The Harbaugh brothers--Jim, the coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and John, the coach of the Baltimore Ravens, whose teams will duel in the Super Bowl on Feb. 3--want to purge their sibling ties from the game's story line. "Every moment that you're talking about myself or John, that's less time that the players are going to be talked about," Jim told reporters a day after his team made the Super Bowl.
But in the name of every pair of battling brothers who have spent a lifetime trying to best each other, that isn't going to happen. After all, the Harbaughs have a golden opportunity, on America's grandest sporting stage, to teach families how to behave. "Embrace it," says Jeanne Safer, a psychotherapist specializing in siblings and the author of Cain's Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret. "These guys are lucky. How many of us get to make so much money safely acting out our sibling rivalry with the whole country cheering us on? It's healthy to recognize it and healthy for people to see that it doesn't have to destroy the relationship."
Here at the pinnacle of their profession--the Super Bowl, the most watched U.S. television program--stand two guys who were raised in the same Ann Arbor, Mich., house, where, as family lore goes, they'd each try to toss a football over a front-yard tree. And here's the plot twist: only younger brother Jim, the star athlete who played quarterback for 15 seasons in the NFL before retiring in 2002, could do it. He became an NFL head coach nine years later, while big brother John had to spend decades working his way up the coaching food chain. Now they meet at the top of it. "What's happened this year in the NFL, two brothers coaching in the championship game," says ESPN analyst Mike Ditka, who coached Jim Harbaugh when they were both with the Chicago Bears, "will never happen again in any sport."
Many fans have pined for a Peyton Manning--Eli Manning Super Bowl. Both quarterbacks have reached the game twice but not in the same year. The Harbaugh matchup, however, is even more compelling. While the Mannings would each command an offense, the Harbaughs are trying to outwit each other in a high-stakes sideline chess match pitting the Niners' potent offense, led by quarterbacking sensation Colin Kaepernick, against the Ravens' stifling defense, led by linebacking legend Ray Lewis.
The Harbaughs are close but competitive--especially with each other. They used to talk lots of football shop, but now that they both work in the NFL, they've curtailed the strategy sessions. A day after their teams won their conference-championship games, the Harbaughs still hadn't spoken on the phone. "A couple of texts," says Jim of their communication. "I'd imagine [there] won't be much more."
According to Safer, a sibling like Jim is "a tough act to precede." He's 15 months younger than John, who turned 50 in September, and became the starting quarterback of his high school team as a sophomore--beating out his older brother. John blew out his knee in college at Miami University in Ohio. Jim was a star quarterback at the University of Michigan. The Bears drafted him in the first round in 1987. Though he clashed with Ditka, Jim shone in Indianapolis, pre--Peyton Manning. He earned the nickname "Captain Comeback" for his late-game heroics.