Michigan ‘gladiators’ bonding on Roman experience

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight teaches refugees how to throw a football on Sunday at the Borghese Gardens.

Rome, Italy – Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh briefly sat on a bench in the Borghese Gardens, the Wolverines’ first stop upon arrival here Sunday, took it all in and, smiling broadly, put on his aviator sunglasses newly purchased from a local vendor.

Defensive coordinator Don Brown sat to his left and admitted he used some of the flight to watch film. Harbaugh watched parts of three movies and played computer chess. Yes, he did win. Running back Ty Isaac, who had stayed up all night to study for his last finals, was out cold on a blanket in the gardens, and after being briefly roused said he needed more sleep. By the end of their first formal outing in Rome, many of the players looked drowsy and some took short naps before departing.

The team had flown nine hours from Detroit on Delta, the program’s first non-chartered flight since the 1997 Rose Bowl, and had only been in Rome for a few hours, when Harbaugh said he realized the trip was already a success.

“I might have underestimated just the team bonding value of this,” Harbaugh said. “I knew it would be educational and once-in-a-lifetime experience, but just to see the way the guys can be somewhere just as a team for a week, I think it’s going to be unbelievable.”

The players, wearing special grey Nike Jumpman sweats with the American and Italian flags on the left sleeve, wandered the grounds of the Borghese Gardens, and some, like quarterback Wilton Speight, taught football to the group of refugees, who stay at the JNRC Refugee Center at St. Paul’s Within the Walls, and visited the team. Michigan had 55 pre-packed backpacks with Michigan apparel for the refugees. Many players took a guided tour of the Borghese Gallery, which houses paintings, sculptures and antiquities.

Defensive lineman Carlo Kemp said this trip felt like a bigger version of last year’s freshman-class camping trip. They went to a home on a lake, pitched tents, fished, and toasted marshmallows.

Sights, sounds from Michigan's first day in Italy

“And it really brought our whole freshman class together, whereas this trip’s kind of been that same type of bonding experience, but across all underclassmen and upperclassmen,” Kemp said.

He said the team is in awe of this Rome trip, thought up by Harbaugh as he flew to a satellite camp in Baltimore last June.

“It’s a complete new experience to me,” Kemp said. “I’m having a hard time describing it because when we started in April, we were like, ‘All right, we’ve got these 15 practices, let’s get to Rome. How are we going to survive? How are we going to make it?’ It just seemed like a long way. But then you wake up this morning, 11 hours later you’re in Rome – it’s a surreal moment.

“This is just Day 1, we’re just touching the surface. Just seeing this museum and learning all this history about Italy and seeing the sculptures and the paintings, the whole vibe and the whole experience right now has been incredible. We’ve got more lined up, so I’m just really excited to how that goes. Just seeing a whole other culture, and seeing how a culture interacts on a daily basis and see how they interact with Americans, it’s just unique. Getting able to see that first-hand is really cool.”

The team will be divided into six groups on Monday, each group with the name of a Roman Emperor, and they will have a lengthy day touring the ancient city. Speight, part of the Trajan group, said the opportunity to tour with his teammates is incredible.

“To come over here to Italy as a team and learn and grow, it’s a very unique, unbelievable opportunity,” Speight said.

The team bonding was evident the moment they stepped on the plane, Speight said.

“Sitting on the plane next to guys for nine hours, maybe the guys you’re not best friends or super close with,” Speight said.

Khalid Hill said he’s looking forward to seeing the Colosseum. That has been consistently the site most of the players want to visit.

“The history,” Kemp said. “In America, you just learn about it and you’re like, ‘Wow, I don’t even know if I’ll ever get there.’ But now we’re here and we’re going to step foot where the same people, these gladiators, were sitting and walking.”

It was pointed out to Kemp that the Michigan players look like giants in grey as they walked the grounds of the Borghese Gardens.

“We’re a tired group of gladiators, that’s for sure,” he said, laughing.