VATICAN CITY — He’d joked about a blessing. Or even a touch. But when the time came, Pope Francis didn’t get any nearer to Grant Newsome’s wounded right leg than about 30 feet.
And you know what? Close enough.
“Yeah, (it was great) just to be there,” Newsome, the Michigan Wolverines offensive tackle, told reporters after the team’s visit to hear the pontiff’s papal message Wednesday, “and he said a blessing over the crowd. Just to be there and hear him speak, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And I’m really happy to have that.”
Newsome was one of two Michigan players — DT Salim Makki being the other — who won an essay contest for the privilege of sitting at the front of the Wolverines contingent in St. Peter’s Square, nearest to the stage where the Holy Father addressed the crowd.
There had been talk of the possibility of Newsome and Makki even joining coach Jim Harbaugh and his wife, Sarah, in presenting a custom Michigan helmet and Jordan brand shoes to Pope Francis personally. As it turns out, the private audience was only had by coach and spouse, and the closest either Wolverines player got to the Holy Father was when the papal transport slowly circled the aisles around which various traveling groups were seated.
Pope Francis’ slow lap past the left side of the audience — stage right — where the Michigan party had gathered was met by a flurry of smarphone cameras raised high to record pictures and video of the moment.
“I think we were kind of sitting there, kind of looking at each other, not saying much,” Newsome said. “Just the weight of listening to someone who’s so internationally renowned and such a huge figure — especially for someone of the Christian faith, I’m at a loss for words right now how surreal it was.”
The awe was palpable, even from a distance. Devin Gil, a freshman linebacker from Pembrokes Pine, Fla., was raised Catholic. After the Holy Father passed, he recalled the picture of Pope Benedict hanging up at Grandma’s house.
“I can’t believe I’ve just seen him,” Gil said. “You’re used to seeing him in pictures or on the Internet. I never expected to be (out) here, seeing him.”
‘It’s just hard to put it into words what that moment meant.’
— Michigan OT Grant Newsome on the presence of Pope Francis
As freshman DE Rashan Gary sat toward the back of the group, Beats by Dre headphones perched between his temples and ears, he was gently prodded for autographs before and after the address by pre-teens from a youth group visiting from Treviso, five hours to the north.
“Once they find out we play American football, they’re surprised and they want to be around us,” Gary shrugged. “So I think it’s cool how we bring a culture to them, and how they bring a culture to us.
“’Oh, yeah, I go to the University of Michigan, I play football.’ They’re like, ‘Oh, wow. Can you sign?’”
But the loudest cheers from the kids — PAPA FRANCESCO! CLAPCLAP, CLAPCLAPCLAP — were reserved for the Holy Father.
“You just feel like you’re witnessing history, a historic figure,” Newsome said. “Obviously, for someone like myself, who’s of the Christian faith, a holy figure.
“It’s just hard to put it into words what that moment meant. I think it’s something that, once we are kind of able to step back from the situation, get back to the U.S., and kind of realize that we had the experience to be 25 feet from the Pope, that’s not an experience that most people get.”