Wednesday, June 29 2022

In an event that has been in the works for several years, Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh will be the keynote speaker at an autism awareness event next Wednesday night (May 18) at the University of Michigan Union .

The Xavier DeGroat Autism Foundation is organizing the event. Jim Brandstatter, the longtime radio voice of Michigan football who retired after last season, will be the emcee.

Xavier DeGroat, a 31-year-old man from Lansing, was diagnosed with autism at age 4. He met Harbaugh in 2019 through Jim Hackett, the athletic director responsible for bringing Harbaugh back to Michigan. DeGroat and Hackett met at the Ford Motor Company headquarters in Dearborn when Hackett was CEO.

Hackett facilitated a meeting between Harbaugh and DeGroat, who sought to network more with those who wished to support his cause, and grew as a Wolverines fan. Harbaugh’s father, Jack, was also at this first meeting, held inside Schembechler Hall. DeGroat, in a phone interview with MLive on Tuesday, said the elder Harbaugh helped make next week’s event a reality.

The purpose of the event, DeGroat said, is to raise funds to create a sensory room, ideally inside Mott’s Children’s Hospital. A sensory room is a therapeutic space with equipment to help people with special needs – often children with autism – achieve a level of calm.

DeGroat said if that plan fails, the money could be diverted to a sensory room elsewhere, such as Detroit Metro Airport.

More generally, “We want to raise awareness and acceptance that people with autism are better understood and treated,” DeGroat said.

A general admission ticket for the event, which runs from 6 to 8 p.m. and includes dinner, costs $150. On-campus students can enter for $50, while children 10 and under are free. The event will take place on the second floor of the Syndicate in the Rogel Ballroom. There is a VIP event beforehand ($300).

In addition to Harbaugh and Brandstatter, others with ties to Michigan athletics will be in attendance. DeGroat will honor former longtime football equipment manager Jon Falk, women’s gymnastics coach Bev Plocki and former UM athletic adviser Greg Harden for their contributions and support to the autistic community.

DeGroat expects several former Michigan athletes, including soccer stars Billy Taylor and Thom Darden, to attend.

Former Michigan basketball player Jon Horford will also be honored. Horford and DeGroat attended Grand Ledge High School together. “He’s a friend of mine,” DeGroat said. “He remembers being teased and teased because of my autism.”

The DeGroat Foundation has had similar events in the past. In 2018, he hosted one on the Michigan State campus with men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo and then-football coach Mark Dantonio, and returned last October for another. which included football coach Mel Tucker.

COVID-19 has kept him from doing more and delayed Harbaugh’s headlining event which will finally take place next week.

Harbaugh is no stranger to social justice issues. Just two weeks ago, he was in Washington, DC, fighting for fairness in the legal system for low-income Americans. And DeGroat’s cause is personal. DeGroat said Jim Harbaugh’s 3-year-old grandson, the son of Michigan football assistant coach Jay Harbaugh, has autism.

“The whole (Harbaugh) family made it a business to help raise autism awareness,” DeGroat said. The family’s partnership with her foundation, DeGroat believes, can help inspire greater acceptance for people with autism.


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