Forget the Fighting Irish: Pope Francis meets with Michigan football squad

Pope Francis is presented with a football helmet by Michigan football team coach Jim Harbaugh during the weekly general audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 26, 2017. (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP) Pope Francis is presented with a football helmet by Michigan football team coach Jim Harbaugh during the weekly general audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 26, 2017. (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

Move over Notre Dame, looks like Pope Francis has a new favorite college football team.

Jim Harbaugh, head of the University of Michigan’s football program, presented a custom Wolverines helmet and a pair of Nike Air Jordan sneakers to Pope Francis on Wednesday, the highlight of a weeklong tour of Rome for the team.

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The blue and yellow helmet is adorned with American and Italian flags, as well as the number 266, because Francis is the 266th pope.

One of the winners, Salim Makki, wrote that even though he is a Muslim, Pope Francis is one of his heroes.

Members of the team wore suits to the general audience and yelled “Go blue!” in Italian when they were introduced, the Detroit Free Press reported.

Earlier this week, Mr. Harbaugh, a former quarterback and head coach in the N.F.L., announced that he had chosen two players to present the gifts to the pope after holding an essay contest about why they would like to meet Francis.

One of the winners, Salim Makki, wrote that even though he is a Muslim, Pope Francis is one of his heroes because of his outreach to people of other faiths.

"His Holiness Pope Francis is sincerely one of my heroes," Mr. Makki wrote. "In a time where Muslims have been scrutinized and wrongly identified with violence, Pope Francis has defended Islam and stated that not all Muslims are violent."

Ultimately, a lack of available seats meant that Mr. Makki and his teammate were not able to meet the pope, the Free Press reported.

Still, players were given special seats for the pope’s address and some of the players called it the opportunity of a lifetime.

Mr. Harbaugh is a lifelong Catholic and two of his children received sacraments at the Vatican during the trip.

"I'm speechless," Jared Wrangler, a linebacker who is Catholic, told the Free Press. "It's unbelievable. Hard to put into words. I recognized some of it, from hearing it over and over. I was trying to follow along with the words."

Unwilling to go without football for a week, Mr. Harbaugh and some of his team decided to toss around a ball inside an Italian shopping center, earning a scolding from a security guard, the San Francisco Gate reported.

Mr. Harbaugh is a lifelong Catholic and two of his children received sacraments at the Vatican during the trip.

He told Michigan Live the trip has been the “experience of my lifetime.”

"To see my son John Paul be baptized at the Vatican, to see my daughter Addison receive her first holy Communion at the Vatican, to meet the holy father," he said. "If I accomplish nothing more in my life, if I go right now, I'll be going out a blessed man."

Other activities for players included a visit to the Borghese Gardens, a paintball outing and a pig roast.

The entire trip was dreamed up by Mr. Harbaugh, who said he also has plans to take his teams to South Africa, Japan, Israel and either England or New Zealand in upcoming years. The envelope-pushing coach has taken his team to Florida for spring practice and his staff all over the country for summer camps.

The Wolverines are taking advantage of an opportunity non-athletes often have in college, earning credits while learning about another culture in another country. Their scholarship covers their tuition, room and board on the road.

This is the second high-profile American to greet Pope Francis during his general audience in April. Earlier this month, television personality Bill O’Reilly was in Rome on vacation, which included a handshake with Pope Francis. Later that day, Mr. O’Reilly was fired by Fox News following revelations of sexual harassment of women.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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