Follow along all weekend as Marty Smith tours France with Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines.
Day 3: A powerful trip to Normandy
NORMANDY, FRANCE -- Jim Harbaugh stood before his team to deliver an important message, unlike any other message to any other team he'd ever coached. His tone was sobering, a mix of humility and remembrance.
He was standing in the center of the American Cemetery memorial at Omaha Beach, Normandy, France, a semicircular colonnade containing maps and commentary about military operations in World War II.
He'd removed his signature cap, ascended the steps and walked to the foot of the bronze statue in the middle, which honors the spirit of "American Youth Rising from the Waves."
He began with a thank you.
"It's truly a blessing, an honor and a privilege for our team to come here and pay our respects to those who fought so courageously -- and won so much -- for the cause of freedom," Harbaugh said.
"God bless America."
At that moment, taps began to play. All in attendance stood at attention and faced a pair of American flags flying over the remains of the 9,387 American military souls buried there.
Running back Tru Wilson, whose father is a Marine master sergeant, and Sean Magee, UM's association athletic director for football, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, held the American flag.
"It's a great honor and true privilege to be here," said Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich. He was fighting back tears. "I'm so thankful these men gave the ultimate sacrifice here, put it all on the line to ensure our freedom."
I asked Winovich what perspective this offers a 23-year-old male, given that the average age of those who fought in World War II was just three years older -- 26.
"It's scary," Winovich said. "I watched 'Saving Private Ryan' on the way here. If it's anything like what happened that day, it's unimaginable. It's unfathomable, the horror those men went through that day.
"I'm so proud to be an American. This is a great day to be American."
Jim Harbaugh's father, Jack, was just 4 years old on D-Day. He has had this day circled on his calendar since the moment his son told him two years ago he planned to take the Michigan football program to Rome and Paris in successive years.
"To stand here with my son ..." Jack Harbaugh began, "this is the moment I've lived for for these two years.
"To see the emotion the players felt. You can read about [D-Day] in our history books or talk about it ... But when you stand here and feel it, feel this moment ... This is what it's all about."
Jack Harbaugh was standing alongside Jim when he said that to me.
"What happened here, if it didn't take place, if they didn't make that sacrifice, the world wouldn't have the freedom that we enjoy today," Jim Harbaugh said. "It's very sobering."
For a moment we chatted about my grandfather, James Massey, the preacher man in George S. Patton's Third Army. At my behest, sitting in his den alongside a fire on a snowy December night, he once spent hours telling me stories from the war.
I wish he was with me today so I could thank him with everything in my being.
He would appreciate my consideration.
I would appreciate his tears.
Day 2: Soccer, the Mona Lisa and some new friends
PARIS -- The matchup was intense. Michigan was the more athletically gifted team, fit and fast and focused. But they were outmanned strategically. The opponent moved together offensively in perfect unison, were often quicker to the ball and communicated well.
The Wolverines were a bit flummoxed.
These were some of college football's great players -- among them All-Big Ten defensive end Chase Winovich, running back Chris Evans and quarterbacks Shea Patterson and Joe Milton (an early enrollee whom Patterson said might have the strongest arm he has ever seen).
.@UMichFootball players - including Chase Winovich, Chris Evans and Shea Patterson - compete against refugees from Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Bangladesh, Guinea and Chad at Paris' INSEP facility.— Marty Smith (@MartySmithESPN) April 28, 2018
Sports unifying people. pic.twitter.com/NZg8T1HGhs
If only the boys were playing football.
This was futbol.
Michigan's players had just completed a two-hour football clinic for 300-plus participants at the INSEP Olympic facility, after which they engaged in a full-bore soccer match with a team comprised of refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Chad and Guinea.
It was a beautiful reminder of the power of sport.
It was hope in motion, a connection built from competition.
And it made some onlookers -- namely me -- nervous. The players flew around, fearless of any potential injury.
Afterward, my producer, Jonathan Whyley, cameraman/editor extraordinaire Sam Hoerdermann and I began feeding the day's video content back to the ESPN home base in Connecticut. We do this via a device called a TVU. It's a little box that's basically the power of 30 cell phones -- strong enough to place us live on your television from almost anywhere at any time and to ship video footage across the globe.
