(Phil Hoffmann, Baltimore…)
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."