Autism advocate, Xavier DeGroat shines brightly among stars on stage at UMICH

Autism advocate, Xavier DeGroat shines brightly among stars on stage at UMICH

No doubt, many of us were drawn to this autism awareness event not only to support such a great cause, but for the chance to see University of Michigan (UM) head football coach, Jim Harbaugh and other legendary UM athletes, along with prominent local community leaders both on stage and in the audience.

What I didn’t anticipate was meeting someone completely outside of the night’s headliners that just awed and amazed me. I couldn’t help but feel so inspired.

While Coach Harbaugh and the large supporting cast provided lots of entertaining and thoughtful commentaries, the star of the show was the evening’s host and founder of the Xavier DeGroat Autism Foundation, Xavier DeGroat.

What an incredible young man. Xavier, age 31, was diagnosed with autism at the age of four. Despite facing many obstacles, he rose above it all and took on the challenge of being a voice for so many others on the autism spectrum. In 2009, at the age of nineteen, Xavier began his journey as an autism advocate, and in 2018, created the Xavier DeGroat Autism Foundation.

More on Xavier later….but first, let’s recap the evening

Our evening began with Kevin and I having a photo snapped with Coach Jim Harbaugh. It was a thrill for both Kevin and I to be standing next to our beloved team’s head coach. Coach Harbaugh was very personable and gracious during our short visit with him.

We also had an opportunity to snap a photo with his father, Jack. Jack Harbaugh is legendary at UM for his leadership, kindness and generosity. Jack and his wife Jackie are proud parents of two head football coaches. Besides Jim, their son John is head coach of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. Quite the football pedigree in the Harbaugh household.

There was also a football up for silent auction signed by Jack, Jim and John. And Kevin posed with other cool memorabilia up for silent auction last evening.

All money raised during the evening was earmarked in full toward the Xavier DeGroat Foundation.


And then the show began

The night was then formally kicked off by a visit from a portion of the Michigan Marching Band, who took stage and led us off with the UM fight song, The Victors, followed by a chorus of Let’s Go Blue!

Long-time Michigan radio announcer, Jim Brandstatter took stage as MC for the evening. Jim played Offensive Tackle during Bo Schembechler’s first year as head coach in 1969 and played there for four years before going on to a broadcasting career that included covering the NFL Detroit Lions in addition to his duties in the University of Michigan broadcast booth. Jim recently retired from broadcasting after the 2021 football season.

Everyone always wants a “Bo story”

Bo Schembechler became Michigan’s 15th head coach after the 1968 season. He was well known for his intensity and passion for the game and his players, and possessed a fiery leadership style. His players would run through a brick wall for him. A number of the guest speakers either played for Coach Schembechler or was on his coaching staff at one point. Bo collapsed and died on November 17, 2006, the day before their annual game against their biggest rival, Ohio State. It was a sad day for all associated with Bo and the University of Michigan program.

Bo could certainly be intimidating. But his methods were effective.

Among the Bo stories last night, Jim Harbaugh recounted one of the more interesting ones. It certainly drew a good laugh from the audience but Coach also provided a lesson to be learned.

Harbaugh joined Michigan as a true freshman in 1982. He had to compete long and hard to eventually take over as starting  Quarterback of the team, which wasn’t until the 1984 season. Sometime early on, Coach Bo pulled Jim Harbaugh aside and commented, “You might be the best quarterback I ever recruited.”  But before young Harbaugh could bask in glory of a seemingly generous compliment from Coach Schembechler, Bo then went on to finish his sentence by saying, ….”…..OR……, you could be the biggest recruiting bust I’ve ever made!!”

It didn’t take long to sink in for Harbaugh. He admitted, “Coach was right.” From that moment on, he realized that it was all on himself to determine if he would ever reach his full potential and win the starting job. The rest is history, as Jim Harbaugh went on to star at UM (despite a severe injury in 1984 that shortened that season) through his senior year in 1986. From there, he went on to the NFL, where he was drafted in the 1st round by the Chicago Bears in 1987.