As we waited for the content to transfer, one of the refugees approached. He was enthralled with one of Sam's cameras, called the Sony A-55. It's a fancy something, the main camera we use to document the subject during sit-down interviews for Marty Smith's America.
He crouched down to study. Just then, another refugee joined us. He explained that he's a Sudanese journalist and told us he is working to produce a documentary. He was a gentleman and marveled at our equipment.
We welcomed the men to hoist the cameras atop their shoulders and take all the photographs they pleased. We laughed and smiled with them and enjoyed meeting them very much. They were kind.
Without this trip, we never have the opportunity for that specific fellowship.
We are better for it. We discussed that blessing openly. We cuss, but we're men of faith.
Saturday's clinic had some news, too. The NCAA on Friday ruled Patterson, a transfer from Ole Miss, eligible to participate immediately in the 2018 season.
It was an emotional time for the rising junior quarterback. I spoke with him about those emotions, and he told me the experience tested his faith.
"It's a feeling of relief," he said. "It's been on my mind ever since I transferred. This is the first day I could wake up with a clear mind -- not waking up with a feeling of, 'What if? What if I can't play?'
"It changes my outlook. I get to go out there and play football. I don't have to worry about not getting the opportunity. I don't have to wait another year. The biggest thing is I'm one step closer to my dream."
I asked. He won't say.
Breakdown!— Marty Smith (@MartySmithESPN) April 28, 2018
300 positions to Saturday's football clinic at Paris' INSEP facility were offered online.
It sold out in 3 minutes. pic.twitter.com/q1sg5mh9iW
The clinic was an interesting exercise, watching college coaches and players teach the fundamentals of the game to eager students from another land. UM welcomed 300 participants to the event through an online sign-up. It reached capacity in three minutes.
Throughout the morning, coach Jim Harbaugh met and greeted and gripped and grinned with the participants. He asked about their lives. One young man in a maize Michigan hoodie and faded blue Block M hat asked for a photo. Harbaugh complimented his attire and thanked him for being so "patriotic."
After a meal, it was off to the Louvre. I joined Jim Harbaugh's group of some 25 folks. Harbaugh was fun to tour an art museum with. Everyone but me was wearing one of those wireless headphone gadgets that enable you to hear the tour guide.
Our guide was intense about the Louvre's history, its stunning beauty and its legendary pieces of art and artifacts.
I mentioned to Harbaugh that our guide led with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind. He loved it.
Throughout the tour, Harbaugh commented on the guide's informational nuggets. For example: We were viewing a naked statue lying on its stomach but twisted around so its rear end was facing the middle of the room. (I should know its name. I looked it up on the internet, but to no avail).
The guide was fired up about this statue, discussing the "surprise" on the other side.
Harbaugh walked around to the other side and said, "I see your surprise!"
Either the man was hilarious, or I'm easily amused.
From there, we walked down a series of long hallways, with their intricate walls and towering ceilings displaying beautiful frescos, many bordered in gold. Eventually we took a right.
Donovan Peoples-Jones snaps a photo of the Mona Lisa. pic.twitter.com/S7uLkhvBts— Marty Smith (@MartySmithESPN) April 28, 2018
The Mona Lisa.
She still draws a crowd, and she's the only item I saw with a velvet rope to control her line of admirers. Before her is a sort of mosh pit, as folks jockey for position to capture her beauty on Snapchat or Instagram. Most look at her through the prism of a phone.
It was a humbling moment to see her. Players crowded around for photos and selfies. Wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones stood just in front of me amid the crowd, capturing through the prism of his phone.
I told him it's smart to capture this moment because in 30 years he'll look back in appreciation of the opportunity. He replied: "We may never see this again."
He's right. That's the point of the trip: seeing and hearing and tasting things he otherwise might never have the opportunity to see or hear or taste.
With his teammates. Together.
Day 1: Bonding over baguettes
PARIS -- Jim Harbaugh and his family emerge from a black tour bus on a chaotic Parisian avenue, stride across a busy crosswalk and step onto the perch at Trocadero Square. With each step, the Eiffel Tower rises farther toward the open, crystal sky before them, commanding and stately and historic and genuinely awesome.
On this sun-drenched Friday afternoon, rays glint from the gold faces of the statues surrounding the square. It is a stunning scene.
