A Team, Transformed

Jim Harbaugh reflects on his team’s trip to Italy and how it opened a whole new world to his players.
By Jim Harbaugh ’86 | Photographs by David Turnley, ’77


Read time: 4 minutes

For nine days in April, U-M Head Football Coach Jim Harbaugh toured Italy with his team on a trip that was part training, part global education. While it wasn’t typical, it allowed these student-athletes a kind of study-abroad experience that they rarely have time for. Here, Harbaugh reflects on a trip that opened a whole new world to his players.

On our last evening in Italy, I found myself standing under a chandelier in front of Renaissance paintings. Our 103 student-athletes, wearing suits and ties, had just dined in a Roman aristocrat’s villa and were giving thanks to the University for the chance to become world citizens. It may have been one of my proudest moments as a football coach.

I wake up every day and realize I’m one of the most fortunate men in the world—to do what I love and to coach some of the most talented, athletic, and academically excellent men in the country. I share with them the common purpose of winning football games. And yet, perhaps more importantly, I have the good fortune to help shape men who will inspire as they advance on their life’s journey.

Before our team trip to Rome, very few of our players had traveled outside the United States; some had never left their home state, and some had never left their hometown. What I saw during that last night in Rome was a diverse group of young men standing tall on what had been one of the genuinely memorable and transformative chapters of our lives. During the course of the trip, they had become global citizens.

Within moments after disembarking at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, we boarded buses for the Borghese Gardens. There, we had the remarkable opportunity to meet a group of young men who were refugees from countries in Africa and the Middle East. The common thread tying us to each other was a passion for sports—theirs playing European football and ours, of course, playing American football. Our student-athletes exchanged stories with the refugees about each other’s lives, passions, and challenges.

In the following days, we walked through the heart of Rome, learning both intellectually and viscerally. We visited the Pantheon and the Colosseum. We stood on the Spanish Steps. We went to Vatican City, where our players were able to experience one of the world’s great faiths by taking part in a papal audience and mass in St. Peter’s Square. It was there that my wife and I had the honor to present Pope Francis with a winged helmet, a symbol of the University’s proud football tradition. We attended a gourmet cooking school, where some of the best Italian pasta chefs in the world introduced our players to the art of Italian cuisine. At each meal, collected around a table to break bread and share conversation, we were introduced to the art of living unique to Italians.

In learning about Roman history and experiencing Italian culture, we gained a better understanding of the history of humankind.

Many Michigan students are fortunate enough to experience international engagement. But, until recently, the time demands of student-athletes did not allow for such a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For our players, this trip put the “student” back in “student-athlete” and the “college” back in “college football.”

As I head back into the submarine and we prepare for this exciting season, we will continue to draw strength from those nine days we spent together, as a family, in Italy.

Harbaugh presents the legendary winged helmet to Pope Francis following a public papal mass in St. Peter’s Square.

Harbaugh presents the legendary winged helmet to Pope Francis following a public papal mass in St. Peter’s Square.

Harbaugh and the team share words of celebration on their last evening in Rome.

Harbaugh and the team share words of celebration on their last evening in Rome.

Football players (from left to right) Nate Johnson, Ian Bunting, and Chris Evans enjoy an evening at the opera.

Tailback Karan Higdon is juxtaposed against statues that line the playing field at the Stadio dei Marmi.

At Lake Albano, Khalid Hill converses with a group of young Italians, excited to meet a star American football player.

Jim Harbaugh, ’86, is U-M’s head football coach.
David Turnley, ’77, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer.

The photographs on these pages are included in “Rise Again,” a collaboration of Jim Harbaugh and David Turnley, who spent three years making a photographic history of the team. In the book, Harbaugh has written a “Declaration of Leadership and Social Justice,” and his father, Jack Harbaugh, has shared 100 quotes that have been important mantras in the Harbaugh family. The book is available at enthusiasmunknowntomankind.com and the MDen.

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