April 21, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Colosseum, Rome's ancient version of the Big House, is something many University of Michigan football players are looking forward to visiting during their upcoming tour of Italy.
When I asked quarterback Wilton Speight what he was anticipating most, he said, "Just seeing the Colosseum and the history."
I jokingly asked if the team might scrimmage there.
"No," said Speight. "No, but that would be awesome. It would be sweet, and really cool."
The Colosseum, built 70-80 A.D. at the command of Roman emperors, was constructed of concrete and sand and seated between 50,000 and 80,000 for gladiatorial contests and events as diverse as mock sea battles. Earthquakes, stone thieves and the wear and tear of nearly 2,000 years have taken a toll on the iconic amphitheater, but it remains a top attraction.
Offensive lineman Mason Cole is most anticipating visiting the Colosseum and the religious center of his faith in Rome.
"I think the whole thing will be unbelievable," said Cole. "But I'm Catholic, and so seeing the Vatican will be really cool, and also the Colosseum."
Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh, a devout Catholic, and his team are scheduled to get an audience with Pope Francis and tour the Vatican and St. Peter's Square in the middle of next week.
They will fly to Rome Saturday (April 22) and return eight days later. The trip will focus on educational opportunities, but three practices will take place near the end of the excursion at the professional soccer club AS Roma's training center, and the team will wear helmets with decals of Italian and U.S. flags near the bottom and on both sides.
Harbaugh's primary goal for the journey is emphasizing learning about a vast array of history, culture and humanity.
"I want it to be the greatest experience of our players' lives up until this point," Harbaugh told the Big Ten Network after Saturday's (April 15) spring game. "It's going to be a great educational experience, and we have tickets to see the Pope give a papal address on the 26th of April."
The team will meet with refugees in Rome soon after arrival and will tour historic landmarks such as Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forum, Spanish Steps and the Pantheon (a Roman temple completed in 128 A.D. that is now a Catholic church) in addition to the Colosseum.
Team building exercises will include attending an opera, learning about gladiators at a training center, and becoming familiar with Italian cuisine at a cooking school.
"I got my first passport, and it's going to be a great experience," said defensive end Rashan Gary. "It might open up doors to me wanting to go outside the country a little bit more. We get to tour Italy, practice and do it all as a team. It'll be more team bonding!"
Linebacker Devin Bush Jr. added: "I just want to go to Rome. I've never been out of the country before, and so this is going to be the first time for me."
Interior of the Colosseum
Members of the coaching staff also are excited about going to Italy.
"What a great opportunity for our players," said defensive coordinator Don Brown. "They are the only ones in college football who are going to get that opportunity this year, and you don't take that for granted.
"For me, we've got three more practices and I have to think about getting ready for Air Force and the triple option (in the regular season's third game) and so that's going to be the majority of my time. But I'm looking forward to going to Rome, and Coach (Harbaugh) really has a tremendous plan for our players to experience that culture. It's pretty exciting."
Offensive coordinator and line coach Tim Drevno is glad that his wife will be going, too.
"I'm really excited about it, to be able to take the players over there," said Drevno, "and my wife is going to come. Just to experience that as a team, what great team bonding, and to share with the great history in Europe and Italy. And then to practice over there, it's going to be a phenomenal experience. It's going to be fun."
Harbaugh also encourages his players to study abroad, as several are planning to do in May by remaining in Europe or traveling elsewhere for classes.
"The world is our classroom," Harbaugh said. "We're going to be going to Iceland, Belgium, Japan, Israel, South America, Puerto Rico and all over the world to do classes in May.
"It's going to be an annual trip. In year two, I want to go to South Africa. In year three, I want to go to Japan. In year four, Israel. Year five is not totally determined, but it will be New Zealand or London. The possibilities are limitless, and the educational opportunity for our players is to the moon."
Harbaugh said one donor, whom he would describe only as "an incredible Michigan Man," is funding this trip.
The student-athletes are impressed that Harbaugh and his staff would organize such ventures for them.
Gary said: "He really cares for me as a general man, more than an athlete, and I can see that he just wanted us to explore and see different things. Like I said, he gave us the opportunity to go out of the country, and I've never been out of the country. So he's just trying to help us expand and everything, so I'm loving it."
Tailback Chris Evans added: "I feel like that's amazing that Coach Harbaugh is letting us do this. I'm just glad I came to Michigan and am able to do all this fun stuff."
In the fourth century, Saint Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, Italy, settled a dispute over which form of worship applied in a given location by saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."
That statement, made more than 1,600 years ago, could well be the best way to describe what Harbaugh and his Wolverines will set about doing on their trip to Italy.