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And then the player would start paying compliments—to John. I played for your brother ... that guy is the best.... He taught me everything.... Your brother is going to be a head coach in this league.
"That," Jim says, "is when I first realized, Man, my brother is really good. He's much better than I ever knew."
In their childhood competition, Jim had won not only the genetic lottery but also an actual lottery—for the chance to play for a team called the Ann Arbor Junior Packers. The Harbaugh boys were in grade school then, in 1973. Jim's number got picked, but John's didn't. John had to stand on the sideline and watch younger kids play. "I'm still very upset about it," he says.
Something always seemed to hold John back. One year in hockey a skate sliced his knee, and he needed 70 or 80 stitches. He had a chance to start at quarterback at Pioneer High, but he caught his finger in another player's jersey and broke it. He concentrated on playing defensive back and receiver; then he tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. He went to Miami of Ohio—a 170-pound 17-year-old not ready for the rigors of the college game. Before his sophomore year he blew out his knee again.
Finally, before the first game of his junior year, in 1983, John was told he had made the traveling squad to play South Carolina. He packed his bags, got ready to go ... and the coaches told him, No, sorry, we're taking a younger player instead. John traveled the rest of the year and earned a letter, but he impressed more people with his academics. He won the school's Football Scholar Athlete Award for, as he puts it, "stringing out 4.0s" in his final two years.
At the end of his fourth year John had a choice: try to come back for a fifth year of football or graduate and move on with his life. Jim would have come back. John took his string of 4.0s and graduated.
Now, where were we? Oh, yes. That tree. There it was, in the front yard, for John to see every time he left the house and every time he came home. "I might have gotten the ball over the corner of the tree," he jokes, but he has no problem telling the truth. "Jim could throw it over the tree, and I couldn't." But, he says, "I never compared [our abilities] and said I wished I could be the athlete Jim was." That explains what John did when he walked past that tree: He ignored it.
And then one day it wasn't much of a tree anymore. In January 1978 a winter storm chopped it in half.
By then John had already been typecast. Neither as athletic nor as confident as his brother, John had to be something else. Most people hadn't seen him work out with Jim, matching him bench press for bench press, squat for squat, sprint for sprint, until they puked. John was the one who set the workout regimen. People might have seen John's grades, but they couldn't see why he got them: He was so frustrated that he couldn't get on the field, he had to kick ass in something.
Yes, he turned down that last chance to play. But the way he saw it, he turned down another chance to be rejected. "I was going to control something," John says. In 1984 he got a job as a graduate assistant at Western Michigan, working for his father. John spent most days coaching but still found time to build the body he would have liked to have had in his playing days. He gained 30 pounds of muscle in two years. "You see how big you can get, how strong you can get," he says. "Maybe I had something to prove.... On some level I definitely did."