May 5, 2017


Italy trip helps collegians learn there is more to life than football

We read and hear stories about the perils of college athletics all too often these days.

Practices and games that leave student-athletes precious little time for their studies, coaches under pressure to get their teams to win—sometimes at all cost—and fans who seems to live and die with the result of every competition of their favorite school.

In recent years, some have suggested that college athletes should be paid salaries for their time and commitment to the sport they are pouring their hearts and souls into—year-round in many cases. Though we could debate the pros and cons of that suggestion, we will save that discussion for another day.

Thankfully, there are lessons that can be learned when leaders of sports programs allow their players to take part in incredible life experiences outside the arena.

One such example generated worldwide publicity last week when Jim Harbaugh, head football coach at the University of Michigan, took his football team on a trip to Italy as part of their spring practice program. The trip was funded by an anonymous donor.

Harbaugh, who gained fame as an NFL quarterback for 14 years, including several seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, said the trip was a way of giving the team’s players “a major life experience, traveling to Rome to practice, but also to take part in social projects and offer them a look into a foreign country and culture.”

That life experience, according to a Catholic News Agency story, included connecting his team with people they otherwise might not have met, Harbaugh said. Their first day in Rome, the group met and picnicked with a group of refugees, including several from Syria.

Harbaugh and some members of the team and his family also visited the SOS Children’s Village, a community made up of homes for children who are in positions of family or social hardship.

A member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg while a quarterback with the Colts, Harbaugh, who earned the nickname “Captain Comeback” while playing in Indianapolis, made sure a trip to the Vatican for a papal audience was also on the itinerary.

It was there that Harbaugh, known for his outgoing personality, was visibly moved by his encounter with Pope Francis.

“The way he talks is peaceful, it’s calm. It felt like this is what it would be like to meet Jesus Christ. That’s what it felt like to me. It was very emotional,” the coach told journalists on April 26.

Harbaugh and his wife, Sarah, briefly greeted the pope following his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican earlier that day.

“I said, ‘Buenos dias, Santo Padre’ (‘Good morning, Holy Father’), and then my wife came in and told him that she loved him. He held her hand and prayed and asked that we pray for him,” Harbaugh recalled.

According to press reports, two players were supposed to be able to get a little bit closer to the pope during the audience, which Harbaugh chose through an essay competition. Though they were unable to because of a lack of seating, the winners, offensive lineman Grant Newsome and defensive tackle Salim Makki, both said they are inspired by the Holy Father.

“It was just a great experience,” Newsome told the Detroit Free Press. “We were probably 40 feet from him. A lot of us were at a loss for words.”

Makki, a Muslim, said he looks up to Pope Francis as a hero. “He’s always shown that Muslims and Christians and Catholics can combine—we’re all brothers and sisters, we can co-exist together.”

For Harbaugh, his life has also centered on “faith, family and football.” This experience was “more emotional than he anticipated,” he told reporters, and meeting the pope gave him the chance “to live in a state of grace.”

“I’ve been trying to figure out what this experience means and what am I supposed to do with it,” Harbaugh said. “At least he [Pope Francis] gave me the marching orders to pray for him, so I have that part of it down.”

We applaud Harbaugh and the University of Michigan administration for allowing these student-athletes to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And we thank them for showing these young people there is more—much more—to life than football.

—Mike Krokos

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!