After more than 50 stories, a lot of pizza and a lot of football, a final thought on Michigan in Rome

This is an opinion piece by MLive’s Nick Baumgardner. 

ROME (en route to ANN ARBOR) — As I walked through a spiral staircase inside the south colonnade in St. Peter’s Square, I asked another reporter how old he thought these steps were. 

“A few hundred years? Probably more.”

The concrete staircase crawled up nearly 70 feet into the air, ending with an opening that showed a view overlooking Vatican City’s south end. After taking a slight right and pacing a few feet out onto a platform, I turned around and saw something I never thought I’d witness. 

An aerial view of one of the most famous plazas on Earth. St. Peter’s Basilica was to my left. Nearly 30,000 people sat on my right. And right in the middle was, of course, the pope. 

I’m a college football writer, folks. This stuff doesn’t happen to us. We see press boxes and football fields and locker rooms and grass stains. Not this. 

I’ve gathered probably a thousand press passes in my decade-plus as a reporter. Most of them go in the trash. But when I pulled out Wednesday’s little number from Vatican City and showed it to Michigan offensive coordinator Tim Drevno, he summed up the situation — and the entire week — rather well. 

“That’s amazing,” he said. “That’s a keeper. You’re never going to forget that.” 

And neither will Michigan. Not a single second of this week-long blitz through Rome, The Eternal City. 

When Jim Harbaugh announced this venture back in February, the usual line of pundits assembled to begin poking holes at the entire situation. It’ll cost too much money, it’s a waste. It’s all a ploy for recruiting. It’s more “look at me” stuff from Harbaugh. On and on it went. 

Most people who know me well enough know I’m a cynic by nature, just who I am. Not saying I like it, but — I mean — yeah, let’s just say I’ve read up on whether or not we actually landed on the moon in 1969. 

And while I always saw redeeming value in this trip, I too found myself wondering some of the same stuff about everything here. Another chance for Michigan to be in a headline. Another spectacle. Another day of Harbaugh being Harbaugh. 

Then I walked up that staircase, looked out over St. Peter’s Square and realized that’s all nonsense. This trip, for Michigan, may have had fringe benefits in the world of marketing — and Harbaugh surely knows that. 

But this was about so much more than that. It was an attempt to change a culture that spends so much time grinding 18- to 22-year-old “student-athletes” into dust without nearly enough in return. 

It was a chance to let them be people, not just football players living inside a fishbowl in Ann Arbor, where thousands of people line up almost every day to tell them how great they are and how amazing they are — until they drop a pass or miss a tackle. 

There were no negatives about this. Not a single one. Every member of Michigan’s travel party to Italy is a better person for having done and experienced this. 

Period. 

“The bang for…

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