Among the Super Bowl storylines we have followed this week with a tenacity we usually reserve for nipple slips and ingenue wardrobe malfunctions is this: The head coaches of the two teams squaring off later today are brothers. That’s right, after the nation has consumed somewhere in the neighborhood of eight million pounds of guacamole (no exaggeration) and watched 17 hours of pregame coverage (hyperbole), we get to watch a new frontier in sibling rivalry. It’s John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens against Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers in the biggest sporting event in North America.
Frankly, I think this storyline is a recipe for disaster for the extended Harbaugh family. I’m not kidding. It’s great for all of us, but it stinks if you’re one of the two brothers. I say that as a younger brother who has always looked up to his older brother.
I also say this as a younger brother who has never beaten his older brother … at anything. And never will. Over the years, I have lost to my older brother at baseball board games, one-on-one backyard football and a weekly tennis match we used to play in a tennis bubble in Brooklyn that lacked air-conditioning. The temperature inside was set at cremation. We called those matches the Hell Invitational.
I mean it: I never beat him at anything and I never will beat him at anything.
Now, my brother is five years older than I am, so it made sense that he would beat me soundly when he was 13 and I was eight. But when he was wiping the floor with me inside that tennis bubble, we were both grown men. Why do I always lose? Why will I always lose? Because, at least in my case, familial history trumps competitive fire. I could no sooner defeat my older brother than — when he was in the prime of his life — I could have defeated my father. (And even at the end of my father’s life, he still beat me soundly at cards.)
In the case of this evening’s competition, John Harbaugh is 50 and Jim is 49. Fifteen months and three time zones separate them. Their two teams played once before in a regular season game in 2011 and — in my opinion, predictably — the older brother’s team won. (Their mother, supposedly, had wished for a tie.)
Now, I’m not going to say that the Ravens are going to win because John is five seasons older than Jim. For all I know, the 49ers will win. Five seasons makes a lot less of a difference than five years. My older brother used to smoke me at one-on-one football, in part, because he invented a rule where you could pass the ball to yourself — and he was plenty taller than me when he was 13 and I was 8.
Of course, the mere fact that he was even hanging around with me when he was 13 and I was 8 is an indication of how much he loved me — so he had every right to slaughter me on the backyard football field. Or when we would play Wiffle ball with the garage door as backstop and strike zone. Or when we would play poker with rules he made up as he went along.
In other words, it was fitting that I would always lose. On some level, it’s why we expect Peyton to outshine Eli when the two Mannings’ quarterback ratings are compared. It’s the natural order of things.
Unfortunately, this John vs. Jim battle on the Super Bowl stage is straight out of Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau. Greg and Peter Brady.
We put so much stress on winning the Super Bowl that the defeated coach — the second best coach in football that year — is considered a loser. The other day I heard radio pundits talking about the failed history of two coaches, one of whom had coached four Super Bowl teams and one of whom had coached three. Unfortunately, neither had ever won.
My sense is that the losing brother in this case is going to be especially frustrated, both because it’s the Super Bowl and because of that natural order. Either it remains intact or it’s unexpectedly upset. Doesn’t matter. Oh, they’ll embrace at midfield when it’s over and the commentators will talk about familial reconciliation: They’re no longer rival coaches, they’ll say. Now they’re just brothers.
Just brothers? Trust me: There is just no such thing.
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This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on February 3, 2013. Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” arrives on July 16. You can learn more about it by clicking here.