VATICAN CITY — The man who spent decades shaking his fist at mountains, throwing rocks at giants and answering to no authority higher than his own will stood before us in humble bliss. We’ve seen many faces of Jim Harbaugh, but this was a new one:
“I’m living in such a grace,” the Michigan Wolverines coach said Wednesday afternoon atop an Italian patio, ladled by a cool, spring blue-gray sky. “We’re in a cloud of grace right now. I can’t describe it.”
He tried anyway.
“My father-in-law, Merle Feuerborn, Sarah’s dad, he always told me three things. He says, ‘Live in a state of grace, put your faith in the Lord and be not afraid.’ The first two — the second two and three, I get now. Just 100 percent there. Now I know to really live in that state of grace that he was talking about. And I’m right in that cloud of it, of grace. That was a gift. That was a gift from The Holy Father, and figuring out what to do with that.”
Jim Harbaugh, touched by grace. Jim Harbaugh, touched by God.
‘When you look at his eyes, there’s pain there’
“And there’s a lot of distress, too,” said the Wolverines coach, who was granted a personal audience and a handshake with Pope Francis following the Holy Father’s address at St. Peter’s Square before an audience of an estimated 30,000 — including 150 from the University of Michigan, tucked right near the front.
“When you look at his eyes, there’s pain there. There’s so much injustice in the world, so much poverty. And war and injustice. And you could tell and feel that he feels that. I think that especially made it feel to myself and to Sarah that we were — this is what it would be like to meet Jesus. The very closest thing.”
Hundreds of laymen were paraded onto the stage in front of St. Peter’s Basilica seeking blessings, bearing gifts, or both. Harbaugh brought a custom full-size Wolverines helmet and a pair of Jordan Retro 5s in Michigan blue.
The Holy Handoff. Best handoff of his life.
“He was smiling, but it was one of those like, ‘HUHHHH,’” the coach’s wife recalled, imitating the polite disappointment of a child opening a Christmas present to discover two pairs of socks waiting inside. “’You know, thank you.’ And then they hand it off. He might research that a little more.
“But the box of Jordans, it had written on it, ‘Your Holiness,’ and the helmet and the Italian flag, the American flag, it had ‘Pope Francis’ inscribed on it. What number is he? 266? I didn’t know it was so personalized.
“So hopefully, he finds that special. He probably has got some room full of ‘What Kind Of Gift Is This?’ [things], (a) warehouse. But yeah, he took it. We just wanted him to take it. What he does with it at this point …”
Pickup games on the square? Chip bowl?
“I was hoping he’d put the helmet on and the shoes,” she continued. “That would’ve been amazing. Yeah, maybe he’s got it on right now.”
(The shoes were believed to be size 11s. The pontiff reportedly wears a 9-and-a-half, but because of the orthotics he uses, it was recommended they go up a size-and-a-half.)
“Just the Holy Father’s face, it was beautiful,” Jim recalled. “His smile. The way he talks. It was peaceful. Calm. It felt like, ‘This is what it would be like to meet Jesus Christ.’ That’s what it felt like to me. Very emotional. Emotional.”
Papal scouting report: Personable. Patient. Gentle. Soft hands.
Sarah would know. She kissed them.
“It was so soft,” she laughed. “And I thought, ‘OK, I’ve got to do this.’ And I didn’t know if I was going to get slapped or … but, yeah, so it was beautiful. It was amazing. And I don’t even remember what Jim said, but it was a great moment.”
‘Pray for me, and don’t forget’
Jim nearly forgot to speak.
Sarah almost forgot to breathe.
“‘And I’m like, ‘I’m not going approach him’,” she recalled. “And I didn’t. But as he got closer, there’s this little gap [in the receiving line] and he was kind of looking at me like, ‘Are you going to come talk to me?’”
“I stepped up and I said, ‘Papa Francis, I love you and you’re beautiful.’ I mean, he is absolutely beautiful. His smile, his eyes, it’s just breathtaking when you actually see it in person. That’s all that came to mind, and he grabbed my hand and he looked right in my eyes.”
Pray for me, the Holy Father said. Pray for me, and don’t forget.
Could they ever?
“And so it was like, ‘Wow, he means us,’” Sarah said. “And I was more thinking that he was giving everyone blessings, but he needs prayer. He’s got the weight of the world — all these different countries come to him for spiritual guidance and spiritual help, and he feels all that. You can tell he carries the pain, he carries the fighting, the wars. And you could just see the pain in his eyes. Like ‘I need people. I need help.’ And so that’s something that I never had thought of before. I never thought, ‘Pray for the Pope.’ And that’s changed for sure.”
“It’s the eyes,” Jim said. “They’re holy.”
The Wolverines’ coach was raised Catholic, the grandson of an Italian immigrant. Joe Cipiti came over to America on a boat from Sicily a humble boy of 4, got a job at 13, and never looked back.
On Wednesday, that boy’s grandchild shook the hand of the Holy Father in Vatican City.
“I think he’d be very proud,” Harbaugh said of Grandpa Joe, who passed away in January 2014. “I know I am.”
Proud. Humbled. Star-struck.
“Jim wasn’t Jim,” Sarah said. “Like I told someone else afterward, when someone had come to us for a statement, he couldn’t speak.
“So he looked at me. And I’ve never seen my husband lost for words. He said, ‘You go.’
“I couldn’t go, either, but I felt like, ‘OK, if he’s asking me, then I’ve got to say something. So who knows what I said. But because it was right afterwards, it was still very emotional. I think I was crying, and so, who knows (what I said). But he was at a loss. He felt a true life-changing experience, as well.”
On Sunday, the Harbaughs’ son John will be baptized at Vatican City. Daughter Addie will take Holy Communion. As Jim stepped to the stage, his parents, Jack and Jackie, were a few beats away. Along with 150 of his closest friends.
“If I accomplish nothing more in my life,” Jim said, his voice shaking slightly while fighting the enormity of the moment to the last, “if I go right now, I’ll be going out a blessed man.”