As Coach Harbaugh reminded all of us from this story, our path in life is determined by our own decisions, how we set goals, and most importantly, how willing we are to put in the hard work necessary to achieve those goals.

Anyone that has ever played for Bo Schembechler will tell you that while his methods might have been tough on his players, they all credit Bo for the success they’ve gone on to achieve in life. Whether it was in sports or in the business world they chose, but more importantly, how they developed deep values, and became men of integrity as responsible sons, fathers, husbands and leaders.

Sports stories aside, there was one resounding expression from each guest speaker throughout the evening — their love and admiration for Xavier DeGroat

I’m not sure how I ever missed knowing who Xavier DeGroat was up until this point. Since stepping off the corporate treadmill after 40 years just a little over one year ago to date, I continue to realize how self-absorbed I’ve actually been over these past few decades chasing a career, raising my own family and not paying enough attention to greater causes in life. And despite my efforts to do what I think is best for our 36 year-old special needs son Kevin, and the fact he and I are glued to the hip most days over the past many years, I’m a bit disappointed in myself that I didn’t know or pay enough attention to learn more stories like Xavier’s.

But I sure learned a lot about him last night. As I said at the top of this post, he is truly an amazing person. And my favorite part about him is his relentless effort to make a positive impact on the lives of those with autism. It was evidenced by some of the comments some of the Michigan athletes made onstage last evening. “When Xavier calls my cell, if I don’t call him back asap, I know he’ll be calling me again almost immediately.” I love that kind of relentlessness and passion, and apparently so do many others that have come to know him so well.

I’ve got much more to read up on regarding what Xavier DeGroat has accomplished. But suffice to say, he has personally been the catalyst for introduction and passage of bills that bring positive awareness to autism and special needs. Both at a national and state level.

Xavier shows us that supporting autism with compassion should be color and gender blind and have no political boundaries

Taking a look at these four photos below tells us all we need to know about how Xavier goes about his business of helping others and delivering the message to help improve lives. This man is obviously not shy!

As I did this research today in advance of writing this article, I smile and now realize I was truly in the presence of a rock star celeb last night in Ann Arbor…..he is clearly known, loved and respected by many!

A simple yet profound sports metaphor as a take-way from the evening

Coach Jim Harbaugh described it best as he wrapped up his talk on stage. Raising autism awareness is important for all of us. Autism impacts millions of lives, both those on the spectrum and their loved ones and caregivers. Helping those who are specially challenged should be part of our moral fiber. Those who can’t always help themselves need ‘protectors’ and advocates.

Harbaugh equated those advocates to Offensive Linemen, whose job it is to protect the Quarterback. And as for those Offensive Linemen, the Left Tackle has one of the most important jobs; to protect the ‘blind spot’ of the Quarterback. That Left Tackle is there to ensure his Quarterback isn’t nailed from the backside as he looks to throw a pass downfield with his right arm.

Leaving Ann Arbor afterwards left me feeling inspired 

Before leaving the hall, I made it a point to introduce myself to Xavier, as he was surrounded by many others that wanted his attention as he was stepping offstage. I thanked him for the evening and all he is doing for our deserving special needs community. I handed him my business card, pointed towards Kevin, and told Xavier that KEVADVOTECH exists to serve special needs.

I then asked him to be my special guest for a video interview in the near future. Not surprisingly, he agreed to do so. I’m already looking forward to that opportunity!

By the end of the evening, I was filled with even more pride for my university knowing their level of commitment to this worthy cause, and all Xavier is doing. And I felt grateful for others in the room from all walks of the community that were there to support this wonderful event.

I also thought about how personally thankful I am for the all the “offensive linemen” I meet every week that dedicate their lives to those with special needs. Caregivers, healthcare workers, volunteers, advocates. No action or contribution is too small. We need all the support we can get.

And best of all, I left feeling even more grateful and inspired to be Kevin’s starting ‘Left Tackle’.  GO BLUE!