NEW ORLEANS — If you have a brother, you know.
There is no one you’d rather beat.
There is no one you feel for more when they have been beaten.
Notorious is the best way to describe football coaches’ single-minded determination. No distraction is too important not to be forbidden. No sacrifice can be placed on the altar of victory that is too great.
John and Jim Harbaugh would have us all believe aliens armed with deer antler spray could descend on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome during Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday and they wouldn’t notice. That the man standing on the sideline opposite them could well be a Martian or a Manning for all they care while the clock is running.
To them, their adversary could be anyone but the boy the other fought with, played with, grew up with on the now-yellowed scrapbook pages of their youth.
To illustrate the bond they feel with their teams, John Harbaugh talked Friday of how younger brother Jim memorized the words Shakespeare gave Henry V to meld his troops together on Saint Crispin’s Day:
“We few. We happy few. We band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”
Fine words. Noble sentiments.
But if you have a brother, you know. You know when the game ends and fate has picked John’s Baltimore Ravens or Jim’s San Francisco 49ers, the brother who has suddenly reached the uncommon pinnacle of their common profession will find the euphoria shared with his band of brothers choked back by the chain of empathy he feels for the man he has shared a lifetime with.
The winning brother will hoist a gleaming silver trophy.
He’ll also be shedding blood for his real brother.
The one you want to beat.
The one you never truly want to see beaten.
“For the side that comes up short, it’s going to be bitter disappointment,” John said. “That’s how football works. That’s how life is, and we understand that.”
As great a storyline as the Bro Bowl is, the football gods could have allowed us one better.
If it had been Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos squaring off against Eli Manning’s New York Giants here, in the city where they were born and raised? Nothing in the post-Bountygate unraveling of the New Orleans Saints’ wasted season, the Exile on Airline, could have trumped that.
But New York, feast or famine franchise that it is, sputtered during the season and never made the playoffs. The Broncos wrestled home-field advantage away from the rest of the AFC, then saw it evaporate on the wings of Joe Flacco’s still barely comprehensible 70-yard prayer to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds left in regulation that eventually turned Peyton into a spectator as well.
So we are left with this unprecedented drama. All in all, not a bad bargain.
How would Shakespeare have written the ending? Would he have had them shake hands and leave it there for the moment, both afraid emotions would overwhelm them? Would he have them give in to it, let them embrace with smiles and tears and flashbulbs popping?
For most of the English-speaking world, it will fall to CBS play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz to narrate the denouement. He said he will do so with silence.
“People ask me what I’m looking forward to most,” Nantz said Tuesday. “I’m looking forward to the end of the game and saying nothing. It will be one of the great moments ever captured visually between two coaches.”
It’s hard to imagine a 24-hour rule after this one.
For both, there will be lingering happiness, either to be the winner or to see someone you love join a club with only 28 other lifetime members. For both, there will be lingering sadness, knowing how getting so close to the top and losing can be a stigma.
It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. Perhaps it’s human nature. Recognizing that, John and Jim’s father, Jack — himself a longtime football coach — knows where he will be most needed after the game.
“There’s going to be one winner, and there’s going to be one that is totally disappointed,” Jack said. “My thoughts go out to that one that will not experience the thrill of victory. That’s where our thoughts will be.”
There will be a trophy in the Harbaugh clan Sunday. Fate has guaranteed it.
But fate also demands a price to be paid. Pure, undiluted victory? The Harbaughs will get none of that.
If you have a family, you know.