NEW ORLEANS -- Sometime late Sunday night, John and Jim Harbaugh will meet on the field of the Superdome. One will be a world champion, the other simply a loser. It will be joyful and heartbreaking all at once and a moment neither will ever forget.
A hug, a handshake and a few words. Then one brother will go his way to take part in the celebration of a lifetime while the other slinks off to begin the worst off-season of his career.
It's black-and-white. One wins, one loses.
Family is where many of us turn to share our finest moments and for guidance in our darkest hours. That won't be possible for the Harbaughs on Sunday night.
The Harbaugh family finds itself in the position of having both sons -- Jim the coach of the San Francisco 49ers and John the coach of the Baltimore Ravens -- guiding opposing teams in the biggest football game in the world. It's never happened before. Might never happen again.
Some might find the opportunity enviable but father Jack Harbaugh, a legendary college coach in his own right, knows there is a downside judging by last season's matchup that saw John's Ravens beat Jim's Niners.
"The one thing that I do think about is after the game," said Jack, sitting beside his wife, Jackie, at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center Wednesday. "There is going to be one winner and there is going to be one that is going to be totally disappointed. My thoughts go to that one that will not experience the thrill of victory. That's where our thoughts will be. We watched (last season's) game in an office in the Ravens stadium. During the three hours and 15 minutes, (Jackie) was comatose. There was no expression. Her face was totally lifeless. Her eyes were glazed-over watching the game.
"We've all experienced that excitement of victory -- guys jumping up and down, the smile on John's face. Then you realize that you're not needed here. You walk across the hall into the 49ers locker-room, we opened up a couple doors and finally saw Jim all by himself in this room, just a table and a chair. He was still in his coaching outfit. His head down in his hands and you looked into his eyes and you realized that this is where you're needed as a parent. Every single parent can identify with that."
The brothers have done their best trying to play down the matchup saying the players will decide the outcome.
But Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith, who lost to Jim Harbaugh's Niners in the NFC Championship game, said the coaching duel is key.
"It's the chess game," said Smith. "Certainly the players play and that's the biggest part of the game, but as coaches you spend a lot of the week trying to figure out what the other guy is going to do. And you know he's trying to figure out what you're going to do. These two know a lot about one another and they'll have to ignore their family connection and look to exploit weaknesses and trends."
Jim Harbaugh is the golden boy of the family. A star quarterback at Michigan University and a Heisman Trophy finalist before starting a 15-year NFL career. He's cagey with the media and can drift toward snippy if he doesn't like the question.
Jim paid his dues working as an offensive consultant on his father's staff at Western Kentucky during the last eight years of his playing career. From there it was on to the Oakland Raiders as a quarterback coach before getting his first head-coaching post at the University of San Diego. Harbaugh then polished his resumé at Stanford with Andrew Luck as his quarterback. Then came the Niners and in two years he's led the team to two straight NFC title games and now a berth in the Super Bowl.
Jim and John call their parents role models and point to father Jack as the source of their zeal for football and coaching.
"This is the way I'd describe my dad: The song Cat's in the Cradle -- my dad was the direct opposite of that song and we both turned out just like our dad," said Jim. "When we were growing up, my dad would play catch with us, he would take us to games and, most of all, he believed in us. We grew up just like him."
If Jim's career has been touched by Midas, John Harbaugh has made his own luck through determination and hard work. Injuries hampered his playing days at the University of Miami-Ohio and he entered coaching as an assistant with Western Michigan in 1984.
College stops at Pitt, Indiana, Morehead State and Cincinnati led to the NFL. First in Philadelphia for nine years as an assistant and now the last five years as the head coach in Baltimore.
John Harbaugh understands the matchup with his brother isn't just historical but has an emotional connection to which many can relate.
"It's probably a little tougher emotionally," said John Harbaugh. "It's a little tougher just from the sense of -- I don't think you think about it when you're coaching against somebody else. It's more about the scheme and the strategy. There's a little bit of a relationship element that's more strong than maybe coaching against someone else. I'll have a better answer for you after the game. I've never been through this before, this is all new. Do you have a brother? So you understand, right? Anybody who has a brother especially that's close in age, gets it. You just grow up fighting for everything. You fight for the extra hotdog. You fight for girls. You fight for everything. We both got our girls, but we both want a victory this week."
Both men have interesting takes on how they will treat each other after the game. John said losing is part of the territory.
"We've been down that road before not only as NFL coaches, but pretty much our whole lives," he said. "We don't need consoling. We've been in so many battles we pretty much know we don't need it. The other guy wouldn't want to hear it anyway -- just move on and move to the next one. We'll probably get a good golf game going sometime in the off-season and that will be good revenge for somebody."
Jim says the sting of defeat, whether it comes at the hands of a brother or a stranger, will motivate both to succeed.
"Life is full of bitter disappointments. I think we all understand this going into this game," he said. "We both want to desperately win and be a part of a championship. The great thrill of winning is there, but we understand the other side of that. We'll do everything in our power to not let that happen."
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