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For Harbaugh brothers, a lifetime of competition comes full circle

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The older brother has always blended easily with people. He built his career over a quarter century, meticulous step by meticulous step. He'll probably smile at you, even if he doesn't like your question.

The younger brother's talent burned hotter and to this day, so does his demeanor, which sometimes scorches those who dare get in his way. He reached his current position in great, precocious leaps. If he thinks you're an idiot, he'll treat you like one.

Yet somehow — in a story too good for anyone to have made it up — John and Jim Harbaugh will face off as peers next Sunday in the Super Bowl, the grandest stage in the game to which they've devoted their lives.

Always, they have balanced fierce love with as fierce a desire to beat one another in direct competition. And when older brother John's Ravens meet Jim's San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans, the eyes of the world will see the first Super Bowl matchup between brothers.

It's a family narrative unlike any the NFL has seen.

Separated by only 15 months, John and Jim shared a bedroom in the house of a coaching lifer, Jack Harbaugh. They spent their formative years in the locker rooms and on the practice fields of Ann Arbor, Mich., one of America's college football hotbeds. Different as could be, they shared the same ambition, the same talent for inhaling every important detail about the game. And now they're two of the best in a tiny fraternity of pigskin obsessives.

There are beats of the narrative so familiar that the brothers seem to groan internally when asked to recount them.

There's the one about how John and Jim put tape across the center of the childhood bedroom they shared for 16 years. Each brother knew you didn't cross that tape unless you were ready to fight the other.

And the one about the elementary school teacher who told the Harbaughs that Jim was too competitive at recess. Nonsense, parents Jack and Jackie replied, insisting their tyke hold on to his natural fire.

And the one about how Jack waits outside his home in Mequon, Wis., every Tuesday morning during football season, knowing a Federal Express truck will bring game film from San Francisco and Baltimore.

Each tidbit illustrates the devotion and the rage to win that have always bound this football family. But the main characters have little interest in telling the story.

Already, John and Jim have begun to practice a kind of Super Bowl jiu-jitsu, parrying any media attempt to tap into their brotherly emotions.

"We aren't that interesting," John said during a Monday press conference at the Ravens' training complex in Owings Mills. "There is nothing more to learn. The tape-across-the middle-of-the-room story, OK … You got it? It's just like any other family, really. I really hope the focus is not so much on that. We get it. It's really cool, and it's really exciting and all of that. But it's really about the team."

Now here's Jim on the same day, 3,000 miles away in San Francisco: "The curse part would be the talk of two brothers playing in the Super Bowl and what that takes away from the players that are in the game. And every moment that you're talking about myself or John, that's less time that the players are going to be talked about. … The ones that are playing in the game, the players, they're the ones that have the most to do with it."

They had only exchanged a few brief texts in the hours before they gave those answers, so perhaps the coordination shows how close they really are, how similarly they think.

It would be hard to find a bigger John fan than Jim or a bigger Jim fan than John.

"He's the best I've ever been around," said Jim in a 2009 interview about his brother. "I've been around a lot of people who really know football, technicians who know every level of the game. But he can teach it, and he can teach it to everybody."

Now here's John on Monday when asked what makes Jim so good: "He will fight you for anything, whether it's a game of cards growing up or whatever, he was going to try to find a way to win no matter what. I think that's what made him a great player. It's what made him a good student in college. It's what makes him the man he is. He is also really talented. He was the guy that in hockey would take the puck right down the middle of the rink and everybody would bounce off him, and he would score goals. He got every rebound and scored every point."

So yeah, they admire each other. Just don't expect poetry when they're asked about it for the 500th time this week in New Orleans.

'The rivalry was relentless'

From the start, the Harbaughs forged polar personas, those who know them said. Even as a kid, John was quiet, steady, pensive. Jim was cocky, brash, intense.

"Neither one liked to lose, but Jim had a screw loose about it, same as now," said Rob Pollock, who grew up with them in Ann Arbor. "I can play golf with John and it won't end ugly; with Jim, maybe not."

Nearly 40 years later, friends remember the Harbaughs' obsession to win in everything from checkers to cards to games of H-O-R-S-E. And that drive rubbed off on their friends.

"We competed in everything from who could lift the most weights to who could eat lunch the quickest," said Jeff Minick, a longtime acquaintance. "The rivalry was relentless, year after year, from grade school to high school. Neither party would concede."

Games of tackle football, minus pads, left bloody bare spots in the Minicks' front yard and players wrangling.

"Once, my dad got so tired of listening to the bickering between Jim Harbaugh and my brother, Jim, that he put boxing gloves on both of them and had them go at it right there on the lawn," Minick said. "They each took a licking before deciding they were friends."

The Harbaughs attended parochial school at St. Francis, where Pollock and a rambunctious Jim served as altar boys.

"It's no coincidence that our parish ended its altar boy program shortly thereafter," Pollock said.

