Lessons go beyond football for Michigan in Italy

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Wilton Speight gets ready to throw a pass Sunday.

Rome — On paper, the itinerary read something vague: “lunch and games with refugees.”

When the Michigan football team arrived in Rome on Sunday, the coaches and players spent several hours at the Borghese Gardens before heading to their hotel. It is the third largest park in Rome, located east of the Vatican, and they visited the museum and interacted with refugees from Syria, Nigeria and Gambia, among other countries, who are now living in Rome.

The Wolverines will be in Rome until Sunday as part of an educational trip to, as coach Jim Harbaugh says, put the “college back into college football.” They will conclude with three spring practices, but their time will be spent touring Rome, taking in an opera, attending a cooking school, going to the Vatican and visiting gladiator school, among other stops.

Michigan brought 55 backpacks filled with apparel and items and footballs so players could share American football — Harbaugh, upon hearing that, quickly made a correction: “It’s football Americano!”

Duly noted.

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Harbaugh produced navy T-shirts with “Forza Blu!” in maize, which of course means Go Blue! and he handed them to the refugees and anyone else he met.

One of the refugees challenged Harbaugh on why Americans call their game football. Soccer is futbol. Football Americano is not football.

“You’re right, I don’t know why they call it football, either,” Harbaugh said. “Football you kick with the foot. He’s got a good point.”

Quickly, Harbaugh called in reinforcements.

“Hey, Jack Harbaugh! Dad! We need you over here,” Harbaugh yelled to his father, who made the trip with his wife, Jackie. “He wants to know why we call it football.”

Jack Harbaugh began a history lesson on football Americano.

“Before we leave here next Sunday, we’re going to have you loving the game of football,” he said. “Will you promise you’ll give it a look for us and you’ll come back on Sunday and tell me how much you love our game of football? Not soccer. I mean American football. I’m going to teach you to love football.”

Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight embraced the interaction with the refugees and spent a considerable amount of time learning about their journeys and teaching them how to throw a football Americano football.

“I knew on the sheet we were going to have an opportunity to meet and talk with some refugees but I didn’t know it would be like this to kind of dive into each other’s lives and teach each other a thing or two about our backgrounds, our culture, our favorite sports, so it’s been a cool experience,” Speight said. “I’ve learned a lot. Quickly bonded with Muhammad from Gambia. Just learned about the life they live in their camp, the good, the bad. How he talks to his family still in Gambia a good amount.”

Speight is typically engaging and interested in learning new things.

“Twenty four hours ago I was sitting in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with my teammates and wasn’t really getting out of the bubble like we are today, so it’s a cool experience,” Speight said.

“I always try and challenge myself to get out of my bubble the best I can, maybe put myself in an uncomfortable position where it might be easier to just kind of go off in a corner with some of my teammates and do the same things we were doing in Ann Arbor, but I really wanted to submerge myself into the middle of the pack with these guys and really get to know them and have them get to know me. The past few hours have been pretty cool since they’ve gotten here.”

Speight was enlightened by his discussions with the refugees.

“He said he had to get out of Gambia for a reason,” Speight said of Muhammad, who didn’t want to delve into details. “He seemed to enjoy what’s going on here. He came with one shirt on his back and a pair of shorts and some shoes that didn’t fit him. Now he has the necessities to live plus a couple extra shirts and shorts, which a lot of us take for granted. We’re wearing Jordan jumpsuits that we got with an American and Italy flags, so it kind of puts things in perspective a little bit.”

All of the players were wearing new gray sweats with the two flags on the left sleeve. While running back Chris Evans kicked a soccer ball as he walked around the grounds with teammates including Khaleke Hudson, Rashan Gary and Bryan Mone, sharing football Americano was what Speight was all about.

One refugee put both hands on a football and from over his head threw the ball. Most did not know how to hold the ball or understand how to throw. Speight took their hands and showed them how to grip a football, and how to release it in a throwing motion. He played catch with them as they got in the groove.

“They were all wide-eyed,” he said. “ ‘Oh, that’s how you hold a football.’ It was kind of like doing a kids’ camp, which we love doing, but (the refugees) can process things more. They’re my age or older or a few years younger to where they understand, even if it’s not their first language, ‘OK, that’s how I’m supposed to hold the ball.’”

Speight was asked by an Italian television reporter if sports can really unite different cultures, and he said there’s no doubt they can. She asked if he thinks president Donald Trump’s administration is doing enough regarding refugees.

“I don’t know,” Speight said. “I don’t follow politics enough to talk about them, but I do know from a personal standpoint that’s my mindset of wanting to welcome everyone no matter where you are from around the world, no matter what your views are, your political beliefs, your religious beliefs, it doesn’t really matter to me. If you want to talk about how to hold a football or you want to talk to me about how to kick a soccer ball or you want to talk about your family, or your background.

“That’s what our goal is with this trip. I was talking to Muhammad from Gambia. He wanted to let me know and the rest of us know we were very welcoming and wanted to get to know everyone here. That’s always been my mindset. I think it should be everyone’s mindset.”


Twitter: @chengelis