He's still standing Football: New Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh gets knocked down, but he gets up again. And again. And Again.

May 31, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Jim Harbaugh's most humiliating moment in the NFL may have been his most defining.

On a cool, fall day in October 1992, when he was in his sixth year with the Chicago Bears, Harbaugh checked off on a play and threw an interception that led to a 21-20 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

Moments afterward, Bears coach Mike Ditka stalked and screamed at the quarterback on the sidelines in one of the most replayed tantrums in league history.

Harbaugh's dad, who was at the game, was crushed by the incident. Teammates questioned why Harbaugh had not retaliated. Sympathizers sent him letters and telegrams during the next two days. But Harbaugh was unfazed.

He still laughs about the incident, and still talks with Ditka.

"Until this day, everybody thinks I was broken mentally," Harbaugh said. "But that in-your-face style is all I have known. My dad [Jack, coach at Western Kentucky] was like my coach growing up. Bo Schembechler coached me at Michigan, and Ditka was my first pro coach. I had heard it all of my life, and 95 percent of the time I deserved it. Players today don't take it anymore. To me, I heard it, applied it and learned to do it the right way."

Jack Harbaugh said: "Jim has a special fondness for Ditka, never ever said a bad word about him. Ditka put the will into him to win. If you go back through time and wink your eye, Jim Harbaugh is Mike Ditka, but in a different generation."

The perception is that Harbaugh, 34, still has enough energy and big-play ability left to lead the Ravens into the playoffs.

Why?

He is a leader, a humble Christian who has studied Winston Churchill and admires the field savvy of Ken Stabler. The drive is still there after he came within a Hail Mary pass of reaching the 1996 Super Bowl.

A quitter? Forget it. He has earned the nickname Captain Comeback with nine fourth-quarter rallies. Harbaugh doesn't commit as many turnovers as his Ravens predecessor, Vinny Testaverde, having completed 1,769 passes for 2,989 yards and 99 touchdowns. Only 82 interceptions. Six playoff appearances.

And oh, is he durable, the NFL's version of the Energizer Bunny.

His nose has been broken and his left arm is still bowed from an injury he suffered while at Michigan. He has tendinitis in his ankle, a visible scar on his chin that took six stitches to close and a knee that has undergone more twists than a rubber band.

"You got to like his competitiveness," said Buffalo Bills coach Wade Phillips. "He is just a tough, tough guy. Last year, I felt sorry for him because he had no protection. I remember one game we hit him 26 times, but he almost pulled it out.

"Every time you knock him down and think he is out, he keeps getting back up. The guy is Rocky. He'll take your best shots, then he might knock you out at the end of the fight."

Young competitor

L Harbaugh's competitiveness cost him friends at an early age.

He would run in from center field to snatch a pop-up from the second baseman. He would yell at teammates who didn't run out a ground ball or chase a fly ball into the gap. His parents were getting phone calls when he was in the third grade.

"One physical education teacher said he was causing trouble during recess," said Jack Harbaugh. "He said Jim couldn't get along with his classmates, that this competitiveness could be a real problem in the future."

Jim's older brother, John, remembers their father's reaction to the teacher's concerns.

"Dad was angry," John Harbaugh said. "He told him there was nothing wrong with Jim's attitude. 'I'm bringing him up to be that way. I want him like that.' "

By the time Jim Harbaugh was 8, he was regularly attending practices at Iowa and Michigan, where his father had been an assistant coach. A warehouse wall in Ann Arbor became his best friend, because he would spend hours throwing balls against it.

During the winter months, he would put hangers on air vents in the basement and pretend they were basketball hoops.

He would simulate the environments at major sporting events, generating the crowd noise and playing in the games.

Guess who always had the winning hit, basket or touchdown?

"He'd spend hours throwing a tennis ball," said Jack Harbaugh. "When he'd get home, we'd say, 'Where have you been?' and he'd say, 'Doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians. I pitched both ends. We won them both.' "

Sports talk was common around the dinner table. Older brother John played football, too. He is now an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Eagles.

"It was so cool being the son of a football coach," said Jim Harbaugh. "I had access to things other kids didn't have. I have always been a good athlete, but I'm not that much different than the kids I was in gym class with from third and fourth grades except I got good coaching. I was lucky to get the best training."

Strong faith

Harbaugh believes in God, family and Winston Churchill.

He became a Christian in 1991 after a conversation with Bears teammate Mike Singletary.

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