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Friday, December 8, 2023

How Hip-Hop and Ballet Formed One of the N.F.L.’s Most Feared Pass Rushers

SportHow Hip-Hop and Ballet Formed One of the N.F.L.’s Most Feared Pass Rushers

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — It was a spin move, more Baryshnikov than Bruce Smith.

Detroit Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson took an outside path on Atlanta Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews, as defensive ends like Hutchinson usually do. But he didn’t stay on the edge, which probably would have resulted in a stalemate. Instead, with a burst, Hutchinson spun — gracefully, nimbly, forcefully.

He created an open lane to a sack and celebrated, as always, with dance. Then everything Hutchinson was and is came together with a glorious Stanky Leg.

That spin move could define the pass rusher who is third in the NFL in pressures per game (six behind Maxx Crosby and one behind Micah Parsons), according to Pro Football Focus.

At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Hutchinson looks like he’s built more for bull rushes and rips than a move borne of timing, precision and finesse. Hutchinson doing spin moves is kind of like 7-foot-4 Victor Wembanyama nailing 3s.

But Hutchinson goes to the spin frequently, maybe as often as six times a game, and it has worked, though he hasn’t had a sack in four games.

“You can really see his athleticism, the twitch he has in tight spaces, in that spin move, how he sets it up and how quickly he spins,” Lions defensive end Josh Paschal says. “The way he does it is unmatched.”

The way he does it has surprised many. People see Hutchinson’s instinct and grit and they make assumptions. They think he’s a throwback.

There’s a lot that people aren’t seeing.


Hutchinson often dances at Ford Field wearing a Honolulu blue jersey, a silver helmet and eye black on one side of his face that he says prepares him for war. It starts above his eyebrow and reaches a point on his cheek around his mouth.

Not long ago, however, he was dancing at his home stadium wearing a pastel shirt and jorts — a tribute to Taylor Swift’s “Lover” album. Hutchinson was in a private suite for the Eras Tour concert with family and friends, including some little girls.

None of the other Swifties in the suite were more animated than Aidan. “He peaked that night during ‘You Belong With Me’ and ‘Love Story,’” his sister Mia says.

“It was friggin’ electric,” says Aidan, who danced enthusiastically.

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To fully understand, we need to consider a building with mirrored walls and matted floors in a strip mall in Canton, Mich. For about three years, starting at age 8, the dance studio was Hutchinson’s second home.

It began when he came with his mother, Melissa, to watch Mia and their other sister, Aria, practice for their dance team. While the girls went through their routines, Aidan was mesmerized by a group of about 20 boys.

“Normally, a dance studio is almost all girls, but this one was almost half and half,” Aidan says. “But this one had a bunch of Asian street dancers who were all just so sick. I looked up to them the way they could pop it and lock it. They were so smooth and so good. And then they were so cool with their streetwear style.”

This was before he was allowed to play tackle football, so he had time for another activity. His mother tried to persuade him to enroll in dance, offering to buy him a Bakugan ball — a toy that opens into an anime action figure.

“He fell for it,” Melissa says.


Aidan Hutchinson was a competitive dancer as a youth. “I’m very proud of it,” he says. (Courtesy of Melissa Hutchinson)

Aidan started with hip-hop and took to it easily. He liked how he looked in a snapback hat, skinny jeans and Osiris shoes. Then he expanded to contemporary dance. Before long, he danced daily, putting in 20 hours a week and competing regionally and nationally. Aidan wore elaborate costumes — Peter Pan, a Kabuki warrior, a Jack and Jill doll and a Mad Hatter with feather eyebrows.

And he killed it.

“He was good,” says Mia, who manages Aidan’s social media and creates content for him. “Really good.”

Some of the boys at Aidan’s school didn’t appreciate his involvement in dance, however.

“The kids called me (names) for dancing,” he says. “They messaged me on Facebook. You get alienated for being a dancer.”

Hutchinson, tall but very thin at the time, was bullied to the point that he transferred from Achieve Charter Academy in Canton to Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth.

But the reaction wasn’t all adverse. “All the girls loved me because I was the cool dancer, different from the classic athlete,” he says.

Aria recalls talking with friends during school recess one day when she saw her brother sprint by on the playground. In hot pursuit was a pack of girls.

“He had this Justin Bieber hair that went to the side,” says Aria, now a med student at Wayne State. “Apparently that did it for those fifth-grade girls.”

Once Aidan was allowed to play tackle football, he gave up competitive dance. But he didn’t stop being a dancer.

