OWINGS MILLS – Heaving footballs over trees, games of basketball with a clothes hanger twisted into a metal hoop, impromptu wrestling matches, heated American Legion baseball games and even the occasional eating contest have defined the unique sibling rivalry between John Harbaugh and Jim Harbaugh.
The fierce competition between the Harbaugh brothers moves from the backyard and living room to a national stage Thursday night as the Baltimore Ravens (7-3) host the San Francisco 49ers (9-1) right after Thanksgiving dinner.
"We have so much to be thankful for as a family and for this opportunity, so it’s very appropriate that this game is on Thanksgiving," Jack Harbaugh, the dueling coaches’ proud father, told 24X7 in a telephone interview Monday. "As exciting as it is to be a part of this, this will come and pass. Everybody wants to focus on this one story, but my wife and I have shared in this and we look at it as a journey.
"We don’t look at this as a culmination of the journey, but it puts a great smile on your face. I couldn’t be more proud of them."
The Harbaughs will make history as the first brothers to square off as NFL head coaches.
The older brother by 15 months, John Harbaugh, 49, is looking forward to the so-called Harbaugh Bowl as he leads his first-place Ravens into a clash with Jim Harbaugh, the 47-year-old rookie 49ers coach who’s the leading candidate for NFL Coach of the Year honors. Of course, there can only be one winner.
"All the extended Harbaughs will have a great time, one way or the other," John Harbaugh said. "There will be one Harbaugh side that will be really happy, and there will be another Harbaugh side that will be really, really disappointed. And then Mom and Dad will be torn."
As the patriarch of the family, Jack Harbaugh has already made an executive decision. Although he’s in town for the game, he won’t be in attendance. He plans to visit with both of his sons before kickoff and then quickly leave M&T Bank Stadium to watch it on television.
Divided loyalties are weighing on him. Heavily.
"It’s kind of uncharted waters for us as far as the emotions," said Jack Harbaugh, who will celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary Friday. "My wife, Jackie, said it best. She said an ideal evening for us on Thursday is both teams come into the game well-coached and both teams play disciplined, hard-nosed type of football and let the game be decided on the field.
"Based on what’s transpired so far in the season, it’s a perfect game to conclude Thanksgiving Day. It’s a good football matchup."
Not to mention a gritty competitiveness shared by both brothers even though Jim Harbaugh reached far greater heights as an athlete.
He was a first-round draft pick as a quarterback for the Chicago Bears after starring at Michigan.
John Harbaugh was a walk-on defensive back at Miami (Ohio), a stellar student who struggled with injuries on the field and primarily played on special teams.
And they both absorbed a wealth of football and life lessons from their father, who coached for 43 years and won a Division I-AA national championship at Western Kentucky.
"Pretty much everything I know I learned from my dad," John Harbaugh said. "He understands that. You get a chance to talk to him after games and put it in perspective in terms of remembering what’s important."
This is John Harbaugh’s fourth season as coach of the Ravens, compiling a 43-22 record, including the postseason. The Ravens have made it to the playoffs for three consecutive years.
Now, Jim Harbaugh is an instant success as an NFL coach, turning around a downtrodden 49ers team. And he credits his older brother for a lot of advice along the way.
"John has always knocked down hurdles for me going back to when we were kids," Jim Harbaugh said. "He continues to do that for me today in the NFL. I couldn’t be prouder of my family, prouder of my parents, prouder of my brother, prouder of my sister. I couldn’t feel any luckier to have the family we do. Who could possibly have it better?"
Added John Harbaugh: "He’s a guy I trust the most and would entrust him with absolutely anything in my life."
The last time they faced each other in an organized athletic competition, John Harbaugh came out the victor in a 1-0 American Legion baseball game.
John Harbaugh joked Monday night that perhaps he hit the game-winning home run and pitched a perfect game.
This football game will be strange for the brothers as combatants in a high-profile contest.
"I have never rooted against him, really, ever," John Harbaugh said. "We were always on the same teams all the time. It’s going to be a little different that way, but we’re not going to be playing. It’s going to be the players playing the game."
John Harbaugh described his brother as his best friend, adding that they haven’t been in a fight since they were kids.
"We had some knockdown drag-outs when we were younger," Harbaugh said. "I can remember my mom screaming, whaling and crying, ‘You’re brothers! You are not supposed to act like this! You’re supposed to get along better!’ There are probably a lot of mothers out there that can relate to that."
And there’s stakes in this game beyond family bragging rights.
With a victory, the 49ers could clinch the NFC West title.
If they can defeat the 49ers, the Ravens can continue to chase a potential AFC North title and home-field advantage for the playoffs.
That’s not to say, though, that the family aspect surrounding this game isn’t overshadowing what shapes up as a huge game on its own merits.
"It’s an amazing thing," John Harbaugh said. "To say that you’re not thinking about it probably wouldn’t be real. It’s a historic thing, it’s very special. I couldn’t be more proud for our parents or for Jim. I just think it’s really neat."
John Harbaugh has already had to pony up for more than 20 tickets, shelling out a lot of money to ensure that the extended family can witness this matchup of brothers.
"That’s been kind of an expensive proposition," he said. "I haven’t heard from Jim. I haven’t really gotten an offer. I was surprised about that."
Jim Harbaugh offered a gripe about how tough it is to travel from the West Coast and play a football game on four days rest.
"As far as the nostalgia of it, I think it’s very considerate of the NFL to fly us out there," he deadpanned. "I haven’t seen him on Thanksgiving in I don’t know how many years. There’s no doubt we got the short end of the straw on this one, but we’ll see if we can make history.
"It’s the first two brothers have coached against each other, and the first time an NFL team has traveled three times zones to play a Thursday night game after a Sunday game."
John Harbaugh couldn’t resist recounting a classic story about the intensity of his younger brother.
When Jim Harbaugh was about 10 years old, he taped one eye open while pitching in a baseball game, channeling former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Al "The Mad Hungarian" Hrabosky.
And John Harbaugh said his brother uncorked a fastball that drilled a neighbor girl named Kathy Berry in the back.
"He had a scowl on his face, and he had his eye taped open with scotch tape," John Harbaugh said. "He winds up – he was bigger than most of the kids – and he threw one right in the middle of her back. … 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.’"
Both brothers flashed a bit of trademark Harbaugh fire during separate conference calls when facing questions they regarded as silly or inappropriate Monday.
When asked if Jim Harbaugh is the cockier brother, John Harbaugh replied: "That’s the most ridiculous question I’ve ever heard."
And John Harbaugh bristled when asked who he thinks the first family of the NFL.
"I would never even go there," John Harbaugh said.
"I don’t have an opinion on that," Jim Harbaugh said.
What resonates with the family is a shared love for sports, especially football.
"There are so many similarities in their background," Jack Harbaugh said. "They’ve had tremendous mentors along the way like Bo Schembechler, Mike Ditka, Ted Marchibroda, Al Davis, Andy Reid. A lot of their values system came from mom outside the game of football.
"The good moral foundation came from Jackie. I can’t take any credit for that."
Jackie Harbaugh long ago offered her wish for the outcome of Thursday night’s game: "If it ends in a tie, wouldn’t that be wonderful?"