San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is one of the most focused, no-frills guys in the NFL. His interviews are generally triumphs of coach-speak, he only goes off-script when he's asked too often to discuss his emotions, and I was shocked to discover him sitting a few rows behind me in coach on a plane heading to the 2012 scouting combine in February. "C'mon, man," I thought to myself. "You engineered one of the most impressive turnarounds in recent NFL history. What are you doing back here with the likes of me?"
But when Harbaugh makes a commitment outside of football, he goes all-in. As he recently told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, the second-year 49ers coach was introduced to a small plot of land in Piura, Peru, by a friend of his, who told him of the work he was doing with the Most Blessed Sacrament Parrish in the area.
"It looked like a piece of wasteland that nobody wanted, basically," Harbaugh said about visiting the place in 2009, back when he was Stanford's head coach. But when he returned the next June, there was a new school for children from kindergarten through 11th grade, and 690 students dressed in school uniforms, in every available desk.
Since then, Harbaugh -- who described that first transformative scene as "beautiful" -- has been back several times to help in any way he could. In the 2012 preseason, the notorious control-freak coach even missed an OTA session for one of his visits.
Barrows asked Harbaugh how the experience affected him, and for once, the coach opened up. "In some ways, it's a little uncomfortable talking about it," he said. "The scripture says, 'Don't let your left hand know what your right hand's doing,' you know? On the other hand, it's so good. It's not only been a great experience for me but my friends that I want to tell people about it. I feel like I should share this. I'm lucky to participate and be surrounded by so much good."
Now, Harbaugh brings his friends down, and each person sponsors a child in the nearby town of Lima. People really need the help down there -- according to Barrows, 60 percent of the population lives in poverty, and 20 percent in extreme poverty.
The first time he went down, Harbaugh was wearing a University of San Diego shirt, which may be the reason the locals call him "Diego." He really isn't sure. All he knows is that he got the name on that first visit, when he was helping to build new houses.
"I was building the house and they would say, 'No, Diego, no,'" Harbaugh told Barrows, imitating someone hammering nails. "After a couple more days it was, 'Muy bien, Diego. Muy bien.'"
Of course, Harbaugh can't escape his coaching roots entirely. Each time he's gone down, he brings copious amounts of team swag for the children, which means that there is an abnormally high percentage of kids in a certain area of Peru wearing USD, Stanford and San Francisco 49ers gear. He also brings footballs, and he invented a new sport called "Peruball," which is a lot like American football, but with soccer goals replacing end zones.
"When we had the camps at Stanford, we introduced them to Peruball," he said. "It's a really good game, actually. And our Stanford football players have played Peruball. Somewhere there's video out there of the Peruball games with some of the kids."
I'm off to try and find that video. In the meantime ... "Muy bien, Diego. Muy bien."