Brothers, best friends, opponents

John and Jim Harbaugh are brothers, but the two NFL head coaches are more than just that. They're also best friends.

When you listen to the Harbaughs speak, there are times when the fact that they come from the same blood is clearly evident.

They sound the same. Their football ideology - expressed both to their players and to the fans - is often the same. They use similar team-first inspirational messages which some might appreciate and some might find a little too rah-rah for the NFL. And their way of responding to questions can sometimes be so similar that it's spooky.

Take, for example, the conference calls each man took part in individually earlier this week. During the calls, each Harbaugh brother was asked the exact same question by a reporter: In a time with so many football families (the Harbaughs, the Ryans, the Mannings, the Matthews), who is the First Family in the NFL?

"I would never even go there," John Harbaugh said. Jim's response wasn't much different. "I don't have an opinion on that," said the younger brother.

John-Harbough_Sidebar.gifBoth Harbaughs hate comparison questions. Asked to list areas at which he feels he's superior to his brother, John bristled. "I would never even touch that question because it's a comparison," the Ravens' coach said. "And what it does is it ends up diminishing one side or the other. So I never answer those."

On his conference call, Jim was asked about the different paths each brother took to get to their current coaching positions, and which road is better. "To borrow another one of John's favorite things to say, if you compare two people or two ways of doing it, somebody gets diminished," the former NFL quarterback and current 49ers coach said. "So I'll steer away from the comparisons."

Then, there's their willingness to dismiss questions which they feel are out of line.

"That's the most ridiculous question I've ever heard," said John, when asked which Harbaugh brother is cockier.

"I think it's kind of a ridiculous thing to talk about. What you mentioned there, I think that's a ridiculous phrase," said Jim, when questioned about the "Suck for Luck" campaign which has swept the NFL ranks.

The brotherhood shows through when you listen to the two coaches speak, but so does the friendship.

There's a story that John likes telling which dates back to the brothers' childhood. At the time, the St. Louis Cardinals had a pitcher named Al Hrabosky, who one night, on Monday night baseball, had his eye scotch-taped open while on the mound. According to Harbaugh, the tape was likely there for two reasons: intimidation, and perhaps secondarily, because of some sort of medical issue.

The Harbaugh brothers - then around 10-11 years old - thought it was the greatest thing they'd ever seen. I'll let John take it from here.

"Tuesday night was a Little League night. I'm standing behind the screen watching Jim, and he's going to pitch," John recalled this week. "And I see him go back behind the mound and I just (go), 'Oh my God, I can't believe he's going to do this.' And he turned around, he had a scowl on his face, and he had his eye taped open with scotch tape. Kathy Berry, who lived around the corner from us, she was a little girl - boys and girls played together - and she was batting. She was a right hander, and he winds up - he was bigger than most of the kids - and he threw one right in the middle of her back, right between her shoulder blades. He plunked her. She started crying. All the parents were like, 'Get him off the mound! He's a bully! Get him out of here! How could you hit a girl?!'

"After the game, we went home, and I asked him, 'Why did you hit Kathy Berry in the back?' He said, 'She was crowding the plate.' And that's how he tells the story today. It hasn't changed."

Jim_Harbaugh-sidebar.jpgThe childhood tales don't end there. Ask the Harbaugh brothers about the last time they competed against each other, and you'll get a narrative about two American Legion baseball teams in Ann Arbor, Mich., one of which (the Baskin Robbins team) had a high school-aged John on the roster, the other of which (the Sherriff's All-Stars) featured a 15-month younger Jim and other kids who couldn't make the Baskin Robbins team.

John's squad earned a 1-0 victory, and the two men still recall that day vividly.

"We won; that's what I remember about it," John said. "I think I had the game-winning home run, too, if I remember correctly. At least as far as everyone here knows, right?"

"That was a big game," said Jim, as sarcasm crept into his words. "Heartbreaking for the Sherriff's All-Stars, because that would've been right up there with Rocky and the Miracle on Ice."

That American Legion game some 35 years ago was the last time the brothers have opposed each other. Until tonight, that is.

On Thanksgiving night, in front of a national television audience, the Harbaughs will square off yet again. The stakes? Bragging rights, and much more importantly, playoff positioning.

Could make for another great Harbaugh family story.

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