ROME — Undoubtedly you saw the video of the Harbaughs, Jim and Jack, Popeye the Sailor and his Pappy, tag-teaming poor Ade Dagi under the trees of the Villa Borghese. Poor Ade. No chance. None.
The Nigerian had pondered, openly and reasonably — bear in mind that this is a perfectly reasonable question on every continent but ours — why a game called “football” involves so little of a ball at one’s feet compared to, say, soccer.
Like a frozen smartphone, Michigan’s football coach couldn’t escape the logic, let alone the argument. So he handed the baton to Dad to defend the pigskin and passively aggressively bludgeon home the point:
— Sean Keeler (@SeanKeeler) April 23, 2017
Here’s the part you didn’t see: A few minutes later, after the cameras moved on, Jim Harbaugh circled back to Dagi as he sat on a blanket. The coach softly introduced him to a member of the Wolverines’ traveling party with ties to Nigeria and suggested they trade notes.
You probably saw quarterback Wilton Speight slinging the ball around with staff and visitors from the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center (JNRC) — an outreach ministry of St. Paul’s Within The Walls Episcopal Church that opens its arms to more than 200 refugee guests each weekday — fulfilling the first item on the Big Blue Italian Bucket List for the last week of April.
— Michigan Football (@UMichFootball) April 23, 2017
What you didn’t see: The smile on Mamadou Sankarah’s face every time Speight praised one of his slow return spirals, the ball wobbling in flight the way toddlers do when they’re first learning how to walk independently.
Good job, man!
Yeah, you got it!
“Twenty-four hours [ago], I was sitting in Ann Arbor, Mich., with my teammates and wasn’t really getting out of the bubble like we are [Sunday],” the Wolverines signal-caller would say later. “So it’s a cool experience.”
You don’t have to cross the Atlantic Ocean to meet people who can change your world view. Or to escape your bubble, wherever it is. Even in an ecosystem as cold and as cynical and as hypocritical as college football, it remains a salient point. A constructive point.
Because in a few hours with transients from nations such as Gambia and Nigeria, Speight’s don’t-care-what-time-it-is-we’re having too-much-fun ease with the Nafuma crew was eerily reminiscent of Jim Harbaugh, always teaching, enjoying the process, embracing the moment, relishing the role of ambassador.
“I always try to challenge myself to get out of my bubble the best I can and maybe put myself in an uncomfortable situation,” Speight explained, “where it might be easier to go off in the corner with some of my teammates and or [do] something we were doing in Ann Arbor. I really wanted to [stretch] myself in the middle of the park with these guys and really get to know them.”
Sankarah fled Gambia — where former President Yahya Jammeh, who initially refused to step down earlier this year after losing an election, once vowed to rule for “one billion years” and claimed to have cured AIDS — and gave Rome a try in 2014. He has been a peacekeeper with the JNRC since 2016 and attends Italian, Arabic and English schools.
The native Gambian grasped the hands-on-the-shoelaces deal and put rotation on the pigskin better than most first-timers — many of whom attempted to release this strange ball like a putter does a heavy shot.
“This is my first time, face-to-face, you know, with players, the people [on television],” Mamadou said. “I’m very happy they came to see this [group].”
And they came bearing gifts. Michigan brought 55 backpacks to donate to the JNRC Sunday, each stuffed with several keepsakes, including a black Jumpman logo hat, a gray Wolverines blanket and a blue T-shirt with the words FORZA BLU! emblazoned across the front in maize.
“[A refugee] I met said he came here with one shirt on his back, a pair of shorts and some shoes that didn’t fit,” Speight said. “A lot of us take that for granted.
“We’re here in Jordan jumpsuits with an American and Italy flag on them. It kind of puts all this in perspective a little bit.”