous Winovich relatives, but smiling widely, Larry sat with his parents, Kathy and Larry Prout. He wore maize and blue flannel pants, a University of Michigan hat, and a Patriots T-shirt as he proudly watched his friend out on the field.
“He’s a great guy,” Larry said. “He’s a best friend to me.”
Larry’s family likes to say that he was born a Michigan Man.
When Kathy Prout was 20 weeks pregnant, doctors at the University of Michigan’s Mott Children’s Hospital told her and Larry Sr. that their son had a 20 percent chance of survival. He had spina bifida and an omphalocele, a large hole in his abdomen that left his abdominal organs exposed outside his body, protected by only a thin membrane. They would later find out that Larry was missing his colon as well as some of his muscles and vertebrae.
That Larry survived was miraculous. As soon as he was born, the task of keeping him alive and putting his body back together began. He has had 104 surgeries, procedures that have intentionally broken misshapen bones, untethered his spinal cord, and inserted or removed devices that help him eat or digest. Of all those surgeries, 101 of them have been at Mott, where the doctors and nurses wear Michigan colors on Saturdays during football season. Larry sensed the enthusiasm and became a big fan.
In 2016, the nonprofit Team IMPACT, which matches kids with chronic health struggles with college sports teams, connected Larry with Michigan football. At first, he’d been set up with the men’s gymnastics team, but turned it down. Then he’d been paired with the Eastern Michigan football team and eagerly accepted — his dad and brother have degrees from the school, which made it special — only to have it fall through. Then, the call came. Michigan football wanted Larry on its team.
The Wolverines held a news conference Oct. 11, 2016, to formally draft Larry. For three years, he’d go to every home game and several road games and was welcome at practices, in the locker room, and on the field. It was right around his draft day when Larry met Winovich, then in his second year playing defensive end for the Wolverines.
“The thing about him was him and his dad and his mom, they would all take turns, but they would come to our 6 a.m. workouts, our 5:30 workouts,” Winovich said. “He’d be in his wheelchair and his jersey just watching. Just to see that kind of dedication that nobody asked of him. He wanted to be part of the team and for him to, kind of, put the work in in a way inspired me and I know it inspired the rest of the team just to be the best we could be.”
Larry quickly made an impression on Winovich, who started spending more time with him. They’d go bowling, or Winovich and quarterback John O’Korn would go over to the Prout’s house and teach Larry to play Fortnite. Larry’s 17th birthday party was at an arcade, where Winovich dominated at Big Buck Hunter and slid his ransom of coins to Larry.
“A bunch of dudes being dudes,” is how Winovich described his and O’Korn’s hangouts with Larry.
“At least in my eyes it wasn’t like he was someone with this sickness, or however you want to phrase it,” Winovich said. “He was one of the guys, we were all just hanging out. I hope it made him feel special and I think it did. He’s done a lot for us.”
On days when Larry wasn’t around the team or in the offseason, Winovich was in a group text with Larry and several other Michigan players, coaches, and staff. They’d keep up with what he was doing and how he was feeling, though on days when the news was worse it would usually be Kathy who would share those updates.
Their friendship grew at a good time for Larry. He was starting high school and feeling his differences from other kids his age more acutely.
“He was losing his self-esteem, he wasn’t liking his body,” Kathy said. “And then these guys come along and he said, ‘Mom, they treat me like I’m their brother. They just treat me like I’m a regular kid.’ ”
To the team, Larry was an inspiration, which didn’t make sense to Larry at first. Why were all these big, fit football players telling him he was tough and strong? He’d only learned to walk when he was 9.
“I remember Larry would come to us and say, ‘Why do they say I’m an inspiration?’ ” Kathy said. “They’d come off the bus and slap Larry five and say, ‘Larry you inspire me’ and ‘I appreciate you.’ And I remember, the first time, Larry would say, ‘Why did they say that to me? I’m just a little kid.’ ”
It all made perfect sense to Winovich.
“He’s the epitome of not having any excuses,” Winovich said.
Larry has been introduced at halftime and heard more than 100,000 fans chant his name in unison. He’s been lifted up to hit the banner on the way out of the tunnel at Michigan Stadium – an act usually reserved for players.
Don Brown, defensive coordinator for the Wolverines, let Larry sit in on defensive meetings. Larry would sit next to Winovich and listen to descriptions of scouting reports and game plans, the contents of which he still keeps secret.
One of his favorite on-field memories from Michigan came after a game when, as usual, Larry was on the field about to go back into the locker room with the team. Typically, when the players are about to enter the tunnel, they take off their gloves and toss them to kids in the stands. This time, when Winovich removed his, he gave them to Larry and helped him up so that he could be the one to perform the giveaway.
“He’s an awesome guy,” Larry said.
Larry didn’t want to stress out Winovich leading up to the draft, but as soon as the Patriots selected him in the third round, Larry sent him a congratulatory text. At that point, they didn’t know when the next time they would see each other would be.
A couple months later, around the end of June after the preseason schedule was announced, the Prouts got tickets to the Patriots-Lions game. They were just excited to take Larry to an NFL stadium and to root for Winovich, whom they planned to surprise.
When they arrived, they found out there was a surprise waiting for them, too. The Prouts were taken down to the field, where they watched the players warm up. Another Michigan man, Tom Brady, came over and introduced himself.
The Prouts watched Winovich from afar during warm-ups, then went and took their seats for the game. They all met up when the game was over. Winovich saw Larry, wrapped him in a hug, pulled off his game-worn gloves and, once again, placed them in his friend’s hands.