The brothers shared the loft in the family's modest two-story home on Anderson Drive. Though 15 months younger, Jim fraternized with John's friends as well as his own.

"John never told Jim, 'Go play with other kids,' " said Steve Gagalis, a classmate of John's. "Jim wanted to make a statement by hanging around with us, and we embraced him for his competitiveness."

One time, Gagalis said, Jim went too far. The two were playing a game of blackjack, in the loft, when John entered the room and suggested they stop.

"Why?" Gagalis said. "I was holding my own until Jimmy won the last five."

"Gags, there's a reason for that," John said. "Take a look at the cards."

The deck was marked. A brawl ensued, during which Jim tumbled down a flight of stairs as his mother, Jackie, shouted for the umpteenth time, "What's all the ruckus about?"

Tales of Jim's youthful antics abound; John, not so much.

"Johnny was mellow, conservative and willing to embrace anyone. He was just 'Harbs,' " Gagalis said. "Jimmy was flamboyant, a take-a-chance guy willing to stick his neck into anything to get recognized. He was 'Dog,' the one that girls would cling to.

"But from a young age, both were determined: John would be a football coach and Jim, a quarterback."

They really knew nothing other than the football world in which Jack worked and Jackie acted as a stabilizing force. It didn't seem odd to them that the guy bellowing in the halls of their father's workplace was Bo Schembechler, the king of Michigan and one of the most famous coaches in the country.

"Luckily, I think they as parents involved us in their professional life," said Jim and John's little sister, Joani Crean, who grew up cutting game film for her dad.

"I don't know that we instilled anything," Jack said of introducing his boys to coaching. "But I think they watched."

John, a reliable defensive back, didn't begrudge his sibling stardom on the field.

"John was not as talented, but it never bothered him — and you never thought of him as being in Jim's shadow," said Tim Anderson, a teammate at Pioneer High. "John was his own man, focused and with a quiet dignity about him. And he was proud of his brother."

John's leadership skills and attention to detail were apparent even then, said Anderson, a linebacker who went on to play at Michigan:

"There were times when you'd make a good tackle, and John would congratulate you, like a coach would. He was cerebral, and more mature than the rest of us."

Jim? Not so much. But what he lacked in maturity, Jim made up for elsewhere. At Tappan Junior High, the ninth-grader led his team to the city championship game against rival Forsythe. All week, he talked trash with his rivals, reveling in the banter, coach Rob Lillie said.

"Jim would come to school and tell us how he'd gotten five phone calls the night before from Forsythe players, saying they were going to bite him in the leg," Lillie said. "He laughed. He put on a show that game, but we lost. To this day, Jim still hates Forsythe."

John was a senior in 1979 when Jim entered Pioneer and became junior varsity quarterback, leading the team to three easy victories.

"One game, when we were up by three touchdowns, I took Jim out for few plays," Coach Paul Fuehrer said. "So he came over to me and said, 'Coach! Coach! Let me call a play!'"

Fuehrer relented.

"Jim sent in the play and we lost three yards. A few minutes later, he came back and asked again."

Buzz off, the coach said. Harbaugh's clipboard career would have to wait.

"In the back of Jim's mind, I think he always wanted to assume the lead role," Fuehrer said. "He had coaching blood in him from the start."

Struggling in mid-season at 1-3, Pioneer promoted Jim to varsity, where he outshone his brother. He started five games, winning three for the purple-and-white while rubbing some the wrong way. A locker room tussle with a teammate ended with both players being banished to the wrestling room to sort things out.

"I knew that would happen, but the trade-off was worth it," Pioneer coach Chuck Ritter said. "Jim could make the outstanding play that others couldn't."

Seeing the Harbaughs side-by-side in school that year cemented their differences, teammates said.

"Jim had an edge about him. That's healthy, but it's dramatically different from John, who took what he had and made the best of it," said Greg Yarrington, a defensive end.

"Jim was more arrogant, while John was about 'team' and the people around him."

Yarrington, who is black, became friends with John, as did other African Americans from the west end of town

"We hung out with him, and he embraced us for who we were," said Yarrington who, with several other blacks, accepted Harbaugh's offer to accompany him to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp for a week one summer.

"He put up with us at that camp. We teased John about being a white guy and called him 'honky,' and he laughed it off, in the spirit of friendship. A couple of us had pretty bad mouths and were rough around the edges, so the retreat was real helpful. It made a huge difference in my life," said Yarrington, a Cornell grad who is now vice president of a technology firm in Ann Arbor.

Taking different roads

The brothers' paths diverged as they moved away from home.

John was a solid player at Miami of Ohio, but he was a better student. Instead of hanging around for a fifth year so he could keep playing, he graduated in four. His mother thought he would go to law school.

In reality, he had caught the coaching bug. John took his first job as a graduate assistant for Jack at Western Michigan. He still lived at home, so father and son talked coaching every morning as they rode to work. John has said that was the most special time of his long apprenticeship.

