Michigan goes through gladiator training in Italy

The best of Michigan's journey to Rome (3:06)

Before Michigan kicks off its season, look back at the team's trip to the Eternal City. (3:06)

Jim Harbaugh has taken his Michigan squad to Rome for a week of practices, sightseeing and other adventures. ESPN's Marty Smith and Jonathan Whyley are following the team around in Italy.

Friday, April 28: Gladiator training

Jim Harbaugh reciting Gladiator lines while posing behind a gladiator display is funny.

Marty Smith, ESPN4y ago

Gladiators gearing up for the Wolverines arrival Gladiator school is next

Jonathan Whyley, ESPN Producer4y ago

Friday, April 28: Second day of practice

Day 6 in Rome Rain subsides before practice begins

Jonathan Whyley, ESPN Producer4y ago

The second practice with the Wolverines in Rome...

Jonathan Whyley, ESPN Producer4y ago


Jonathan Whyley, ESPN Producer4y ago

Harbaugh ain't afraid of contact

Jonathan Whyley, ESPN Producer4y ago

5 yard out drill

Jonathan Whyley, ESPN Producer4y ago

Thursday, April 27: First time on the practice field

Coach Harbaugh calling the plays at practice in Rome

Jonathan Whyley, ESPN Producer4y ago

QB drills, with defenders Jim Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton full-bore.

Marty Smith, ESPN4y ago

Coach working with the QBs at practice

Jonathan Whyley, ESPN Producer4y ago

Jim Harbaugh is snapping for the FG team at Michigan practice in Rome.

Marty Smith, ESPN4y ago

Wednesday, April 26: Meeting the pope

The Pope has arrived

Jonathan Whyley, ESPN Producer4y ago

Coach Harbaugh's gift for the Pope

Jonathan Whyley, ESPN Producer4y ago

SportsCenter crew on the scene with Michigan and the Pope

Jonathan Whyley, ESPN Producer4y ago

Tuesday, April 25: Paintball outing

ROME -- Jim Harbaugh was limping a bit. He'd taken enemy fire to the seat of his lululemons. His famous khakis were stippled with yellow blotches of pain-inflicting paint, the skin underneath swollen red with pellet-sized welts and bruises.

Paintball, baby. The Wolverines engaged in a four-hour-plus team-building extravaganza on the outskirts of Rome on Tuesday. It was competitive, intense and, ultimately, fun as hell.

Harbaugh told me two days ago that he'd underestimated the team-building aspect of this trip. Paintball was another unique example.

Players told me afterward that because of their paintball-team groupings, they'd fellowshipped with football teammates and coaches they otherwise barely knew. That's important.

Sure, this trip is great for recruiting. (Per NCAA rules, Harbaugh is allowed to contact each one of his recruits once during this trip. He chatted with one key recruit on FaceTime on Monday -- with the Colosseum in the background. Not bad.) But this is also about experiences. Harbaugh said it's about offering college football players something more.

One of the first things Harbaugh did Tuesday was approach one of his players to make certain he'd completed a term paper, which was due later Tuesday. He asked, got a "yes, sir," and then followed up one more time for confirmation.

Upon arrival at paintball, I walked up to Harbaugh to say hello. I was wearing camo. He said, "Marty, you look like a guy who could survive in the wild. A country boy can survive, right?"

We both howled.

I hoped he was right.

He was not.

Ultimately, I got lasered in the ear hole a few times. It hurts. Real bad. My body is covered in those round, red dots I mentioned earlier and accompanied by scrapes from somersaulting behind some barrels and firing off some rounds into another man's groin. That's how this deal went. No mercy.

(My team, Team 5, was destroyed in the second round of the tournament by eventual champion Team 3, led by passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton and all-world defensive tackle Rashan Gary.)

The biggest takeaway for me was Harbaugh's innate competitiveness. One of my producers, Chris Duzan, was inside the arena with a camera, running around after Harbaugh and capturing footage for our SportsCenter television piece.

