Michigan super-fan inspires team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Like the rest of the teams in town for the Women's College World Series, Michigan spent much of Friday night underground during the severe weather that spawned multiple tornados, floods and five reported fatalities in the Oklahoma City area. Roughly a thousand miles away in Michigan, Emily Hepker waited and worried until she was able to reach Wolverines associate head coach Bonnie Tholl on the phone and ensure all were safe.
"You make sure everyone is OK because that's half of my world right now," Hepker recalled telling Tholl. "And yes, I'm being very conceited because I'm worried more about myself than you guys, but I need you guys."
A lot of people in maize and blue will tell you the feeling is mutual.
The Wolverines have their share of passionate fans, generations raised on more than two decades of success and now 10 Women's College World Series appearances under the direction of coach Carol Hutchins. Still, good luck finding one who is more invested in any given game but whose passion nonetheless has so little to do with wins and losses than Hepker.
Her good days don't come when Michigan wins. Her good days come when Michigan plays.
"She is such an inspiration to all of us," Michigan outfielder Lyndsay Doyle said before the World Series. "Just the determination she has and what she's been through, it's life changing. She's taught our whole entire team you've got to live every day as if it's your last. The way she battles and the way she has fought through this tough time -- we haven't even experienced the difficult time, but she's been battling for almost six years now and it's just amazing to see how she will not give up."
Hepker was a high school softball player, an outfielder, who had aspirations to play in college. Those ended when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma six years ago, during her senior year. The day after she graduated, she began radiation therapy. The years since have been an all too familiar story when it comes to cancer -- long, difficult stretches interspersed with occasional turns for the better, and all too infrequently even good.
"Right now, I'm on borrowed time," Hepker said. "That's what my thought is; I'm just living it."
On the same day she worried about players, coaches and staff caught in the path of potentially life-threatening weather in Oklahoma City, Hepker spent the day in the hospital. It was not, unfortunately, any more rare an occurrence than spring and summer storms in the Great Plains. Whether because of the cancer itself or complications from treatment, like the most recent infection that developed after a port was installed in her chest two weeks ago, she is no stranger to hospitals, both at home in Michigan and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
"This kid goes up to Mayo more than I get my hair cut," Hutchins said.
That is a typical Hutchins line, matter of fact, almost gruff. It's a demeanor that makes her more than a little intimidating to those who don't know her or dare to ask a dumb question. But the intensity didn't stop Hepker from approaching Hutchins as the coach sat in the stands scouting after a loss in a double-elimination NCAA tournament regional three seasons ago. She wanted to know if she could have a picture taken with her favorite team's coach.
Hutchins obliged and then recalled asking Hepker, as only she would, "So what's your deal?"
That was how it began. The two stayed in touch. Hepker went with Hutchins to a Michigan basketball game the following season, where she met Doyle and other softball players who were handing out posters. By the time the season rolled around, there was a new face in the Wolverines dugout for just about every home game (occasionally the opposite end of the dugout from the coach, whose invitation in no way meant Hepker was spared her wrath if the former's words of encouragement strayed from the time-tested mantras of Michigan softball). After some initial hesitation from above in the administration, Hepker was allowed to accompany the team on a road trip to Ohio State.
"I remember driving home, and she was just crumpled up in her chair, just exhausted," Hutchins said of the bus ride after the Wolverines swept their rival.
She made every road trip with the team for the rest of the season, including the charter flight to Tuscaloosa, Ala. for a super regional.
It was only after the season that her health again turned for the worse. More dark times continued through the start of this season, making it difficult for Hepker to get to Ann Arbor for home games and impossible to travel with the team. She was in the dugout for part of its regional in Ann Arbor and the first day of its super regional. But on her way to the second day of the super regional, she instead ended up making the familiar trip to the hospital.
Michigan made it back to Oklahoma City for the first time since 2010, but Hepker was unable to make the trip.
"I'm a super positive, good-mentality person, but this is what was keeping me going," Hepker said, "I was looking so forward to this season. It's always good to have something to work for. You have something ahead of you that you're like 'I'm psyched for that; I'm going to fight for that.' Even if it's something tomorrow, something I have to do tomorrow. That's how you have to do it. Missing all of this, it definitely hurt me so bad."
Even so, she remains a presence in Ann Arbor, from the bracelets players wear to the "MLE" t-shirts that pop up in both the dugout and the stands. And in ways much deeper than those shows of support.
"We appreciate her for what she's been through, and she's taught us just to appreciate life," Doyle said. "She's battling cancer, and she's battling it with a smile. If we have a bad day, if we strike out, that's nothing compared to what she's been through. And she's just smiling. I think it's one of the main things she has taught us because life throws you up and down.
"We're playing softball. That's nothing near compared to what she's going through, and she's the one smiling."
When Michigan played Oklahoma to open its World Series stay, Hepker was back in Michigan watching with her mother, sister and nephews, the other half of her world. She knew the Wolverines had a tough task against the No. 1 seed and prohibitive championship favorite, but she loved how freshman Sierra Lawrence turned Oklahoma miscues into the game's opening run, even if the Sooners then took control and cruised to a win.
The next night, in a game that didn't end until after 3 a.m. by her clock, she was awake and tweeting encouragement as the Wolverines upset Arizona State to earn another day of softball.
"I don't know what I mean to them, but I don't think they could ever imagine what they mean to me," Hepker said. "It's one of those things, they could never fathom it. I mean, every single one of them."
At one point during a conversation this spring with Hutchins, Hepker lamented that she had missed basically the entire season.
"No, you didn't," Hutchins told her. "You've been with us every pitch."