For Penn Charter football player John Washington, it was a chance to walk the streets of ancient Pompeii on one day and catch a touchdown pass near Rome on another.
"When there is an opportunity to play football, I am always eager to participate," said Washington, who will play at Muhlenberg College next season. "I never imagined playing sports, particularly football, in another country, so this trip allowed me to do so. I studied Pompeii and the Coliseum in school, but visiting these historic sites was never a thought in my mind."
A group of local high school football players experienced this trip of a lifetime earlier this month during a week-long visit to Italy. It was the 11th annual Global Ambassadors Bowl, and Sean Cunningham of Father Judge, Jack Elliott of Springside Chestnut Hill, Jordan Gyabaah of Cheltenham, and Penn Charter's Owen Peters and Washington represented the 2018 Team Stars & Stripes. The U.S. squad featured selected players from Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and they played a team of Italian high school players.
"It's more important that we get a good kid rather than a great player," said head coach Bill Gallagher, a local veteran coach who played in the same Notre Dame backfield as Patrick Steenberge, the Global Football founder and president. "We want really good character kids to put on display over there."
Gallagher's coaching career includes stints at Springside Chestnut Hill, Penn Charter, Episcopal Academy, and Springfield-Montco.
From March 31 to April 8, the team had a packed itinerary. They visited Naples and the ancient ruins of Pompeii. They dined on the side of Mt. Vesuvius, stayed three nights in the seaside resort of Sorrento and visited the famous Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon and Piazza Navona in Rome. They took a guided tour of the Coliseum and the ancient Roman Forum, attended a private Mass in the Irish Chapel of the crypt at St. Peter's Basilica, and took a guided tour of the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel.
"It is always fascinating to watch the [players'] eyes pop open at what they see, to hear them talk about the sites they are visiting, and to compare the local culture and people with what things are like at home," said Steenberge.
"Experiential learning involves learning by doing," said Gallagher. "Global Football gives high school football players from the USA and foreign countries the opportunity to do both."
Washington said his favorite part of the trip was visiting the ruins of Pompeii.
"I could never fully put into perspective how the ruins were preserved because the eruption happened thousands of years ago," said Washington. "Walking around the once thriving city, I got a firsthand view of the history. The fact that I was walking on the same roads as those who came before me was mind blowing."
The week culminated with a 69-0 win over Italy's FIDAF team in Cave, near Rome. Elliott got Team Stars & Stripes off to a quick start by throwing a 75-yard touchdown pass to Washington on the second play of the game. Elliott, who passed for two touchdowns, also had two interceptions as a linebacker and was named the game's offensive co-MVP. Washington also scored on a pick-six interception.
Gyabaah, the defensive co-MVP, had a pick-six and threw for a touchdown. Peters and Cunningham shared the prestigious Global Ambassador Award.
"It was an honor taking the field representing the United States," said Washington. "Growing up watching the Olympics and seeing someone running out with the flag, as a child I always wanted to do something like that. Also, putting on the USA jersey meant that we had to not only represent our families but the rest of the country, and that feeling was amazing. Just talking to some of the Italian players was eye-opening, and hopefully we can keep in touch with them."
The Global Ambassadors Bowl visited Japan in 2008 and since has taken high-school aged players, family members and mentoring coaches to Europe and Asia every year to expand their appreciation of the world, make new friends and play football. China was introduced to the series last year, and Episcopal's Chris Rushton and Kevin Daniel attended. Formerly known as the Global Bowl, the series has involved Japan (2008 and 2009), France and Belgium (2010), Germany (2011), Italy (2012, 2013 and 2015), Spain (2014) and the Czech Republic and Germany (2016). Team Stars & Stripes boasts a 9-2 record.
"I created Global Football in 1996 with the mission of 'uniting the youth of the world through American football'. Bit-by-bit, tour-by-tour we continue to help develop better global citizens, preparing them for their future lives in this dynamic world," said Steenberge. "The 1996 Mount Saint Joseph High School (Baltimore) trip to London initiated what has expanded far beyond my dreams as we have taken over 15,000 travelers to 28 countries on six continents. The annual Global Ambassadors Bowl for high school student athletes has been one of the most popular events."
Steenberge played quarterback at Cathedral Preparatory School in Erie, Pa., and Notre Dame. He personally organizes and manages each tour. Players pay their own way.
Prospective players, families and coaches can contact Gallagher at email@example.com.