Michigan football heads to Italy

Published 11:19 pm Friday, April 21, 2017

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Jim Harbaugh presented players on the University of Michigan football team with an opportunity, putting them a compelling essay away from being close enough to possibly shake the hand of Pope Francis at the Vatican.

Salim Makki and Grant Newsome were the chosen two.

Makki, Newsome and most of the Wolverines will travel to Rome this weekend for a unique, weeklong trip. Some players will stay on campus a little longer to take final spring exams before joining their teammates.

Email newsletter signup

There are practices planned at the home of soccer club AS Roma, but there is plenty of sightseeing, too, along with a meeting with refugees, including some who have fled Syria. And then there is the trip to the Vatican. While the entire team can look forward to a visit to St. Peter’s Square, Harbaugh, his wife, Sarah, and two players are going to get a closer look at the pope.

In his essay, Makki, a defensive tackle who described himself as a devout Muslim, wrote that he grew up learning the importance of religions coexisting.

“His Holiness Pope Francis is sincerely one of my heroes,” Makki wrote. “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.”

Newsome, an offensive lineman who had a season-ending knee injury last season, wrote that his hospital stay taught him to appreciate God’s love and mercy.

“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,” Newsome wrote.

The entire trip was dreamed up by Harbaugh, who said he also has plans to take his teams to South Africa, Japan, Israel and either England or New Zealand in upcoming years. The envelope-pushing coach has taken his team to Florida for spring practice and his staff all over the country for summer camps, prompting complaints from other schools and NCAA rules limiting some of the efforts.

But nothing Michigan did before is anything like this big and expensive trip to Italy’s capital, more than 4,000 miles away.

The visit is being funded by a donor, who has requested and maintained anonymity, and the school has kept many details private. The Associated Press filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the proposed budget for the trip and the school turned it down and denied an appeal.

Harbaugh hopes the source of the generous gift chooses to come forward.

“I would love to shout from the rooftop who it is,” Harbaugh said in an interview with The Associated Press. “And, hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to publicly thank him. I want him to know it means to me, how much it means to our guys and their families.”

A parent of one of the players, defensive end Carlo Kemp, recently expressed her appreciation to Harbaugh.

“Seriously I woke up with this overwhelming gratefulness and thankful heart,” Peach Pagano, Kemp’s mother, wrote in a text message to Harbaugh. “Bless you for giving my son this opportunity at the University of Michigan. And the trip of a lifetime. Thank you Coach!”

The newest member of Harbaugh’s family, John, named after his brother, who coaches the Baltimore Ravens, is expected to be baptized during the trip at the Vatican. And no, Pope Francis is not expected to baptize him.

After the trip, some of Michigan’s players are free to choose their own adventure in May. Many have enrolled in overseas study programs in several countries, including Iceland and Costa Rica. Some are headed to Ireland. Others simply are returning to campus.

The Wolverines are taking advantage of an opportunity non-athletes often do in in college, earning credits while learning about another culture in another country or putting on a backpack and taking trains all over Europe. Their scholarship covers their tuition, room and board on the road.

“The year-round schedule that has been created, that almost every football team has, for 12 months it provides no options like this,” Harbaugh said.

Until now.

“It’s another example of coach doing something outside the box,” said cornerback Keith Washington, an Alabama native who will be the only player on the team studying in Argentina after going to Italy. “It’s also him just trying to give us an opportunity to do something that we wouldn’t have a chance to do without Michigan football.”