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Faith, family and football: Amazon’s new ‘All or Nothing’ sports documentary


Alan Holdren

Zelda Caldwell - published on 04/07/18

New series on Coach Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines goes from Rome to Ann Arbor.

When University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh announced that he was taking his entire football team to Rome last April, he was criticized by some for trying to skirt the rules in order to get a competitive edge.

The NCAA had just passed a rule banning off-campus practice during school vacations – a rule clearly aimed at preventing trips like the one Michigan had taken the year before to a training facility in Florida.

As the latest season of the sports documentary series All or Nothing, now streaming on Amazon Prime, reveals, there is more at stake for Harbaugh than just winning games. The series goes behind-the-scenes to follow the Wolverines, on the practice field, in team meetings, and in their dorm rooms, as they start their 2017 season.

In the first of eight episodes, Harbaugh, who himself played quarterback for the Wolverines (“it changed my life” he says) relates a conversation he once had with former coach Bo Schembechler, in which he asked the coach what kind of team he thought they would have that year.

Schembechler responded, “Jimmy, when you guys come back 15, 20, years from now and we know what kind of men you are, what kind of husbands you’ve become, what kind of fathers you are, then we’ll now how good this football team is.”

Harbaugh, who models himself after his former coach and mentor – even to the point of wearing similar 1950s-era eyeglasses –  sees his role as that of a shaper of men.

The weeklong trip to Rome did include three days of practice, but the team also spent five days touring historic sites and even attending a papal Mass. Harbaugh can be seen practically seizing his players by the shoulders in the Pantheon and the Colosseum to share the wonder of their first experience in Rome.

After meeting Pope Francis, and giving him a Wolverines’ helmet as “un regalo” (“a gift”), Harbaugh becomes visibly moved. Having his youngest child baptized and his daughter make her First Communion at the Vatican then leaves him to reflect:

“I’ve been trying to figure it out, what this moment of grace, what this opportunity, what this experience was supposed to lead me to,” he says.

“The top three priorities of my life – faith, family and football – all together has been amazing. This has been the experience of my lifetime.”

Back in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the young Michigan team starts training camp, it’s clear that these young men are still boys. A telephone conversation between 280-lb. defensive tackle Rashan Gary and his mother, in which she reminds him to wear his retainer and make sure his feet are dry between the toes, is a rather endearing reminder of that.

Footage of the first game offers a fascinating window into how emotional – and vulnerable – the players are on the sidelines, and how the coaching staff sees tending to their psychological states as just as much a part of their job as calling plays. A phone call from the offensive coordinator in the booth to the quarterback who just threw an interception starts with a reminder to move on and put that bad pass behind him.

As the first episode concludes, it is clear that this young, inexperienced team faces an uphill climb, and that the job of head coach is more than just about winning. Although it certainly is about that.

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