After Lions safety Kerby Joseph made an interception against the Raiders the night before Halloween, the Lions celebrated with an end zone dance from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video — choreographed by Hutchinson.

“I feel like it’s very much a part of me now,” he says of dancing. “It’s a big part. Everyone asks me, ‘What’s your next dance (to celebrate a big play)?” And I think it’s really cool. Dance has given people a different perspective of me. I have a different story and I love it about myself now that I had that past. I’m very proud of it.”

And now the other guys think it’s cool.

“He has rhythm and is the best dancer in the D-line room,” Paschal says. “His parents set him up for these sack celebrations.”

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His parents also helped set him up for the sacks that led to the celebrations.

His family was watching a game in the stands this year when Aidan used a spin move.

“Must have been all the ballet,” a fan from behind said.

“Yes,” Melissa told him. “Exactly. Thank you for saying that.”

Aidan has no doubt his competitive dancing has enhanced his pass rush. He says the flexibility and balance fostered in dance have been his football foundation, and the understanding of choreography has carried over into working within defensive systems.

“Dance has a direct correlation to football,” he says. “There are so many similarities.”


Aidan Hutchinson says the flexibility and balance he learned in dance has helped him in football. (Nic Antaya / Getty Images)

Ask Hutchinson about growing up in suburban Detroit as a Lions fan and then being chosen by the Lions with the second pick of the 2022 draft, and the 23-year-old is likely to direct the conversation to the law of attraction, synchronicity in our lives, divine timing and energy in the universe.

His father, Chris, was a first-team All-America defensive tackle and captain at Michigan and now is an emergency room physician. Aidan’s hardware is from Chris; most of his software seems to come from Melissa, an artist drawn to the spiritual.

Mia and Aria say Melissa is the “momager” for Aidan and his brand, “House of Hutch,” which sells hoodies with the inscription “Breathe In God.” The logo for the brand has three sides — one side representing mind, one body and one spirit. Aidan, a holistic thinker, stays mindful of the alignment of the three.

At age 4, Hutchinson began journaling. Shortly after, Melissa had him and his sisters make “vision boards,” encouraging the pursuit of dreams. By fifth grade, Aidan wrote, “I will play football at Michigan.”

In the third game of the 2020 season for Michigan, Aidan fractured his ankle and required surgery. Part of his rehabilitation was “creative visualization.” While recovering on a couch, he closed his eyes and mentally rehearsed what he would do snap by snap if he were in a game, working to create muscle memory without using his muscles. When he returned the following season, he set the school sacks record and finished second in voting for the Heisman Trophy.

Every day, usually twice a day, including in the locker room before games, Hutchinson meditates for 30 to 45 minutes.

“In the NFL there are so many expectations and pressures,” he says. “Everybody wants something from you. Some days it gets a little loud in my head and it helps if I can quiet the noise, let my mind unravel and reset. I want to make sure I am living a life of gratitude and treating people with kindness. Everything else can complicate it.”

Hutchinson visits the pediatric ward at Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. He engages with the patients and remembers their names and stories. Before each game, he writes one of their names and something about them on the water jug he carries onto the field.

His jug, almost always at his side, is filled with a gallon of distilled water — regular bottled water won’t do — at the start of every day. He drinks it all and sometimes more.

“Water, that’s the flow of life right there,” Hutchinson says. “That’s how you get your joints feeling good.”

Hutchinson is a proponent of natural healing. He believes copious water, with vitamins, minerals and supplements, can make what hurts feel better. He rarely takes anti-inflammatories.

“Now when he takes a Motrin, he feels like high,” Aria says. “His body is that clean.”

Hutchinson deals with inflammation with daily dips in his cold tub and hot tub, which he had installed in his backyard.

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When his Aunt Jan visited from Houston recently and brought “Ritzys,” which are his favorite cookies — Ritz cracker peanut butter sandwiches covered in chocolate — Hutchinson wouldn’t take a bite. He was trying to heal a hip injury, and the sugar, he was sure, would not help.

In the offseason, Hutchinson hired a chef to prepare meals. He avoids sugar, dairy and alcohol, and consumes gluten only in small amounts.

In the offseason, he worked with a personal trainer instead of with the team’s, which his coaches weren’t thrilled about. But they couldn’t argue with the results — he returned with five more useful pounds.

