ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Sarah Harbaugh never saw Chad Carr at his best.
When she met the grandson of former Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr two years ago, the 4-year old was fighting diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a childhood form of inoperable and incurable brain cancer found at the base of the brain. Children who are diagnosed with DIPG are given, at best, a year to live.
A hard reality set in for Sarah Harbaugh, the wife of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh. She knew Chad Carr was not going to improve. Harbaugh then considered the impact cancer had had on her own family, and the value of a community coming together to support one of its own.
She also thought of Chad Carr’s mother, Tammi, and witnessed the strength that the mother of three summoned as she took care of her dying son.
“Tammi’s strength was so powerful,” Harbaugh said Saturday at the Champions for Change gala Saturday at Schembechler Hall. “Here is this woman whose son has a life-threatening disease, probably more life-threatening than any other disease out there, and there’s no hope and there hasn’t been any sign for a cure yet — and parents are told that.
“It was heartbreaking, but I also immediately thought, ‘We can do something. Do whatever we can because she can’t lose her son. This can’t happen.’ ”
Many know Harbaugh as “the coach’s wife,” but she is a graduate of the University of Missouri, where she earned a degree in education. She and Jim Harbaugh have four children together.
Sarah Harbaugh met Chad Carr when she moved to Ann Arbor, and the boy was in his final months of life. Buoyed by the Carr family, Harbaugh found a cause: becoming a part of the ChadTough Foundation, which supports pediatric brain tumor research and studies nationwide.
Harbaugh has a stake in this, and not just as a ChadTough Foundation board member. Cancer also has taken its toll on her family.
A personal cause
Sarah Harbaugh grew up in suburban Kansas City, the youngest of 11 children in the Feuerborn family. Years ago, her brother, Andrew, was diagnosed with colon cancer.
She knew she wasn’t helpless. She knew she could get involved and raise awareness to help her brother, even if it meant simply alleviating his suffering for a day. Harbaugh worked with The Dream Factory, a national charity that makes dreams — such as trips to Disneyland or a chance to meet celebrities — come true for critically ill and chronically ill children.
Andrew Feuerborn was a recipient of a wish from The Dream Factory. He died in 1999 of colon cancer. Another brother, Marty, is undergoing treatment for colon cancer. Her family’s connection with cancer fueled Harbaugh’s work with the Colon Cancer Alliance in Northern California.
“That’s what I feel like I’ve known a lot of, since I was little,” Harbaugh said.
When Tammi Carr met Harbaugh, she noticed how the coach’s wife was drawn to Chad. Maybe it was the simple joy that radiated from Chad. Maybe it was Harbaugh’s personal experiences, as a mother and as a sister and a daughter, that drew her toward the little boy.
“She and Jim, anything we need, the answer is ‘yes,’ ” said Carr, the daughter of former Michigan defensive back Tom Curtis and the daughter-in-law of Lloyd Carr, the former Wolverines coach. “Whatever we need [for the foundation], she will do. She’ll speak if we ask her to. She rallies the troops, she helps get sponsors for our events. She does a little bit of everything.”
The value of empathy
Chad Carr was diagnosed with DIPG on Sept. 23, 2014 — three days before he turned 4. The family was very public in Chad’s diagnosis and his treatment, which surprised Harbaugh.
“A lot of us try to put ourselves in [that] situation,” Harbaugh said. “We don’t want to. But when it happens you ask, ‘What if this was my 4-year-old boy?’ I couldn’t do what she did. I know what I would do. I would crawl into a hole. I wouldn’t talk to anyone. Here she is, sharing her struggles with everyone. Anyone. To make it known. Not for sympathy, but so that no one else would have to go through that. And I thought that was amazing and beautiful, and immediately I wanted to do whatever she was doing.”
Because football is part of the fabric of Ann Arbor, Michigan’s fans immediately rallied around the Carrs. So did Sarah Harbaugh.
The Carr family established the ChadTough Foundation in May 2015 with the goal of raising awareness of the disease, raising money for DIPG research and of reaching out to families of children who have been diagnosed with DIPG.
As part of the ChadTough Foundation board, Harbaugh helps the organization form partnerships with Mott Children’s Hospital and its family services, assisting in distributing resources — and finding out where the foundation can help families the most.
“Hopefully we’re here for a long time,” Harbaugh said of future involvement with the board. “But you never know in this profession. So it becomes, how much of an impact can I make in whatever time I am here?”
Continuing a cause
Chad Carr died Nov. 23, 2015, five days before the Michigan-Ohio State game, and a few days after the Carr family celebrated Christmas. It was November, but the family knew it would be Chad’s last holiday.
He was 5 years old.
Chad Carr spent his final days in pediatric hospice care, surrounded by family and loved ones.
“I was raised here, and I know Michigan is family,” Tammi Carr said. “It didn’t surprise me at all how this community came together and said, ‘Anything we can do.’ It means a lot.”
Saturday afternoon at Schembechler Hall, the color orange was prominent. Men wore orange dress shirts or orange neckties, and women accessorized with orange scarves, orange shoes or orange jewelry.
Sarah Harbaugh’s nails were lacquered orange, and she wore bright orange earrings.
Orange was Chad Carr’s favorite color.
“Everyone involved, the whole community, is really into this family and into this child and into making a change,” Harbaugh said. “It’s very comforting to see a town like this come together like they did.
“But if you’re blessed in a community like this, it is your job to give back. And whatever you feel that the need is — and everyone has their different passions — if you’ve got a heart and a strong feeling about something, it’s important that it feeds your soul, that it helps other people. And that’s why we’re here. To help other people.”