Harbaugh brothers a study in contrasts days before Super Bowl

NEW ORLEANS — Jim Harbaugh vs. the mail truck was one competition Harbaugh didn’t win.

The encounter left the 7-year-old boy lying in the street with a broken leg and his older brother, John, running off to get help.

Jim didn’t stay down for long.

He arrived for his first day at Iowa City Catholic Grade School on crutches and wearing a walking boot. At recess, he tossed the crutches aside and, with an unquenchable desire to compete, joined whatever game kickball, football, dodgeball the other kids were playing.

By the time Jim finally was freed of the boot, it looked like it had tumbled down a mountain side.

“It was beat to hell,” said childhood friend Marty Hanrahan. “I’ve never seen anyone compete like he did when he was in elementary school.”

The life of a college assistant football coach is a peripatetic one. And less than three years after Jack Harbaugh’s family rolled into Iowa City — he was on the University of Iowa staff — they were packing the car and moving to Ann Arbor, Mich.

Still, Jim and John Harbaugh made deep impressions and lifelong friends, who said the traits NFL fans have observed in high-definition over the past few years were apparent 40 years ago.

On Friday, the brothers sat across from one another at the first-ever Super Bowl press conference featuring both coaches.

John wore a charcoal suit and a purple- and gold-striped tie. The Baltimore Ravens’ head coach could have been an attorney, a businessman or a politician. Indeed, that’s what everyone thought the more studious Harbaugh boy, who is 15 months older and was two grades ahead of his brother, would become.

Jim? He wore the same thing he’s put on every morning since the season started khaki pants, a black fleece sweatshirt and a black 49ers cap.

His path never was in doubt.

“He always wanted to be a coach,” Jack Harbaugh said. “The line he says is one that we heard so often I’m going to play as long as I can and then I’m going to be ready to be a coach.”

Jim seemed uninterested in Friday’s media event. Most of his answers were terse and he kept checking his watch during a photo session at the end.

While John hugged family members on the stage, Jim made a quick exit.

That scene wouldn’t surprise Sister Agnes Giblin, who taught both Harbaugh boys in the third grade.

Her assessment of Jim: “He was loud, very intense and very competitive. My joke always was that he thought his desk was a football. I’d say, “Jim! Put it down!’”

And of John: “Very laid back, very quiet.”

Sister Giblin said that when, several years ago, someone told her there was a John Harbaugh on the Philadelphia Eagles staff, she didn’t believe it was the bookish boy she once taught.

“I never knew John was interested in sports at all,” she said.

Back in the early 1970s, the nuns chased rambunctious Jim around the school’s makeshift playground and chided him for chewing on his crayons.

But he also was a good student, an eager reader and had a great capacity for warmth.

Sister Giblin remembers a shy, smaller student who wasn’t good at sports and whom the other kids picked on. That is, until Jim started being his protector.

“Jim took him under his wing and made sure no one made fun of him,” she said. “I think about that very, very often.”

Then one day Iowa head coach Frank Lauterbur was fired, and the Harbaughs were gone.

More than a decade later, Hanrahan got in touch when Harbaugh, then the quarterback of the No. 2-ranked Wolverines, was in town to take on the No. 1 Hawkeyes.

Iowa won 12-10 on a last-second field-goal, and the Michigan players walked off the field devastated as a steady drizzle washed over them that October evening. Still, Harbaugh met Hanrahan and his girlfriend as agreed upon and reminisced until Wolverines coach Bo Schembechler walked by and barked at Harbaugh to get on the team bus.

“He signed a (game) program for me: ‘To my friend, Marty. Go Hawks. Jim Harbaugh’” Hanrahan said. “That’s the kind of sense of humor he had.”

Sister Giblin, meanwhile, remembers writing Harbaugh after the Chicago Bears drafted him in 1987. She was surprised when he called back.

“Who would call their third-grade teacher, who was a nun?” she wondered.

The Bears quarterback returned to Iowa City where he visited the convent where Sister Giblin and the nuns once looked after him, John and sister, Joanie, when their parents went out of town. And he spent time signing autographs for the kids and throwing the football around until it grew dark.

The two still keep in touch.

Hanrahan, now a high school basketball coach, reconnected with Harbaugh again this season, and met up with his old friend before the 49ers-Giants game Oct.14. Both men recently turned 49.

“I told him, you’re still the same guy you were in third grade,” Hanrahan said. “You’re still intense as hell, and you love to win.”