Jon Leopold never used to track the number of times he showed up at a University of Michigan sporting event or a charitable function dressed from head to toe in all of his stormtrooper glory.
Even when he started charting his appearances – like the one he made in early December at the university’s men’s basketball program’s annual Star Wars Night – Leopold never guessed the tally would ever grow like it has to more than 600 games, Mott Children’s Hospital visits, and other philanthropic outings.
But for a man whose two biggest passions in life involve all things Michigan athletics and all things Star Wars, Leopold’s sometimes larger than life alter ego has made even more of an impact than he could have ever imagined.
Leopold, the man behind the Wolverines Stormtrooper who has become a mainstay around the greater Ann Arbor area, is now known as Michigan’s ultimate superfan. From the first time he showed up at the Michigan-Ohio State football game in 2011 in full costume and required more than an hour to get out of the stadium due to the number of times he was stopped for a photo, his popularity and the requests for his time have grown by leaps and bounds.
Regardless of how many people stop him for a photo or selfie – a variety of which have landed on countless social media accounts – one thing has never changed: Leopold never asks to be compensated financially.
Instead, he simply asks that those who request his presence at an event donate to one of the 11 charities to which he himself donates money, including The ChadTough Foundation. Over the years, Leopold’s efforts have helped raise money for ChadTough in various forms. He has shown up as the Wolverines Stormtrooper at any number of events, including the Rough Tough 5K, Brandon Inge’s Dingers for DIPG, and Dancing With The Michigan Stars where he didn’t allow the 15-pound costume that isn’t exactly mobility-friendly, but is the one Leopold has been synonymous with, to stop him from getting involved.
By doing so, Leopold feels as if he is doing his part to serve a community that has brought him so much joy over the years. Yet, for all of the times Leopold has made the 2 ½-hour round trip excursion to Ann Arbor from his home in Goodrich, the times when Leopold can help brighten the day of a sick child are the appearances he considers the most special.
“It makes it all worth it,” Leopold said.
Leopold recently completed a stretch in which he appeared at five events in six days, a busy schedule that also involved a full-time job. But 17 years after he purchased his first stormtrooper costume, and 13 years after he customized the outfit with a maize-and-blue-colored theme and a helmet fashioned after Michigan’s famed winged design, Leopold can’t imagine filling out his calendar any other way.
The number of requests for him to appear as the Wolverines Stormtrooper, however, far outweigh the number of times he can actually show up. Leopold missed the Wolverines’ 2018 homecoming game because he received a request to walk a bride down the aisle at her wedding. Leopold has appeared at other weddings as a reception guest where he spent 30-45 minutes dancing with guests, and also served as a ringbearer for one ceremony. But he acknowledged that the bride’s request to accompany her to the altar was by far the most unique he has received.
“I couldn’t say no to that,” Leopold said. “I don’t know if I will ever get the chance to walk another bride down the aisle.”
For all his celebrity, Leopold realizes his biggest impact as “Blasty” – his stormtrooper name – is often made when he can visit children who are battling illnesses and diseases few can even imagine. His connection to ChadTough and the knowledge he has come to gain about DIPG is, like many things, tied to his love of Michigan football with Chad Carr being the grandson of former Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr and former Michigan star Tom Curtis.
Often when he arrives at a hospital, Leopold is told by parents that their child has been lethargic or hasn’t spoken in days. But when Leopold or others dressed in Star Wars costumes show up, the mood suddenly lightens and the smiles that were absent for long periods of time reappear.
Leopold has quickly adjusted to the double takes and the looks of awe when he enters a room. But from behind the mask, the looks he receives and the understanding that he has brightened someone’s day still get to him.
Leopold often spends time in discussion with children, and asks them about their favorite Star Wars characters or other topics of conversation that might take a patient’s mind off of their illness. Seeing a child smile, or seeing their eyes wide when he enters a room or hands them one of the 35,000 trading cards that he’s handed out over the years, or when he signs an autograph that often includes the likeness of a stormtrooper often takes a toll on his emotions.
It is in these moments that Leopold realizes how much his work matters – both to those it impacts directly and to himself.
“That’s the good thing about having a helmet on at that point,” Leopold said.
Written by Jeff Arnold, a ChadTough volunteer writer