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On ‘unbelievable’ trip, Michigan finally hits field

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Rome — Strength coach Kevin Tolbert barked at the Michigan players as they stretched before their first practice here, telling them they had stretched too much pasta and gelato since arriving here last Sunday.

There was some rust, and a few players arrived in Rome and headed straight to practice, so Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh strategically made this a less demanding practice. About 18 players are expected to arrive later Thursday night and a few more on Friday.

“We just brought the tempo down to about 85 percent because of the walking around and the traveling,” Harbaugh said from the field at the Giulio Onesti Training Center. “Some guys just got off planes a couple of hours ago. That was a consideration.”

The players were in helmets and shorts.

Offensive lineman Mason Cole, whose first day in Rome was Wednesday, said the players did not feel sluggish during practice.

“We were talking about it today in our individual meeting how incredible it was that you don’t practice for two weeks, and just pick it back up across the big pond in another country — it’s just unbelievable to be here,” Cole said. “Even being back in practice, everybody is just excited to be here running around. We have a lot of fans here, people from other countries, so it’s just unbelievable.”

Josh Metellus was part of a group of players that got delayed during their layover in Paris and decided to use their seven hours to take a quick tour of the city, taking in the sights like the Eiffel Tower.

“We’re so isolated being in one place, it’s good to be around the culture and mixing in,” Metellus said of being in Rome, before discussing the return to practice. “We’re getting into it. We’ve been off for like a week, so we’re getting into it. “

There also were four Ohio State fans who made the two-hour drive north to watch Michigan’s practice because they miss football.

“Yeah, I don’t know how they got in,” he said, smiling. “We’ll let it slide.”

John Gutierrez, a Sergeant Major in the U.S. Army, is based in Naples and made the trip to practice Thursday because he always has been a Michigan fan. He grew up in Holland, Mich.

“Michigan has always been a big part of our family,” he said.

Harbaugh wanted to include U.S. military personnel in the Wolverines’ trip to Italy, where they still have several cultural outings along with two more practices.

“It was wonderful that the group, about 30 or 40, drove from Naples, two-hour’s drive to be here,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve met people from Naples, Florida, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody from Naples, Italy, until today.

“They’re huge football fans and wanted to watch us practice. Just so honored to meet them from all different branches of the military. There was Army, there was Marines, there’s Navy and their kids. That’s what we were hoping for, to connect with as many people as possible.”

He praised the facility, which also includes a cafeteria where the players dined.

“This couldn’t be better,” Harbaugh said. “This is as good as you could have field-wise. They did a tremendous job lining the field. This looks like it would look in the United States in any college or pro football set up.”

Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel arrived Tuesday and will return to Michigan to on Friday. He has been astounded by the trip to Italy.

“If people ask me, I would tell them this is one of the best things I’ve ever done as an athletic administrator because of the impact that this has on this number of kids and students,” Manuel said at practice. “So the experience is well worth all the planning and expense of doing this, because it’s our way of giving back to them for a lifetime.

“They will have this experience for the rest of their lives to be able to talk about going to Italy, the experience of it, the educational value, the cultural value of understanding to be able to hold clinics and to experience another culture. It’s just been amazing. The impact of this will last a lifetime.”