Former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh, now head coach for the University of Michigan football team, is also a Roman Catholic – and he said Wednesday that faith plays a major role in his life.
“The role that (faith) plays in my life is in the priorities that I have," he said April 26, “faith, then family, then football."
Coach Harbaugh spoke to CNA following a general audience with Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square April 26. He and his wife, Sarah, greeted Francis following the audience and presented him with a gift from the team – a University of Michigan helmet and pair of cleats.
The helmet included both the Italian and American flags and a little cross by the chinstrap. The Pope gave Harbaugh “some marching orders," the coach said, “he told me to pray for him."
Following the encounter, Harbaugh and his family and the University of Michigan football team were hosted for lunch on the terrace of the EWTN Rome bureau offices. After lunch they held a brief press conference.
Harbaugh, 53, has been head football coach for the University of Michigan since 2015. He played college football at Michigan from 1983-1986 and played in the National Football League (NFL) for 14 seasons from 1987-2000. He has seven children.
Speaking to CNA about his experience meeting Pope Francis, Harbaugh quoted his father-in-law, Merrill Feuerborn, who told him, “To live in a state of grace, put your trust in the Lord, and be not afraid."
“When I met Pope Francis today, I was riding on a state of grace," he said, “that feeling was beyond description. And I know that there’s something that I’m supposed to do with that opportunity, with that encounter, of meeting the Holy Father. I’m going to pray about it."
Harbaugh is in Rome April 22-30. He brought along his family as well as almost his entire team and staff – some 150 people. He said he wanted to give his players an experience they might not otherwise have.
Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, he brought the team and staff to Rome for a week of team-building, cultural and historical experiences, and of course, spring practices.
The aim of this trip was to “have an educational experience like none other," he told CNA.
“Not all learning is done in a classroom or on a football field, you know? It’s out connecting to people, and having a chance for our players and staff to see things they’ve never seen before, eat things they’ve never tasted, to hear a language they’ve never heard."
One goal for the trip was to connect his team with people they otherwise might not have met, he said. Their first day in Rome, the group met and picnicked with a group of refugees, including several from Syria.
Later on Wednesday, Harbaugh and some members of the team and his family visited the SOS Children’s Village, a community made up of homes for children who are in positions of family or social hardship.
Harbaugh said that attending the general audience and meeting Pope Francis was an emotional experience, not just for him but for his team as well. Asked what he hopes his team will take away from the experience, he said just that “the relationship with God is a personal one."
He said his suggestion for each of his players would be to spend time in silence and think and pray “about what it means, and what they should take away from it."
“Because we don’t always know what to do with it," he continued. “I don’t know what to do with the encounter I had meeting Pope Francis today. What exactly did it mean? What opportunity was given and what am I supposed to do with that?"
Immediately afterward, Harbaugh said he was able to speak with a priest from Detroit, Msgr. Robert McClory, about the experience: “And that was the advice that he gave me: to be silent, to pray, to be with God and listen, and you’ll get it, you’ll figure it out."
Two players had the opportunity to get a little bit closer to the Pope during the audience, which Harbaugh chose through an essay competition. The winners, offensive lineman Grant Newsome and defensive tackle Salim Makki, both said they are inspired by Francis.
Attending the audience “was just an incredible experience," Newsome said.
“Not only as a Christian, but as a person in general, just to listen to someone who is so internationally renowned as Pope Francis and to hear him and have him bless us was just an incredible experience for me and I know for a lot of the other guys on the team."
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."
Jack Wangler, a senior wide receiver told CNA, “I can speak for everybody, I think: this has been a once-in-a-lifetime trip."
“It’s been great to come here with the team and use it as a bonding experience and a cultural experience, to expand what we’ve learned in the classroom," said Catholic fullback Joe Beneducci.
He told CNA that he remembers reading about the Church and the Vatican at school and watching St. John Paul II’s funeral on TV. “Coming here to see it in person, it put it all in perspective and made me appreciate it just that much more."
“I think it’s brought me closer to my faith as well, which is very nice."
About the qualities of a good sportsman, Harbaugh said, “It talks about it in the Bible: strive hard to win the prize. To have that motivation, to have that quality of perseverance and discipline and drive is what really makes a good athlete."
Sunday, before they leave to return to Michigan, Harbaugh’s infant son, John Paul, will be baptized at St. Peter’s Basilica. His daughter, Addison, will also make her first Holy Communion.
In the press conference, Harbaugh told journalists that if he accomplished nothing else in his life, to have met the Pope, and see his son be baptized and his daughter receive First Communion at the Vatican, would make him feel like “a blessed man."
“This has been the experience of a lifetime."