Eventually Harbaugh realized this was a considerable liability. His competition had begun to simply shoot toward the camera guy -- just empty the chamber -- knowing Harbaugh was nearby.

He politely asked my guy to get away. He was giving up Harbaugh's location.

The competitive streak is not new to Michigan players, who call him the most competitive human being they've ever known. (Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown got some votes, too, if you're counting.) Here's an excellent example, courtesy of quarterback John O'Korn.

It was during O'Korn's first few weeks at Michigan after he'd transferred from Houston. Harbaugh took the quarterbacks group into the Michigan indoor practice facility for some drills. Here's the thing: It was during a time of year when they were not allowed to practice with footballs.

"When we finally got onto the field, there was Coach, fully dressed in his game-day attire that everyone sees on Saturdays, cleats and all," O'Korn said in Rome. "This had to be around June. He proceeded to teach us all of the footwork and drills we would be doing while playing for him. But he didn't just demonstrate -- he was taking every rep and going full speed, at 50 years old. I'll admit he looked like he could still play.

"He probably took three times as many reps as all of us combined that day. We all felt like we were just spectators watching him go through a workout. It just goes to show that, even at 50 years old, in the middle of June, his tenacity and love for the game are unmatched. He brings it every day. He never wavers.

"You'll be hard-pressed to find many who love the game of football as much as he does."

Game planning with coach Harbaugh before the battle

Jonathan Whyley, ESPN Producer4y ago

Jim Harbaugh and QB Wilton Speight devise strategy for paint ball extravaganza.

Marty Smith, ESPN4y ago

Coach taking in the action

Jonathan Whyley, ESPN Producer4y ago

Monday, April 24: Touring Rome

Jim Harbaugh tosses some wishing well coins into Trevi Fountain. I asked what he wished for...

Marty Smith, ESPN4y ago

Coach Harbaugh tours Rome

Jonathan Whyley, ESPN Producer4y ago

Jim Harbaugh fires a selfie at the Spanish Steps w daughter Addison (8) and players Chris Evans and Khalid Hill.

Marty Smith, ESPN4y ago

Coach at the Pantheon

Jonathan Whyley, ESPN Producer4y ago

Sunday, April 23: Exploring the city

ROME -- Jim Harbaugh has taken considerable grief over the past two years for his approach to spring practices. He took what was once a mundane offseason formality and has transformed it into a downright spectacle.

It began in 2016 when he chose to relocate spring ball from Ann Arbor to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. That escalated a bit this year, as Harbaugh loaded the boys up and flew nine hours on a commercial jet to Italy.

Here's the thing: Harbaugh doesn't seem to care.

And here's another thing: His players absolutely love him for that.

"No. He doesn't care about criticism," quarterback Wilton Speight said Sunday. "He cares about us."

Speight stressed the ethos of Harbaugh's care: person over player.

"It's real," he said. "It's the only way he knows."

Upon landing Sunday, Michigan players and coaches boarded buses and drove to Villa Borghese, a beautiful garden on the grounds of a museum. While there, they met refugees from Syria, Nigeria and Afghanistan who are with the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center.

"It's not often you're in a melting pot of people from around the world," Speight said. "So to be able to have a quick interaction, to feel each other out, and then to dive into each other's lives a little bit is really unique."

The Wolverines kicked soccer balls and got to know the refugees. Speight taught them how to throw a football. Their initial reaction was to toss it overhead, two-handed, like an inbounds throw in soccer.

"I showed them how to put their fingers on the laces and let it come off your fingers," Speight said with a grin. "They were quick learners. I guess it's not that hard."

In those interactions, the players learned about cultures other than their own and the strife the refugees have faced. They learned about the pain of fractured families and were reminded of the universal appreciation for simple kindness, for a smile and an embrace.

It was profound. It affected me, too.

"It's killing me inside, thinking about my family and my hometown," said a man named Mansur Nadri, an Afghan refugee who worked alongside the U.S. military as a logistics liaison. "We want to live in peace. That's it."

