Virus turns ex-Wolverine Henry Poggi's Italian adventure into great escape
Henry Poggi’s return to the U.S. from Italy last month, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in that country, was a meandering journey that has all the makings of an adventure movie.
It involved three Americans, a couple of Italians, an official police-endorsed permission to travel, empty trains that were late or didn’t show up at all, a long bus ride that finally got them to Rome, and a fortuitous encounter with an English-speaking Bosnian basketball player who found all of them lodging because most hotels had closed.
Poggi, the former Michigan fullback who played for the Wolverines from 2014-17 and was a volunteer coach in 2018, had wanted to give his football career one last hurrah. He was invited to play in Italy, a six-month stay playing for a football club in a league that allows three Americans per team.
The coronavirus pandemic that hit Italy particularly hard cut short his football plans, and he returned home after two months.
“A lot of people go to Italy, but at least I'll be able to have a little bit of a different story about my Italian trip,” Poggi told The Detroit News. “But when you put it in perspective, it's really quite trivial compared to what people are going through.”
After graduating from Michigan, Poggi was signed by the New England Patriots in August 2018, but released a month later. He joined Michigan’s staff as a volunteer coach. His father, Biff, who had worked briefly as special advisor and associate head coach to coach Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, coinciding with Henry’s junior year, is a longtime coach and coaches St. Frances Academy in Baltimore.
But Henry Poggi, who is studying for the GMAT for business school, had spent some time working in New York in the financial world and still had a desire to play football. The invite from Italy “reignited” his interest.
“I think that they just kind of reached out to everyone with Italian last names, and I'm actually very serious about that theory,” Poggi said, laughing. “I kind of had this lull in football. My football life had been consuming the past 25 years, so I wanted to go experience that."
'I'm not leaving'
He arrived Feb. 1 in Ancona, ready for a memorable six-month experience. And this Italian journey definitely became interesting as the pandemic took hold in Europe.
“My parents were really the first people who called me and they're like, ‘We want you home,’ and I was like, ‘I'm not coming home. I'm not leaving. I'm not doing it,’” Poggi said with added rebellious effect. “I told them we were gonna be fine. And they're like, ‘You're not going to be able to get out.’ It was like they were saying, you know you moron, this thing is serious, and I’m like, ‘You guys don't know what you're talking about. I'm a 25-year-old genius. I know what I'm doing.'"
Poggi and his two American teammates remained in Ancona in their house. They did not speak enough Italian to fully understand the local news and how serious things were in Italy. Friends would text, email and call, and Poggi assured them that everything was just fine.
Their Italian teammates were gracious and each Monday delivered an enormous spread of food to the three Americans.
“Meatloafs and lasagnas and all these different types of food,” Poggi said. “The hospitality was absolutely unbelievable. Absolutely salt of the earth. They were constantly checking in on us and said we could stay as long as we wanted. Ancona is not a Rome or Florence, and they're really prideful of their town, so they really went above and out of their way while I was over there to just show me everything and make sure I didn't have any problems.
“So there was some reluctance to leave, but I think when it really set in, I made the split decision to come back. I kind of always knew the season was going to get canceled. I just didn't want to let go of my little Italian journey quite yet. There was never really a time we were concerned for our own safety. It was more so I just want to make sure I'm back in case something happens. I can't be out of the country if my sister gets sick or my parents get sick or grandparents, it would be too difficult for me mentally. I couldn't have that on my conscience.”
They contacted the U.S. Embassy to determine the best plan to return home.
“I'd be shocked if we waited another week," he said. "It would have been very, very tough for us to get back."
The Ancona club contacted local police to make sure the Americans and the Italian football players heading to Rome had proper paperwork explaining why they were traveling.
“Until then, I had no idea the severity of the situation,” he said.
Ancona to Rome is about a three-and-a-half hour trip, but that's when the transit system is functioning properly.
“It was really difficult to get across country because all the trains were shut down,” Poggi said. “There's only one train going from Ancona to Rome and we had to exchange platforms. I didn't understand the situation until that train ride where we were on this enormous train, there were six of us total, all going to Rome, and there was no one in any of the public transportation."
The group traveled an hour southwest to Fabriano near the mountains where there was snow on the ground, then an hour and a half to Foligno, which was hot and misty.
“There was no one out and it had a little bit of an apocalyptic feel to it, like we were like trying to escape a war-torn country,” Poggi said.
They reached Terni en route to Rome.
“There was a little bit of panic that crossed my mind there," he said. "Not being able to speak the language and our phones weren't working because we were just in airplane mode the whole time. There's no internet anywhere. So luckily, though, an Italian stepped up, Valentino, I will forever be indebted to him. He kind of coordinated the whole situation and we were able to make it into Rome on a bus. We got there about six hours later than we were originally supposed to."
Poggi had booked hotel rooms in Rome near the airport, and while waiting in Terni, he decided he’d better check to see if the rooms were still available. No one answered his calls.
By chance, there was a Bosnian basketball player who had been playing at a university in Italy, also in Terni, trying to get to a charter flight in Rome to Bosnia. He attended a community college in Kansas and spoke English well. His name was Dino, Poggi recalled, and he informed them most of the hotels had closed. But Dino's friend had given him the name of a hotel that was still open.
"Luckily he called, and we ended up staying in that hotel," Poggi said. "Our flight was the next day and we took no chances. We got there six hours early, and there was no one in the airport.”
Their hosts in Ancona had given them N95 masks, so when the three Americans boarded — Poggi estimated there were about 30 people on the large plane — they were prepared. They were told to wear the masks the entire flight.
“Which was quite uncomfortable, but not the worst price to pay to get back home,” he said.
Poggi arrived on March 28, waved at his parents in Baltimore and drove off to self-quarantine at their home in South Carolina.
“I’m here because I'm worried about my parents,” Poggi said. “I’ve been socially distancing for the past few months, and I wanted to give them as much room as possible. I'll be excited when this whole thing is over, and I can give them a big hug.”
For now, Poggi is studying and determining his next step. He likely will return to New York to work in the financial world. At some point, he would like to follow in his dad’s footsteps and coach high school football.
“Further down the line,” he said. “I was really lucky Coach Harbaugh allowed me to come back and test those waters while I was volunteering that 2018 season. As much as I love Michigan and college football, college football coaching is really tough on your family. Your well-being and your family’s well-being lays in the hands of 18- to 22-year-old morons and having recently been one of those, and kinda still am, it’s a variable I’d want to try and mitigate.”
Poggi said his football playing career is over. That has been the plan after the season in Italy concluded in June. It just happened a little sooner than he anticipated.
“You look at it and put it in perspective and the catastrophic implications that this virus has had on so many people, me not being able to hang out in Italy for a few months is pretty low on the totem pole,” Poggi said. “My No. 1 concern right now is staying safe and making sure everyone I know is safe.”