Some of Harbaugh's Michigan Wolverines mill about. Some cut up -- wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones props bunny ears atop teammates' heads as they pose for photographs in front of the tower. Some players sit. Some slump, fatigued following a nine-hour red-eye flight from Detroit.
Some players just stare.
Most are experiencing this global landmark for the first time.
Its stature is more prominent and its surrounding gardens more vibrant than most of us anticipated. The Eiffel Tower structure itself is brown, but its periphery is a burst of bright green.
I intersect Harbaugh. I am holding a foot-long baguette I bought five hours ago. It is still in the paper.
"Coach, I bought this baguette so you and I could break bread," I tell him. "That's what we do. We break bread. Faith. Family. Football."
I rip a four-inch hunk off the end and hand it to him.
Harbaugh likes it. He laughs and gnaws a big hack from that chunk of bread.
But he is cautious. The bread isn't soft. Its outer shell is flaky and brittle. Its inner guts are hardened like grout. It crumbles and crunches. It cracks more than it chews.
We both cackle about its texture as we eat and immediately start surveying the perimeter for water before we carry on to the sightseeing experience.
At this point, I run into offensive lineman Grant Newsome and tight end Zach Gentry. They're great young men. Newsome inspires me. He nearly lost his leg a couple of years back, after a dislocated right knee required a lengthy hospital stay and several surgeries to repair. He could have quit, but he continues to fight his way back to the field and told me he remains optimistic that he'll play in 2018.
Blessed pic.twitter.com/OMtgcCGJbd— Grant Newsome (@grant_newsome) April 27, 2018
The thing is, his resilience athletically is just one reason he inspires me. His perspective does, too. Last year, when the Wolverines visited Rome for spring ball, Harbaugh charged his team with writing essays to the Pope, detailing how and why he inspires them.
Harbaugh personally read every essay.
Their letters were a testament to love and patience and inclusion and brotherhood. I read them myself. It was an honor to read their works and to learn why they wrote those words.
Chase Winovich walks up. Winovich is an All-Big Ten defensive lineman who this week is using his phone to produce a video blog for the Michigan social media group.
He asked me to spend a couple of moments with him to talk ball and life.
He yells "Marty Party!" and we're off. The conversation is going well -- broke some bread, struggled to chew it, looked for water -- but we were suddenly forced to stop and start over.
His mom called.
Winovich and I look over. Coach Harbaugh is still gnawing on that baguette.
From there the group was off to the Arc de Triomphe, and I nearly photo-bombed a group of players taking a picture in front of the beautiful structure. Jim Harbaugh's father, Jack, is the photographer. Jack lives his personal mantra: attack life with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.
He's wide open.
I ask him how these spring ball overseas trips encapsulate his son's personality.
"Jim is bringing the college back into college football," Jack Harbaugh says with a wide smile.
He is proud that his son is "widening the gap" between the business of the NFL and the business of amateur athletics, which Jack Harbaugh said has shrunk to almost no gap at all.
Jim Harbaugh approaches, putting the finishing touches on an ice cream cone.
I ask him what's on the docket this week. The team will see a beautiful city of 10 million people. They'll visit the Eiffel Tower again, this time with the opportunity to take an elevator to the top. They'll take a boat ride on the Seine River, walk an island, engage in a paintball battle and visit Normandy Beach.
"It's a great opportunity to connect with the team," Jim Harbaugh said. "I like that part as much as anything, but also the history and the things that you learn yourself and what others around you experience make the trip so much more valuable when you're here with a big group. Who knows what will happen? It's an adventure."
I wondered what happened in Rome in 2017. It was an unprecedented move to take an entire program on a spring break trip abroad.
"So many things happened," he said. "It was experience like I've never had before on a team or in life, to be with 100 football players like that. First of all, so proud of how they conducted themselves. No kerfuffles, no shenanigans. They experienced a different language, a different culture, different food and different architecture.
"Even paintball -- the team-building that broke out all natural. And the gladiator fights that we didn't know would happen. So we don't know what'll happen on this trip. Just connect with teammates and another culture."
Before we left, I commended Harbaugh on two things: his use of the word kerfuffle and his absolute dominance of that baguette.
"I gave some to the pigeons," he says. "They liked it, too."