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January 30, 2013

Super Bowl brothers like no others

NEW ORLEANS — John Harbaugh had just finished answering the masked man in front of him when a caped crusader from a children's network swooped in to ask how he really felt about his brother.

"I think that's a very provocative question from Nickelodeon," the Ravens coach said, not bothering to hide a smile. "I'm a little disappointed because I've spent a lot of time watching your network with my daughter over the years."

Silly stuff at media day for the Super Bowl. Nothing new about that, even if the humor has, by now, grown staler than a day-old French Quarter beignet.

There were no superheroes around younger brother Jim, while he grudgingly held court a short time earlier at a podium on the 43-yard-line of the Superdome. Probably too busy exploring the inner thoughts of Randy Moss or discussing tattoos with Colin Kaepernick.

Or maybe they just knew better than to get the San Francisco coach too wound up. Happened in Detroit last year, if you remember, with a postgame handshake.

The guy who probably charts what he's going to have for breakfast a week ahead of time had his talking points ready for this ordeal. Fidgeting constantly as he sat on the podium, Jim Harbaugh did his best to entertain like his older brother, but it just wasn't going to happen.

"I could make something up," he said in response to one question. "But I'd be making it up. What do you want me to say and we can save you some time and put it right in your story."

That the Harbaugh siblings are a big story line in this Super Bowl isn't a surprise. They'll be across the sidelines from each other Sunday in the first brotherly coaching confrontation in 47 Super Bowls.

The odds of that happening? About 225-1 if you listen to John; impossible to quantify if you're his younger brother.

"I can add. I can subtract. I can do division and I can multiply. But now you're starting to step in a realm where I get challenged mathematically," Jim said. "Maybe like lightning striking?"

Whatever the odds, brother versus brother makes this a Super Bowl like no other. A sibling rivalry played out on one of the biggest stages in sports, and this time the loser doesn't have to mow the front lawn.

The father they learned so much from about coaching and life will be in the stands watching along with their mother Jackie. She tends to get upset at referees when calls don't go the family's way, but with a son running each team there is no one to root against in this game.

They're both the same, yet they're both so different. Jim is so intense he often looks like he is about to explode — and occasionally does. John can be so engaging — he got on a media conference call with his parents last week and asked them why they liked his younger brother better than him.

And while Jim acted as if he couldn't wait for his 60 minutes to be up Tuesday, John talked past his allotted time, answering questions with enthusiasm until a team official finally pulled him away. He campaigned for the late Ravens owner Art Modell to be voted in the Hall of Fame, talked about his daughter learning Japanese, and joked about how his parents always did like Jim best.

"I think even I liked Jim more than me growing up," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they did."

The 49ers coach, meanwhile, likes to hold things so close to the vest that he feigned ignorance when asked if he would see his brother in a social setting this week. John, though, let the family secret out, saying there were tentative plans to get together Wednesday night for what figures to be a quiet dinner.

"I can't imagine what we would be able to talk about," John said. "What are you having? I don't know. What are you having? It might not get past the menu."

They could discuss the kind of things everyone discusses about their little brother. In Jim's case, that would be the umbrage he took at a media member referring to the string around his neck as a necklace, or maybe his appearance in the 1990s sitcom "Saved by the Bell" while he was a quarterback with the Indianapolis Colts.

"They asked me to come on and deliver a positive message to the youth," Jim said with a laugh. "And for that I've been scorned and humiliated."

The big brother stuff isn't quite as funny because it's hard even for Jim to make fun of John. How could he when John said he was sure he would be looking across the field at his brother during the game and thinking about their lives together and how they got to this point.

"There's a lot of commercial time" during the game, John said. "There will be some time for personal reflection, certainly."

They grew up as sons of a football coach, and they're now in an elite place every football coach aspires to be. "Enthusiasm unknown to mankind" was one of Jack Harbaugh's favorite sayings while they were growing up, and they've now got some sayings of their own.

The brother thing fits into it so well, in fact, that Jim paraphrased Shakespeare twice when talking about it.

"That's my brother on the other side," he said. "I love him and care about him very much. But they're also my brothers on the sidelines for he who sheds his blood today shall be my brother."

Slogans won't win football games, though, and someone will lose this one. It's not a prospect either relishes, but a reality they both accept.

They're football coaches, after all. Just like dad.

"We both desperately want to win," Jim said. "But we understand the other side of that."

 

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