In light traffic the drive from Indianapolis to Bloomington should take 45 minutes. So to be on the safe side, Jim Harbaugh allows himself a full half hour. Put him behind a steering wheel, and Captain Comeback becomes Lieutenant Leadfoot.
Harbaugh earned the former moniker by quarterbacking the Indianapolis Colts to three come-from-behind victories last season. In bringing the Colts to within a Hail Mary pass of the Super Bowl, the 32-year-old Harbaugh also plucked himself from the slippery slope that leads to a second career as a clipboard caddie. In a span of five months he went from the bench to the starting lineup to the Pro Bowl. He even led the NFL in passing.
Awaiting his words of inspiration this morning are 500 or so small-business owners who have packed a hotel ballroom in Bloomington. The title of the seminar, "The Path to Profit," could double as a description of Harbaugh's '95 season. In February the Colts named him their franchise player, meaning he will earn at least $4 million this season.
Harbaugh seems less excited about this jackpot than he is about his fast-rising Q rating. Rocketing south out of Indianapolis, he rattles off—by request—some of the high-profile gigs he has had of late. "I was on The Tonight Show at the Super Bowl," he says. "I just shot a couple of commercials for ESPN. And I'm going to Orlando to be in the Quarterback Challenge."
Harbaugh was in that made-for-TV schlockfest in the spring of '94 but wasn't invited back last spring. However, because he keeps an off-season home in Orlando and needed some autographs for an auction at his annual charity golf tournament, he showed up at the '95 event anyway, only to get his feelings hurt. "I went up to Troy Aikman and asked him to sign a couple of footballs," recalls Harbaugh. "And he did, which was nice. But while he was signing, he didn't look up or take off his sunglasses and say, 'Hi, Jim, how you doing?' "
Perhaps Aikman was already immersed in his much-publicized football-isn't-as-much-fun-for-me-anymore phase. It's hard to imagine that sort of melancholy afflicting Harbaugh, who seems intent on enjoying every nanosecond of his moment in the sun. "Hey," he announces as he drives along, "I may be in a movie!" Indeed, he may appear briefly as himself in a flick in which Tom Cruise will play a sports agent.
Everything seems to be breaking Harbaugh's way. As he motors down Route 37 this day, going 77 in a 55 zone, he blows by a tan Camaro that happens to be the unmarked car of an Indiana state trooper. (There are accommodating athletes, and then there is Harbaugh, who, having spied the trooper's flashing lights in his rear-view mirror, turns to a reporter and says, "This will be good for your story.") The trooper lets Harbaugh off with a warning for the speeding violation. The cop does cite him for not wearing a seat belt. "It's a $25 fine," says the officer. "I think you can afford it."
The word is out. The four mil he is to make this season will be a nice bump from the $950,000 he earned in '95. It will also enable him to pay the bills from his February wedding, and should enable him and his wife, Miah, to establish a college fund for the baby they're expecting this fall and for their six-year-old son, Jay Burke. Harbaugh has packed so much good fortune into such little time that, he says, "people come up and say, 'Congratulations,' and I have to ask them to be more specific."
He is cruising at a conservative 65 now, and the effort required to drive so slowly is consuming his innards. "It's nice to have people pat you on the back," he says, "but you can't pay that much attention to it. You can have fun with it, though, and I am—because I've been on the other side."
The other side, in this case, was Chicago. Harbaugh spent his first seven NFL seasons with the Bears, and many of the memories of those years are not joyful. His most nightmarish moment came one Monday night in October 1992 when he was verbally ambushed on national television by an apoplectic coach Mike Ditka after throwing an interception during a 21-20 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Mercifully, Harbaugh was released by the Bears in March '94 and snapped up by the Colts.