NEW ORLEANS – Jim Harbaugh was walking out of the media interview area in the depths of the Superdome, wearing the 1,000-yard stare of every Super Bowl loser.
The 49ers' coach had just mumbled through attempts to explain what had happened, explain why it happened, explain Baltimore 34, San Francisco 31. "Didn't play our best game … Ravens made a lot of plays." It was a lot of that.
As he stepped into the hallway, an excited NFL suit came charging toward the entrance.
"John Harbaugh is coming," he shouted. "John Harbaugh is coming."
This was to alert security that the champ was almost here. Jim looked down the hall for his brother, the Ravens' headman and freshly crowned coaching king of the NFL, but there was no sign of him.
So Jim jumped into the passenger seat of a waiting golf cart, folded his arms, leaned forward and began licking his lips. He appeared to be running every play of the game through his mind. A 49ers public relations man climbed on also. They were immediately whisked away.
Soon John Harbaugh would indeed arrive, with a far larger entourage. There were Jim's parents, Jack and Jackie, his sister Joanie, his brother-in-law Tom Crean, a slew of children, nieces and nephews.
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This wasn't about choosing sides for the family, it was about taking what was available. John was accessible. Jim wasn't. John was out on the field, hugging amidst the celebrating. Jim was in a locker room, hugging amidst the crying.
John would take to a podium, surrounded by cameras, and soon speak of his brother, younger by just 18 months. This was the greatest moment in John's career, the pinnacle of decades of sacrifice and sleepless nights, of plotting and preparing.
Yet he couldn't stop thinking about the guy he knew was devastated down the hall, the one he could only briefly hug under the falling confetti – a symbol of championship for him, convulsion for Jim.
"I told him I loved him," John said.
Jack and Jackie stood to the side and watched, the wife's right arm hooked into her husband's left, a proud mom gazing up at her son in a moment of forever glory. This was only half the story though, half the deal. They say a parent can only be as happy as their most miserable kid and Jack and Jackie knew there was misery in this building.
"Jack, we have to go," Jackie said.
"We need to get to Jim," Crean said to the group.
Everyone appeared to agree. "I think John is as concerned about that as anything else," Crean, the Indiana basketball coach and 20-year brother-in-law said.
"It was a great joy," John would say of competing against his brother. "It was also the most difficult thing in the world to understand that he is over there. … I just love him, obviously … I am hurting for him."
John couldn't just go to his brother's side though. Not right then. A Super Bowl-winning coach doesn't control his movements. There is a network set to visit, this postgame obligation, that player or assistant or owner to embrace over the great dream they'd just fulfilled together.
So the NFL led John back onto the field. The clan followed with security around them, a dozen-deep entourage headed toward the frenzy even if many of them wondered how soon they could head in the opposite direction.
By then Jim Harbaugh was tucked inside Room T-126 of the Superdome, just off the home team's locker room, the sign on the wall noting the small, concrete block office usually belonged to "Head Coach Sean Payton."
Standing in the hall outside were even more Harbaughs, these ones fully partial to Jim. Here the eyes were red, the faces tight with emotion. The whole thing was complicated. One of Jim's sons, Jay, worked for John as a support staffer. So he won Sunday. "I am going to try to go and see my Dad," Jay would say from the Ravens' locker room and tell him, "I am proud of him."
Those were the emotions of the entire situation, mixed and then mixed again as the family tree spread its branches.
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For Jim's immediate family though, this was apparently about Dad. Dad was the head coach, not a rookie helping the video and strength staff. And Dad lost the Super Bowl. Dad lost the Super Bowl after his team almost staged the kind of gutty, against-all-odds comeback that says everything about him as a coach.
"No greater coach in the NFL than Jim Harbaugh," John would say.
"He came back and made it a great football game," Jackie noted.
And yes, maybe one day that would provide comfort. This was not that moment. Dad lost the Super Bowl and no matter the money, no matter the fame, no matter what unfathomable professional success, this is the cruel, cutthroat nature of the NFL.
There is but one winner. Everyone else sits inside concrete offices wondering what they should've done differently. Jim had told his brother, "I was proud of him" and there's no question that was true. Loving the guy that beat you only helps so much though.
Soon Jack and Jackie and the others, finally free from the winner's world, would arrive en masse in the Niners' locker room. They first spied a grandson in the hallway, trying to hold it together.
Jack gave the kid a hug. Soon his grandmother was holding his hand. Then his aunt put her arm on his shoulder. Then his cousins tried to cheer him up.
It was a strange, heart-wrenching pendulum swing for everyone. One moment delirium, the next devastation. This here was a family in raw state, yet a family in full.
Jack and Crean slipped into the office to speak with Jim while everyone else waited around. Time ticked. Five minutes. Then ten more. They eventually emerged. Jim wore the same empty look from the interview room. Everyone retreated to an offensive meeting room where there was room for a group visit.
Eventually Jim emerged out a side door, followed by the rest of the family, heading toward a loading dock where he could ride away from this night of pride and pain.
There were now a lot of red eyes, a lot of faces full of emotion.
"It was tough in there," Crean would say solemnly. "Real tough. That's an incredible competitor. You don't turn that off."
Everyone knew this moment was coming. One brother was going to win. One was going to suffer. These people are all coaches, wives of coaches, kids of coaches. They know winning and losing. One man was going to want to experience the crescendo with his family, the other was going to need them to lift him up from the disappointment.
Still, Crean acknowledged, it was tougher in reality than even they imagined. A higher high. A lower low.
One that challenged even this family, this incredibly tight, incredibly supportive, incredibly loving family, that began the postgame with joy, but made sure to walk out with Jim.
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