ROME — Blame Padre. Maybe. The seed for an epic week was planted five or six years ago in a conversation of, well, if not biblical proportions, then biblical intent.
“I do remember egging him on about getting the team to Rome when he was with the 49ers,” the Rev. Joe Uhen, pastor of the Santisimo Sacramento Parish in Piura, Peru, and longtime friend of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, tells Land of 10. “Because they’re in San Francisco — San Francisco, the city of Saint Francis of Assisi, which is only about two hours north of Rome.
“He thought that was an absolutely great idea. I know he talked to the (Niners) owner (Jed) York, about taking the team over there for practice to Assisi. So it was a really cool idea. It never came about, but that may have been one of the seeds.”
And, well, here we are. The Victors, on the cusp of the Vatican.
Harbaugh’s Wolverines have boots — Jordans, technically — Sunday in Rome, The Eternal City, the spiritual and literal home of the Roman Catholic Church, of which the venerated coach is a devotee. The culmination of a vision that raised thousands of dollars — and thousands of eyebrows.
“It’s a fascinating place to be, both for the Roman history as well as it being the center of the Catholic faith,” says Uhen, whom Harbaugh calls “Padre,” and whose parish in northwest Peru the coach has visited each of the last eight summers to perform missionary work. “So that’s also a wonderful thing to see — the Vatican and all the churches.
“So it’s about that culture and history as well as the religious (significance). What a great opportunity for those students and those athletes to be able to do that.”
‘I saw humility in him’
Uhen is one of the chosen few: a man who’s seen Harbaugh with his shields down. He became part of the Michigan coach’s summer routine about a decade ago, when Captain Comeback was stirring the pot at Stanford. Harbaugh admired the priest’s mission. Uhen admired the coach’s passion. They’ve been pals ever since.
“At one point he says, ‘You know, things have been going well since I’ve been coming down here,’ ” Uhen recalls. “So he’s kind of got us as part of his journey.”
And part of his preseason ritual for the soul. He’ll usually come for a week, helping Uhen and others when they build houses or visit prisons. Harbaugh slings hammers, attends Mass and plays soccer, football and basketball — and “Peru ball,” which combines the latter two — with the children.
“He’s made friends here,” Uhen says, “and is really a man of faith.”
Pablo the bartender was one of those summer friends. Before he passed away, Uhen says, Pablo had served drinks for decades in Cabo Blanco, a fishing village tucked into Peru’s northwest coast with a clientele of sportsmen and marlin chasers that included names such as Ernest Hemingway and Bob Hope.
“We’d go down to the beach and throw the ball, and stuff like that,” Uhen recalls.
Some days, they’d drop in at local jails to eat and play football with inmates — “just like The Longest Yard,” Uhen cracks. He shows you a photo of Harbaugh leaving Rio Seco prison in his stocking feet because he’d already given away his shoes.
“My workers here at the parish are friends with him,” Uhen says. “He loves them and they love him. He’s just able to do that. And I think there is an authenticity in his character. He is a respectful man and wants to learn more.
“And I saw humility in him. He understands that he is not the authority on some things and wants to learn. He’s asked me many questions about certain things.”
He remembers Harbaugh asking him one time to name his favorite three saints and to explain why he’d chosen them. And that the Wolverines coach had listed John The Baptist as his personal No. 1.
Uhen has been hammering away at Santisimo Sacramento — Spanish for “Most Holy Sacrament” — for 23 years now. Piura, the first Spanish city founded in Peru, is 17 hours north of Lima by car but a 45-minute drive from the Pacific Ocean.
Uhen, in turn, has visited Harbaugh stateside. He led a service for the 49ers before Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. Sometimes, he’ll bring his bishop up from Peru, and he’s clicked with Harbaugh, too.
“The family that we’re helping, (Jim asks) their kids what they’re up to, what grade they’re in,” Uhen recalls, “then he’ll grab footballs and throw to a couple of kids and keep pounding away at the house.”
Another nail. Another Harbaugh parable.
“Sometimes, he’ll tell the story of (asking) whether you’re a house plant or you’re an ear of corn,” Uhen says. “An ear of corn has to be one (pollinated in) the wind and it still grows and still bears fruit. Or are you a house plant, that has to be taken care of and how it gets the little spray?”
‘I think he’s trying to do the right thing with his life’
More the ear-of-corn type, Harbaugh’s original plan was to make Italy a side trip for the 49ers following their game with the Jacksonville Jaguars in London on October 27, 2013.
“I think that was an idea,” Uhen says, “but since it’s in-season, I can understand why they didn’t pull that off.”
Ergo, 2017’s audible. Uhen says that another Harbaugh friend, John Denniston, went to Rome recently to attend a symposium and helped pave some of the roads for the Wolverines’ scheduled visit to Vatican City on Wednesday. A visit that’s expected to include an audience with Pope Francis.
“I think he’s trying to do the right thing with his life,” Uhen says.
And with his team.
“He’s just very creative and knows how to take advantage of his great ideas,” Uhen says. “And this really is one of them.”
It takes a village, sometimes.
Even if that village is in Peru, half a world away.
“I’m not sure I have (a right) to claim influence,” Padre says. Then he laughs. “Jim can tell you. But I can claim that I suggested that they go to Assisi when they were with the 49ers. Whether that had a positive (effect) or not, I don’t know.”