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Papal encounter leaves Michigan players mesmerized

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Vatican City — As the pope drove through the crowd before the papal audience in St. Peter’s Square, the Michigan players seated not far from where Pope Francis would eventually take his place to offer prayers, were stunned he was only a few feet away.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and wife, Sarah, on Wednesday were able to greet the pope and give him a specially made Michigan football helmet and Jordan shoes, while the players who chose to make the early morning visit were stunned.

“You just feel like you’re witnessing, for lack of a better word, history,” Grant Newsome said. “A historic figure. Obviously for someone like myself who is of the Christian faith, a Holy figure.

“It’s hard to put into words what the moment meant. I think it’s something that once we are able to step back from the situation, maybe get back to the United States, it’s going to be really incredible to think back and kind of realize we had an experience to be 25 feet from the pope. That’s not an experience most people get.

Jack Wangler arrived in Rome on Tuesday and despite jetlag made the 6:30 a.m. wakeup to travel to the Vatican. It was worth it.

UM's Harbaugh meets Pope Francis: 'It was beautiful'

“To me that was pretty extraordinary because I always see pictures of people visiting the pope and never thought I’d have that chance of actually seeing him up that close, which was really cool,” Wangler said. “For me, a Catholic, just seeing when Pope John Paul passed away and then when they did the whole conclave to elect the new pope, I was so young but I really remembered it. So being able to experience this live was really cool and kind of made me feel like it was full circle.”

For Salim Makki, a Muslim, he wanted to be part of the audience of Pope Francis, a man he admires for his stance on how Muslims and Christians should live as brothers and sisters.

Pope Francis speaks in different languages as he addresses the mass of people in the Square. An estimated 6 million made the pilgrimage to the Vatican last year for the papal audiences that take place weekly on Wednesdays when he is in residence.

“I knew he was speaking Arabic, and that was really cool,” Makki said. “It still hasn’t completely hit me.”

The players submitted essays to Harbaugh about why they would want to meet the pope. Harbaugh had hoped players who had written essays he selected could sit with them in the area the pope was sure to pass by. Newsome, Makki and Nathan Schoenle had their essays selected but Newsome and Makki wound up sitting with their teammates. Schoenle has not yet arrived in Rome.

“He said a blessing over the crowd, but just to be there and get to hear him speak, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Newsome said. “I’m really happy it happened.

“I think we all were sitting there and just kind of looking at each other and not saying much because the weight of listening to someone who’s so nationally renowned and such a huge figure, especially for someone of the Christian faith, I’m at a loss of words for how surreal it was.”

Sarah Harbaugh said after meeting the pope that she had never seen her husband speechless. The players knew how much this day meant to Harbaugh.

“He’s always been energetic, 100 percent in everything he does, but to me this seems like 110 percent,” Wangler said. “I think this is something he’s been gearing for this whole winter and offseason and making it about us and making it the most optimal and amazing trip for every single one of us. And making sure there’s so many different things that we do because has different tastes, everyone wants to experience different things, and I think he understands that and he tries to bring the best for everybody.

“I think everyone is here is thankful and excited to have this experience because a lot of my teammates, we may never be able to come here again for a week for free. That’s probably one of the greatest experiences. I had always wanted to go Europe. I’ve never been to Europe. I know a lot of the guys on the team haven’t been able to travel outside the country or haven’t had the opportunity. For him to do this for us is pretty huge. Obviously, we have to practice. Everyone knows that’s the main goal, but having the opportunity to be here in a foreign country in one of the coolest places on earth, you can’t beat it.”

Michigan will practice the next three days, beginning Thursday and will wrap up spring practice.

Wangler said they could see Harbaugh, who was seated behind and to the left of the pope, lifting the Michigan helmet on top of the box of the shoes to make sure Pope Francis saw him.

“We were all joking around that we thought it would be funny if the pope came to us and put on the shoes and put on the helmet,” Wangler said, smiling. “We knew it was a long shot.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis