The two brothers met at midfield under falling Super Bowl confetti. One elated in victory, but miserable at the fate of the other. One miserable in defeat, yet elated at the fate of the other.
The spotlight of football’s biggest game, not to mention the lead up to it, managed to normalize the brother v. brother, John Harbaugh v. Jim Harbaugh coaching matchup of Super Bowl XLVII.
It’s almost unfathomable that it occurred.
One game, one trophy, two brothers, head-to-head. The odds are astronomical; the only other time in NFL history two brothers met as head coaches came during the 2011 regular season when John’s Baltimore Ravens played Jim’s San Francisco 49ers. This was for everything though, all or nothing.
Siblings occasionally compete for championships – Venus and Serena Williams, for example (Serena 17-11 overall, 7-2 in Grand Slam finals). It’s rare. And it never gets easier.
John’s Ravens won that day, 34-31, and at the peak moment of his professional life, the older brother hugged the younger brother at midfield and tried to express comfort.
“I told him I loved him,” John said.
It hasn’t gotten any more normal since.
[Watch on Yahoo: Ravens vs. Jaguars live from London Sept. 24]
John Harbaugh brings America’s most famous football coaching family to London this weekend, his first trip to England as part of the NFL’s International Series (Jim’s 49ers beat Jacksonville 42-10 in Wembley in 2013). John’s Ravens are currently 2-0 heading into the game against Jacksonville, which will be streamed live globally on Yahoo Sports on Sunday (9:30 am ET).
Jim was fired by San Francisco after the 2014 season and is now coaching at the college level. His University of Michigan team is 3-0. His father, Jack, is 78, and is the patriarch of the coaching family, a winner of 116 college football games, including the 2002 Division I-AA national title at Western Kentucky.
The fact his two sons coach at different levels of the game these days is comforting. They can’t face each other on the field now, forcing their parents to live through the old adage that you’re only as happy as your most miserable child. This is the Harbaugh family, coaching in their blood.
“It’s football,” John said. “We grew up in it.”
While Jim and John played together at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School and Jim later starred at Michigan and then across 15 NFL seasons as a quarterback, teaching the game is the family business. Jack was known as a keen defensive coach, first at Michigan, then as the head coach at WKU. He taught his sons not just strategy, but leadership.
“There’s no greater coach than Jim Harbaugh,” John said during a joint interview session before the Super Bowl.
“Well, Jack Harbaugh,” Jim interjected. “He’s pretty darn good.”
“Well, that’s true,” John said.
It’s trickled all the way down. Jay Harbaugh, Jim’s son, spent three years working for John and the Ravens, only to join his dad at Michigan in 2015. Even the lone Harbaugh sister, Joani, got into the mix by marrying Tom Crean, the former basketball coach at Marquette and Indiana.
“We are fiercely loyal, there’s no doubt,” John Harbaugh said.
Family dinners usually involve someone drawing up plays on a napkin.
***** It all culminated that Super Bowl night in New Orleans, each brother trying to grab football’s Holy Grail. You get so few cracks at a title (neither man has returned to the Super Bowl) that the idea of having to beat someone you shared a childhood bedroom, competed non-stop as a kid, and share an unbreakable bond with is impossible to fathom.
Almost every coach struggles to deal with a loss. All of them struggle if it’s a Super Bowl defeat. Even men who have won the big game multiple times still lament the one that got away.
So imagine doing it to your brother.
“It was a great joy,” John would say after the Super Bowl. “It was also the most difficult thing in the world to understand that he is over there [on the other sideline]. I just love him, obviously. I am hurting for him.”
Eventually they were able to move past it. John has remained in Baltimore and comes to London with a team that could be trending upward again, especially with its vaunted defense. Meanwhile, after a tumultuous end in San Francisco, Jim is happy at his alma mater, building a club that hopes to reach the college football playoff this year and contend for national titles in the future. Meanwhile, Jack and Jackie Harbaugh are living next door to Jim, enjoying every minute of this.
On Sunday, John Harbaugh heads to England, where his brother already won, seeking another victory, seeking another performance. The environment is new, the challenge is old, the focus is the same as ever.
“I’m not going over there to see the Tower,” John said. “We have to go play a good game. We have to go win a football game. That’s all we’ll be focused on, go over there and line it up.”
For the Harbaughs, it’s football season. Always.
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