Olympic-style lifting is part of his routine, and he emphasizes the full range of motion on his reps. Every evening he spends time stretching and working on pliability. Yoga also has helped him identify and strengthen imbalances. Aria, a yogini, teaches him privately at his house and he attends studio classes she teaches.

“I’ve got these high hopes for myself,” he says, “so I’m not going to leave any stone unturned. I am wired to squeeze the most out of my potential.”


Aidan Hutchinson has come a long way since his flag football days. (Courtesy of Melissa Hutchinson)

Before the Lions played the Ravens, a reporter asked Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley what stands out about Hutchinson. “Effort and instincts,” he said.

And so goes the narrative.

“I know I’m so much more than that, but everybody reverts to that,” he says.

It wasn’t effort and instincts that enabled Hutchinson to run a 4.15 20-yard shuttle at the NFL combine in 2022. He had the fourth-best shuttle time regardless of position and the sixth-best 3 cone time regardless of position.

His athleticism has been highlighted this season as the Lions have been using him in different ways. Hutchinson had resisted playing inside until Lions senior defensive assistant John Fox told him about 2001, when, as the defensive coordinator of the Giants, he helped Michael Strahan set the record for sacks in a season by taking advantage of matchups at different positions.

Hutchinson still has been primarily a left end this season, but he’s taken 32 snaps at tackle and 88 on the right side. He also varies his stances, usually standing on first and second downs and playing with his hand down in passing situations.

Typically pass rushers fall into one of three categories — speed rushers, power rushers and technicians. Hutchinson is all of those, and his versatility and unpredictability create hesitancy in blockers.

“There’s really not too much he can’t do,” Lions coach Dan Campbell says.

That includes competing in cornhole at a high level (he plans to attend an American Cornhole League event in the offseason), playing the ukulele (he taught himself during the pandemic lockdown) and singing (as “Hard Knocks” documented, he performed “Billie Jean” in front of the team as part of rookie initiations).

Hutchinson is also the Lions’ backup long snapper. And it sounds as if he may make an appearance at tight end soon.

“I told him the other day, ‘We may need to put you on some goal line,’” Campbell says. “He was like, ‘I’m ready whenever you want to do it.’ You talk about a prototype tight end. I mean, he’s perfect.”

As a potential scorer of touchdowns, Hutchinson would not lack confidence. “I’m convinced I have the best hands on the team because I’ve never dropped a ball,” he says.

In 26 games, he has four interceptions and 14 sacks, making him the only player in NFL history to have as many of each in his first two seasons besides former Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.

How can the interceptions be explained?

“I think I attract a lot of these opportunities,” Hutchinson says. “I really believe in football you have to be able to attract things to you by having good energy and good frequencies.”

Stanley’s assessment of Hutchinson’s effort and instincts should not be dismissed either. None of what Hutchinson is doing would be possible without that which cannot be measured.

“He has got this knack for what’s coming, and I’m not even sure he can tell you why, but he just has this feel,” Campbell says. “And so he’s always one step ahead.”

When Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young tried to sneak a screen pass by him, Hutchinson shot one hand at Young’s pass like a chameleon’s tongue and brought the ball in.

“Something in my body was not letting me bite the cheese on the screen,” Hutchinson says.

He believes he is intuitive off the field as well as on. He and his family — they are unusually close — often leave a gathering and discuss the vibes and feelings they had.

Of course, he’s a cat person. Cat daddy to Momo and Mitty. He loves dogs just the same, but cats are easier to care for with his schedule. “I get some free cuddles at night,” he says.

A Lion and a lion, Hutchinson was born under the sign of Leo and has an appropriate personality — dominant, bold and unapologetic.

After he picked off Aaron Rodgers last season on a leak-out pass intended for his offensive tackle, the quarterback had something to say.

“That was a freebie,” Rodgers said.

“Eff you, buddy,” Hutchinson told the legendary quarterback.

“He has a different approach,” Campbell says. “But what always stands the test of time, from back when I played until now is, man, when you love the game and you play it like this may be your last play, and you respect the game, that will always be good. That’s why I appreciate him and respect him because, man, he doesn’t take anything for granted. How you should play the game is the way he plays it.”

That’s where the throwback perception comes from. But the passion Hutchinson has for fighting through two blockers is the same passion he has for meditating, hydrating, cat cuddling and dancing.

Football’s history has provided an image of what a defensive lineman is supposed to be.

And here comes Aidan Hutchinson with another spin.

(Top illustration: Eammon Dalton / The Athletic;
photo: Rey Del Rio / Getty Images)


“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time is on sale now. Order it here.


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