Michigan players, coaches had a blast in Rome

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Rome — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh had gathered his team for a final word to signal the official conclusion of spring practices, but the Wolverines were in Stadio dei Marmi, not Michigan Stadium.

The Wolverines concluded their week in Rome that included sightseeing, team-bonding activities, being part of the general audience with the pope, and three practices, and the players said they were thrilled with all of it.

“This is the best week of practice a football team has ever had being here in the Eternal City,” Harbaugh told his team and the fans through his bull horn.

And then the team launched into singing “The Victors.”

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Most of the players had never been overseas.

Senior fullback Khalid Hill, a Detroit native who attended East English Village, said his biggest takeaway from the trip was the learning experience.

“Coming over here, learning different things, seeing different things, it’s amazing,” Hill said. “It’s something you don’t usually get a chance to do. I can go back home and say, ‘Man, I’m a kid from Detroit that got a chance to come over here and play and practice.’

“Not too many kids from Detroit can say that, even kids from Michigan. To do that is amazing. I love the experience of my last spring ball.”

The trip, which Harbaugh conceived while traveling to Baltimore last June for a satellite camp, was so well-received, he said he plans to take the team to Rio or South Africa next year. A donor who wishes to remain anonymous was responsible for the majority of expenses for this trip to Rome.

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The week was a blur of sightseeing and team-bonding as well as three practices the last three days. They arrived and immediately visited the Borghese Gardens and museum where they interact with refugees, they engaged in a spirited speedball event, toured the highlights of the city for nine hours, learned to cook at the Cordon Bleu cooking school, attended the opera, went to Gladiator School, and last Wednesday were part of the general audience with the Pope — Harbaugh and wife, Sarah, were able to meet the Pope and handed him a Michigan helmet and Jordan shoes.

On Sunday, the Harbaughs saw their infant son, John Paul, baptized at the Church of St. Ann in the Vatican, and eight-year-old daughter Addie had her first communion.

“They’ve had their socks knocked off the entire time they’ve been here,” Harbaugh said of the trip. “They can’t even find their socks. It’s been one spectacular good time and also so enlightening.”

‘Good way to spend’

The players had heard the criticisms of the trip, some calling the concept of taking an entire team and hauling equipment overseas over-the-top, even for Harbaugh, who has pushed the envelope since he became head coach of his alma mater at the end of 2014.

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“A lot of people were kind of questioning taking an eight-hour plane ride and going to a completely different country to practice football for three days of practice,” Jordan Glasgow said. “And I think the thought that it was going to be a bad experience was proven wrong. To be able to see the different culture and to be able to practice especially in a place like this (stadium), we’re just honored. We’re blessed to be able to be a part of the team that was able to do it.”

Harbaugh’s motivation for the trip was to, as he has said on multiple occasions, put the student back in student-athlete. He has seen college football become a 12-month a year sport, and wanted the players to have some breathing room in May.

Many of the players are venturing off on backpacking trips for a few days before returning home, while others are leaving for three-week study-abroad programs.

In Harbaugh’s mind, other programs should use this blueprint and shape trips for their teams. All of the activities were optional, as was the trip.

“This is a good way to spend our resources. Investing in the players, investing in the youngsters in this educational type of way because all learning’s not done in the classroom,” Harbaugh said. “Not all of it’s done on the football field. It’s done in connecting. Can’t close ourselves off. To connect with the rest of the world, from this experience it’s been amazing. We’re all similar, we’re all part of the same team, the human race. When you throw out a ball, a soccer ball, a football, a pelota (Spanish for ball), there is no language barrier anymore. Everybody is speaking the same language. We do feel like innovators, we feel like pioneers, and for the good. Innovators for the good. I encourage as many people to do this.”

Tyrone Wheatley Jr. wasn’t sure he would be able to make it to Italy because of finals but arrived mid-week.

“It’s been amazing,” he said. “It’s been incredible.”

The team went on a nine-hour walking tour of Rome last Monday, and since many players like Wheatley missed it, they took an abbreviated three-hour tour before the final practice.

“We got up kind of early and coach got us a tour around Rome,” Wheatley said. “We got to do everything the team did Monday. We got to see the Pantheon, the Colosseum, all that good stuff.”

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Glasgow, a safety/viper, missed a few of the early events, but enjoyed the Gladiator School. Overall, he said, the team-bonding aspect was an enormous part of this.

“We all circled around a few people fighting in a ring, and we watched our coaches fight and battle it out, and it was great. Everybody loved it,” Glasgow said.

His best moment was practicing in Stadio dei Marmi, which is lined by 59 marble statues depicting athletes from various sports.

“We came here to (Rome to) practice, and there’s nothing better than playing football,” Glasgow said. “To be able to play in a place that’s so unlike what we normally practice and normally play in, it’s really breathtaking. It’s really cool to see all the different sports portrayed and all the Olympic influences that are here.”

‘Learning experience’

Harbaugh is hopeful the NCAA doesn’t try to eliminate these types of trips. Last spring, he took the team to IMG Academy in Florida for a week over spring break, and those trips are no more.

“I think it should be embraced, I really do,” Harbaugh said. “Why close ourselves off? Why not open ourselves up. Why not connect and on a grand scale, because sports has the ability to do it, right?

“Just saw that it (football)had gotten 12 months a year and do this, do that, do this, this is the time of the year you do each thing whether it’s fall, winter, spring or summer. I wanted them to have a way to have an option. Now they have an option to come here.

“They have an option to study abroad afterwards, they have an option to do internships in Europe, they have a chance to internships back in Ann Arbor or New York or the United States, they can take classes in the spring, they can go home and spend the month of May at home, they can get a job. There’s like eight, nine different things they can do. Have options like other students do, like most human beings have. This is a great way to kick off the month of May and their options.

“It’s been a really dynamic learning experience.”