Mansur appreciated the opportunity to meet the Michigan players.

"It makes me so happy, their kindness," Nadri said. "I'm a human being. I have the right to know [others]. I appreciate them."

Harbaugh loved meeting the refugees. He passed out backpacks stuffed with Michigan gear, taught passing techniques and recruited his father, Jack, to assist in preaching the American football faith to some skeptical soccer fans.

While I chatted with Harbaugh about some sunglasses he bought from a street vendor in Rome -- knockoff Ray-Bans, the pink-blue-green, shiny kind for which he paid 15 U.S. dollars -- the motivation behind the trip came up.

Harbaugh planned the entire week himself. When he informed the players of their unprecedented good fortune, some refused to believe him, including linebacker Mike McCray.

"I didn't believe him," said McCray, an avid photographer who is documenting the trip via an abundance of Nikon still shots. "But he just kept talking about it, so eventually I thought, 'Man, this is real.' This is my graduation present. I graduate next week."

Not a bad week, young man.

Watching his men, Harbaugh said he thinks he underestimated the team-building value of the trip, and he noted there's more to education than the classroom and the football field.

"They'll see things they've never seen, taste things they're never tasted and hear words they've never heard," he said with a big grin. "Tell me that's not educational."

Jim Harbaugh recruits his father, Jack, to explain (read: validate) American football to Nigerian refugee Ade Dagi.

Marty Smith, ESPN4y ago

Jim Harbaugh hands out UM gear to refugees in Rome.

Marty Smith, ESPN4y ago

Marty Smith poses with some of the guys in front is the Galleria Borghese

Jonathan Whyley, ESPN Producer4y ago

Jim Harbaugh bought some shades from a roadside vendor. He only had US dollars. "They wanted 12 euros. I gave 'em 15 bucks."

Marty Smith, ESPN4y ago

Saturday, April 22: Touching down in Rome

ROME -- Rarely is something so drenched in history also so vibrantly current.

That was my thought Saturday, the day ESPN landed in Rome for extensive weeklong coverage of the Michigan football team's spring break voyage to this majestic city. We arrived a day earlier and will hook up with the Wolverines on Sunday for the start of what should be a weeklong adventure with coach Jim Harbaugh & Co.

We hit the ground running.

The plane touched down at 9:45 a.m. local time, and by 1 p.m., producers Jonathan Whyley and Chris Duzan, cameramen Gregg and Sam Hoedermann and myself were on a city tour to document this juxtaposition between rewind and fast-forward.

We hit all the staples: Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, the Temple of Peace. I learned that the previous day, April 21, was Rome's 2,770th birthday, the anniversary of the date when Romulus founded the city. And I shook my head as we captured the bustling authenticity of the town, this epicenter of modern tourist activity and generational authenticity.

One of our stops, the stunning Altar of the Homeland, rests in the shadow of the Colosseum and pays homage to Italian soldiers lost at war. The pair of red, white and green Italian flags that whipped in the breeze are beautiful against the white backdrop of the building. Because of its shape, its local nickname is "The Wedding Cake." I was particularly taken by its beauty and commanding stature.

Since 1921, it's been home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Along with our other stops, it plays prominently in our quartet of 20-second artistic vignettes: "The Colosseum," "Italiani," "Architettura" and "Roma" will air throughout the week on SportsCenter.

On Sunday, we join Harbaugh and the Wolverines for a picnic and meeting with refugees, some of whom fled Syria. Also Sunday, a parade will take place on the forum, starring the same group of gladiators who will train the U-M football team in their customs and tactics later this week.

You can't help but be taken by this city; its pride and its beauty feel very real.

To stand alongside the Fountain of the Ugly Boat, formed in the shape of a half-sunken ship, created to bring alive the legend of the small boat carried here by the flooded Tiber River in 1598, is humbling.

Especially when I turned around to see the mouth of the street that holds flagship retail stores for Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Bulgari and Valentino, overflowing with visitors.

I just smiled.

Indeed, so drenched in history, yet so vibrantly current.