Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Jim Harbaugh: Fearfully, Wonderfully Made

Why would I write about Coach Jim Harbaugh at the heart and height of summer?  The gridiron, the pigskin, the Fall--heck, even the Superbowl have little if anything to do with my favorite holiday that is but a few days away--the 4th of July.  Is it because I have come to believe that Jim Harbaugh is a Man for All Seasons?!"  That he is not....but in a small way, I recently heard a story that suggests he wants his athletes to be.  But, before I share that great story, let me reflect back to February 3, 2013...
I walked into the "last-chance" mass, 9:00 p.m. at St. Dominic's on Superbowl Sunday with my head hung low.  My San Francisco Forty-Niners lost to the Baltimore Ravens 34-31. I listened to the First Reading, Psalm 139 and the verses 13-16 made me smile.
You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother's womb.I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works!My very self you know. My bones are not hidden from you.When I was being made in secret, fashioned in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw me unformed; in your book all are written down;
my days were shaped, before one came to be. 
Sorry, but I couldn't help but think of Jim Harbaugh.  There may not be a whole lot of great memories for Niner fans of Superbowl XLVII, but if there should be, he's one of them.
This man has taken a team that hadn't been in the playoffs in 10-years to the NFC Championship in his first year as a head coach and to the Superbowl in his second.  Sunday morning before the game a friend said: "if I had to go into battle, I would want him on my side." Fans know exactly what he is talking about.  I look at Jim Harbaugh in total amazement and wonder.  I am a fairly competitive person, but on a Richter scale, I would measure a hairline fracture next to his seismic wave. 

Human personality fascinates me.  I heard San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy speak at the Commonwealth Club later that same week, and I had to laugh because his effect is a 180 from Coach Harbaugh.  Baseball runs at a different pace and cadence.  "Boche" is baseball, Harbaugh is hard-hitting.  He is hustle, hustle and more hustle.  He is NFL football. Indeed, he is fearfully and wonderfully made.

The stories that accompany Harbaugh's competitive nature are endless.  He didn't speak to his brother John after the Superbowl loss for weeks.  His golf handicap is 6. And what may prove to be his greatest acquisition--signing QB Colin Kaepernick, wasn't without contest--he ran three specific drills on him, to be exact.  In Harbaugh road-tested Kaepernick in 2011, Scott Ostler wrote:

Harbaugh and Kaepernick talked for a while, but Harbaugh wanted to see the skinny kid throw, so they hit the field.  
After Kaepernick tossed some passes to Baalke, running routes, Harbaugh threw down the gauntlet. 
"I think the first thing that came to mind was, well, number one, the energy he brought," Kaepernick said later, recalling their first meeting. "He was running all over the field with me, throwing the football around. From the get-go it was just a competition out there, we're going to see who can throw the most perfect spirals to each other. And then we're going to see who can be the most accurate throwing through the goalposts from different spots."
If you think either man was casual about the little games they were playing, you don't know them.
Harbaugh never plays a game to lose. His over-the-top competitiveness in pick-up basketball games is legendary. Form him, there is only one level of competition. 
And that competition should never be limited to one arena, something that in today's world of increased specialization cannot be taken for granted.  A true competitive drive will manifest itself differently in racquetball (which he played against Niner GM Trent Baalke) than it will in football or basketball.  And a good coach knows that different sports enhance different techniques and skills.  Different sports achieve victory in different ways...but a competitive drive cannot be turned off.  It is innate in Harbaugh and in Kaepernick; no wonder they got along so well.

At the Play Like a Champion conference at Notre Dame, an athletic director of a high school shared with me a story about Jim Harbaugh, then coach of Stanford, coming to his campus to watch the school's starting quarterback. It was late in the season and Harbaugh found out the young man wasn't going to play basketball.  He immediately wanted to know why. It soured his interest.  He wants great athletes who are interested in competing.  There is no competition in off-season training.  

I write this story just before Independence Day because I am continually challenging our youth sports culture that promotes specialization earlier and earlier; I take every chance I can to give examples of why the countercultural option may be worth considering. Focusing on one sport leads to overuse injuries and the danger of changing what should be recreation to work.  Fitness becomes labor.  Winning is everything.

I truly believe that it will take more coaches on the highest levels speaking in the way that Harbaugh did to make a change.

One thing however that won't change is his competitive nature.  And knowing what he has done for the San Francisco 49ers, I wouldn't want it to...it's how he's fearfully and wonderfully made.

Photo Credits
Press Conference

Reaching out

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