College football fans remember the “Bowden Bowl,” the annual meeting (from 1999 to 2007) between coach Bobby Bowden’s Florida State Seminoles and his son, Tommy’s Clemson Tigers. Those meetings brought a nice family touch to an ACC game that wouldn’t be all that interesting beyond the southeastern United States.
For more than a decade now, we’ve watched Serena Williams and her sister, Venus, absolutely dominate professional tennis, with a total of 22 Grand Slam singles titles since 1999. Richard Williams and Oracene Price have watched their daughters play each other in eight Grand Slam finals, Serena winning six of them. (Venus has only lost one Grand Slam final to a person with different parents.) When they play together, the Williams sisters are quite unbeatable, 13-0 in Grand Slam finals.
With apologies to the Bowden and Williams families, though, we’ve never seen what we will this Sunday, when coach John Harbaugh leads the Baltimore Ravens against brother Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. Even for a one-day sports spectacle built on inflated story lines, I don’t think it’s possible to overhype two men sprung from the same womb competing for the Lombardi Trophy. Consider there have been 92 coaching “slots” in Super Bowl history, and no two brothers have coached any pair of games, let alone the same one. It’s the stuff that will make dinner conversation for generations of Harbaugh siblings . . . the day two limbs on the family tree somehow met and held the attention of an entire country for three hours.
As a brother myself, and the father of two daughters, these are two thoughts I’ve had dancing in my head since the Harbaugh boys each won a conference championship on January 20th:
• No matter who sings the national anthem, no matter how Beyonce looks (or sounds), no matter who wins the big game Sunday, the most poignant moment of Super Bowl XLVII will be the postgame handshake between coaches. (For those who saw Jim’s confrontation with Lions coach Jim Schwartz after a 2011 game, you know the man makes the most of this always-brief ritual.) For the first time ever (yes, ever) the Super Bowl-winning coach will have legitimate sympathy for the losing coach. And likewise, the losing coach will have more than a little joy for his conqueror. Life’s short, with only one Super Bowl a year and 32 franchises desperate to play in the game. There’s no guarantee either Harbaugh boy will be back to the big stage. How’d you like to look your brother in the eye and tell him, “Good battle. Next one’s yours.”
• I’ve come to see the two weeks between the conference championships and the Super Bowl as punishment for all us football fans who pay too much attention to oversized men knocking each other down every Sunday. For 13 full days, we hear and see every possible story angle dissected, broadcast, and often rewound for our gridiron edification.
If this is hard on fans, imagine the strain it puts on the coaches. No matter what they might say, there is a lot of time to think between football games. And what do you think John and Jim Harbaugh are thinking about (right now)? They’re thinking, “What a glorious curse: My brother is in the way of my ultimate dream fulfilled.”
And finally my thoughts turn to Jack and Jackie Harbaugh. One of their sons will raise the Lombardi Trophy Sunday ... and one will lose. Whether they’re watching from a Wisconsin living room or a Superdome suite, Ma and Pa Harbaugh will experience a form of joy laced with heartache unlike any two parents ever have before. How exactly does one process such emotion?
Years ago, my wife asked me how I’d handle a Wimbledon final played between the Murtaugh sisters. I smiled at the thought, but only briefly. My answer: “I’d hug the loser first.”