Wolverines players inspired to visit Vatican

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Rome — Michigan defensive lineman Salim Makki heard his name called by coach Jim Harbaugh at the end of a recent meeting and was stunned.

Harbaugh, in advance of the Michigan football team’s trip to Rome, which will include participating in the general audience with Pope Francis on Wednesday at St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, asked players interested to submit an essay on what it would mean to meet and potentially shake hands with the pope. Harbaugh made clear to them there are no promises the team will have any personal interaction with the pope.

Makki from Dearborn, was one of three players whose essay was selected by Harbaugh, who read all of them and made the final decision. The essays of offensive lineman Grant Newsome and receiver Nathan Schoenle of Plymouth also were selected. Makki and Newsome are expected to sit with Harbaugh and his wife, Sarah, during the audience and hope to meet the pope. Schoenle will not reach Rome in time.


Grant Newsome's essay: 'I feel that I could truly show God how appreciative I am'

Salim Makki's essay: 'A true hero defends and helps the hopeless'

Nathan Schoenle's essay: 'I've been blessed with so many amazing opportunities'

“It was a good letter,” Makki said of the essay he submitted, “but I’m like, I don’t know if I’ll be chosen. I wasn’t optimistic about it. He chose me, and I’m like, ‘Wow.’ He really read the letters, and he took his time and he’s seen how much it would mean to me, and it touched him, which is amazing.

“When I found out, everyone looked at me like, ‘What? Aren’t you Muslim?’ ”

Makki is Muslim. And he respects Pope Francis.

“I was reading a tweet about how he said Christians and Muslims are all brothers and sisters, and we should act that way,” Makki said Tuesday. “This is a point where we’ve been really scrutinized, Muslims in particular. We’ve been scrutinized a lot for certain individuals’ actions and for him to say those kinds of things, it touches your heart because he’s like the most holy man in the world and it’s just showing he has an open heart to know what our religion means and it’s about peace.”

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Like everything on this team-bonding trip, even the trip itself, the opportunity to be part of the papal audience, and the Vatican Museum tour, are not requisite for the players.

“The trip to the Vatican is an optional activity, just as all other aspects of the trip to Italy are at the discretion of the student-athlete,” according to a Michigan team official. “That was made clear early in the planning process by Coach Harbaugh, was reinforced prior to our departure and even discussed while in Rome.”

Newsome is eager to be part of the day and possibly meet the pope.

He spent 38 days in the hospital after enduring a gruesome injury to his right leg against Wisconsin last fall. He said Tuesday he was minutes from losing his leg if not for the prompt action by Michigan doctors. That experience was what inspired his essay.

“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,” he wrote. “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.”

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Newsome was a late arrival to Rome, but joined his team Tuesday afternoon at Ninfe Beach on Lake Albano.

“Any time you can meet someone who has that holy connection to God, especially if you’re a Christian like myself, it’s just a great opportunity,” Newsome said. “Hopefully he can lay his hands on my leg and do some more spiritual healing on it. Just a great opportunity, and I’m really thankful to coach Harbaugh and the whole staff.”

Makki, whose left hand is in a cast and typed his essay with one hand, said he hopes to share with the Pope his respect and admiration.

“I really want to thank him and tell him I appreciate everything he’s done for my religion,” he said. “I’m sure people have told him that before, but I’d like to personally thank him and ask him to send a prayer to my family, my friends, our team. That’s probably what I’d mostly tell him.”

Last semester, Makki took a class on the history of Jesus.

“I see how they view Him, but I didn’t know why,” Makki said. “Of course I know how my religion views Him, but it was from the aspect how all religions view Him, Muslims, Christians, Jewish people, all kinds of races and see how they view Jesus and what they believe about Him.”

He hopes to meet the Pope.

“It would be awesome,” Makki said. “It would mean a lot to me and would mean a lot to my family. My family is really, really excited for me. It’s amazing. I can’t thank coach Harbaugh enough for this opportunity. Even if just he walked by, anything he does, it’s still like you can’t thank the man enough for letting you have this experience. This is a once-in-lifetime experience. It’s amazing.”