This week University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has led his team to Rome, an extraordinary team bonding experience and a unique opportunity for the players, many of whom had never been outside the U.S. On the Wolverines' agenda: three football practices, cultural immersion, a weekly papal audience, and an opportunity to see Pope Francis up-close and personal.
For Coach Harbaugh, a life-long Catholic, the trip affords an opportunity to celebrate his faith with his own family. His 15-month-old son, John, will be baptized this week in St. Peter's Basilica; and his youngest daughter, eight-year-old Addie, will be receiving her First Holy Communion in the Eternal City.
On April 26, Harbaugh and his wife Sarah were seated near the Holy Father on the dais at the Wednesday General Audience. At the conclusion of the audience, the coach presented Pope Francis with a gift beloved by Michigan fans: a pair of Air Jordans and a Michigan football helmet emblazoned with a custom sticker with the number 266—since Pope Francis is, after all, the 266th pope.
Players have taken in the sights and sounds of Rome, touring the Colosseum (aka the “original Big House”) and the Pantheon, where Harbaugh and his daughter Addie knelt to pray. They've posed for photos on the Spanish Steps, and tossed coins in the Trevi Fountain – where Coach Harbaugh confessed to reporters his wish that the Wolverines might win an NCAA Championship.
One slip of protocol nearly landed the coach and his team on the street. Someone – Harbaugh or one of his players, I'm not sure – tossed a football inside an Italian shopping mall and the American players were quickly apprehended by the mall security guard. Harbaugh apologized, promising “No more!” and waving his arms to assure that they would take their games outside. Later, the team tossed the football without incident when they were welcomed for three official practices at a training facility for the Italian soccer club AS Roma.
The athletes engaged in community service on a global scale in the Villa Borghese, where they met refugees from the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center, located at an Episcopal church, St. Paul Inside the Walls. Many of the refugees had arrived from Nigeria with only the clothes on their backs; so Coach Harbaugh's gift of 50 Jordan brand backpacks, filled with Michigan gear, was especially appreciated. Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight told Breitbart News,
“(A refugee) I met said he came her with one shirt on his back, a pair of shorts and some shoes that didn't fit. A lot of us take that for granted. We're here in Jordan jumpsuits with an American and Italy flag on them. It kind of puts all of this in perspective.”
Harbaugh's vision of a team-building excursion has been largely successful, but one part of the trip didn't go as planned. Looking forward to the papal audience on April 26, Coach Harbaugh had intended for two of his players to sit with him and his wife beside the Holy Father, and to greet Pope Francis personally. As it turned out, that was not possible because of limited seating on the dais; but in preparing for the audience in St. Peter's Square, Harbaugh had invited his players to submit essays explaining what meeting the Pope would mean to them. Based on their essays, two players were selected for the VIP seating: junior defensive lineman Salim Makki, and sophomore offensive tackle Grant Newsome.
Makki describes himself as a devout Muslim whose grandmother was Christian, and adds that he grew up learning the importance of religions coexisting. Makki wrote in his essay:
His Holiness Pope Francis is one of my heroes. In a time where Muslims have been scrutinized and wrongly identified with violence, Pope Francis has defended Islam and stated that not all Muslims are violent. His Holiness has continued his support of Islam by washing the feet of Syrian Muslim refugees and calling for mutual respect during the holy month of Ramadan. A true hero defends and helps the hopeless, and that's why Pope Francis is a hero.
Newsome learned to appreciate God's love and mercy during a hospital stay last year, after a season-ending injury. Newsome wrote in his essay:
....while not a Catholic, as a Christian I hold the Pope in the highest esteem, regarding him as a holiest mortal man. Growing up attending Sunday School, I have heard many times about the greatness and mercy of our Lord; however this idea didn't become truly 'real' to me until I hurt my knee. My injury and my time in the hospital really taught me to appreciate God's love and mercy, as without his mercy and strength I would have lost my leg and maybe even my life. Because of this, I feel like I owe it to God to take every opportunity I get to honor, thank, and praise him; and to me, the Pope is the closest mortal being to God, so by shaking the Pope's hand and by telling him “thank you,” I feel that I could truly show God how appreciative I am of him.