Asked Monday if he consciously modeled his style after Jack, he said: "Of course you do, right? You see him every day of your life, and you just … He's the greatest coach we've ever been around."

John worked as an assistant at five universities, from Indiana to Pittsburgh, and then settled in for nine years as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The areas he mastered, defensive backfield and special teams, weren't glamorous. But he developed a sterling reputation. Some were surprised when the Ravens hired John over bigger-name candidates. In five years, he has never failed to lead his team to the playoffs.

Jim, meanwhile, earned a scholarship from Schembechler, the same gruff legend who had barked at him for letting childhood games of catch spill onto the Michigan practice field. Schembechler had sized him up as "a cocky little guy" in Jim's words, but the coach came to love his quarterback's confidence. In his book "Bo's Lasting Lessons," Schembechler compared Jim to a more highly touted prospect, saying he had "twice the brains and ten times the heart."

"Give me those specs anyday," he wrote.

Jim was a Heisman Trophy candidate at Michigan and during the same years that John pursued his long coaching odyssey, little brother was busy playing quarterback in the NFL (including the 1998 season with the Ravens). After a 15-year-career, he entered coaching as an offensive assistant with the Oakland Raiders, working 20-hour days and going to the Super Bowl after the 2002 season.

But then he shocked just about everyone, leaving his NFL post to become head coach at the University of San Diego, a Division II program.

As usual, he made it work. In three years, with Jack as an assistant, Jim went 29-6 and won two league titles.

Drastic improvement became his trademark.

At Stanford, Jim went from 4-8 his first year to 12-1 in his fourth and final. With the 49ers, he took over a 6-10 team and led it to a 13-3 record in his first season. In his second, he's in the Super Bowl and already widely talked about as one of the best coaches in the game.

Similar qualities

There are certain traits that unite the Harbaughs as coaches. Both like to surround themselves with older assistants. Both seem happiest with a physically punishing style of football that hearkens back to Schembechler's Michigan teams. Neither is big on public introspection.

Jim's press conferences are perversely entertaining. He might quote Ernest Hemingway and explain a player's development in terminology from the Star Wars films. Or he might go through a whole session delivering two-word answers designed to reveal as little of his inner thinking as possible. He has been known to chide reporters for asking about his feelings, and he can be downright cutting if he thinks a question is beside the point.

"Is this relevant?" he asked a reporter who queried about Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III before the 49ers' playoff opener against the Green Bay Packers. "Doesn't seem relevant to what we're trying to accomplish this week."

Informed that the question related to a piece about running quarterbacks, Jim replied sarcastically: "OK, well good luck with that story."

John can also be brusque, though he's more apt to laugh off a question that doesn't engage him. He finds his brother's performances amusing.

"I'll tell you, I watch his media things, and I just laugh because some people take him seriously," he said. "They actually think that some of that stuff is serious. He's having fun, and he's just being himself. … That's who he is, whether it's on the sideline or wherever, he is real. That's what I love about him."

John hopes that the barbed side of Jim's personality doesn't obscure his warm heart. This is a guy who spent seven years recruiting Indiana and Florida for his dad's Western Kentucky teams — at the same time he was an NFL quarterback.

Jack remembered how despondent he was after his program had nearly been eliminated. He figured he was near the end of the line when Jim walked into his office one winter afternoon. "This doesn't sound like you," Jim said to his dad. "How can I help?"

So he hit the recruiting trail as an unpaid assistant, in part acting on tips from John, then a special teams coach at Cincinnati.

Sure enough, when Jack steered the Hilltoppers to a Division I-AA championship in 2002, the roster was loaded with Jim's signees.

Nowhere does Jim's warmth show up more than in comments about his big brother. In the 2009 interview, he recalled how, when he started as an NFL assistant, players kept telling him how much they had gotten from working with John. "That guy's the best," he remembered them saying. "He taught me so much."

Though Jim is usually talked about as the gifted brother, he momentarily sounded in awe of John. "I'm like half the coach he is," he said. "He's got the ability, when he's home around his wife and daughter, to make it all about them. Some coaches have to work around the clock, because they're just not as productive as John. But it comes back to ability. He just has a lot of ability."

They meet again

Jack and Jackie have been through this once before, on Thanksgiving night 2011. They watched on television from an office inside M&T Bank Stadium as the Ravens beat the 49ers 16-6. Jack recalled how little emotion he saw in Jackie's eyes during the game, how quiet she was.

That part was hard enough. Then he went downstairs to speak with his sons after the game. John, at the center of a jubilant locker room, didn't need him. Jack found Jim sitting alone across the hall. For all the wins and losses he experienced as a coach, he was a dad in that moment. The boy who was hurting was the one who needed him.

Jack knows one of his sons will feel that way again next Sunday. He's not looking forward to the moment.

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