Fifty-five years ago, someone snapped a photograph of a third-string quarterback watching his team from the bench with a cheerleader standing behind him.
It could have ended up an ordinary picture -- one of the countless extra snapshots of life -- thrown away because it had no meaning to the ultimate story. But it holds special meaning for Jim Harbaugh.
The cheerleader is his mother, and the player is his father.
Jack Harbaugh played football at Bowling Green from 1957-60, and it was during that time he met his future wife, Jackie. The couple would raise three children, sons Jim and John and daughter Joani.
Jim became a successful NFL quarterback and head coach of the 49ers. John became a career coach, just like his father, eventually rising to become head coach of the Ravens. Joani married a career basketball coach, Tom Crean, who took over the storied Indiana program in 2008.
Remembering what it was like growing up in a family where life revolved around football, Jim said Jackie would take the kids to watch Jack coach every week.
“She loved to watch the games,” Jim said.
Even with all the time they spent together at games, Jackie, in a nod to her Italian upbringing, made sure the family sat down to dinner together, too.
“She would make her own noodles,” Jim said. “She would make the best sauce ever. I loved her sauce. Still to this day, spaghetti and meatballs makes me feel better. We’d probably have spaghetti three or four nights a week.”
Jackie worked as a counselor and teacher in addition to juggling the everyday demands of a busy mom with children involved in sports.
Talk to any mom with kids who play sports, and you’ll find there are times when she feels like she might perish in a minivan underneath a pile of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, sports equipment, mismatched socks and missing shoes. Jackie was no different. She was the one who took them to practices and games.
“I could count on her,” Jim said. “I wasn’t an easy kid to raise. I used to play outside. I’d never want to come in. I’d never want to stop playing -- to the point where I’d have a few accidents, a lot of accidents, and she was always there. I’d be a wreck without her.”
Like most moms, Jackie taught her kids to never lie, cheat or steal. But there was an important aspect of her personality that fit the Harbaugh disposition perfectly -- she was competitive.
Once, when Jim was 12, he got in trouble at school. Apparently, his ultracompetitive personality was causing problems for other students.
“I always had to win. The gym teacher was mad, upset with me,” Jim said, speaking in a tone that makes you wonder how the teacher had the nerve to confront him. “She got called into the principal’s office, and they had a conference with the principal and the gym teacher.”
They told Jackie it was time to do something about his competitive nature.
“I was offending some of the other kids,” Jim said. “So they suggested that they put me on Ritalin. My mom drew a line in the sand and said they would not be putting me on Ritalin. My mom liked my competitive nature, and she stood up for me.”
Without Jim’s aggressive and ambitious personality, his football career might have looked much different. His competitiveness pushed him to college success at Michigan, a 14-year NFL playing career and extraordinary results as a head coach with Stanford and the 49ers.
“She fought for me,” Jim said of that day in the principal’s office.
Jim says his mom has watched too many football games to count. But what makes her extraordinary, is all the football programs across the country touched by her hard work and dedication behind the scenes. From Bowling Green, Ohio, to Kalamazoo, Mich., from Bowling Green, Ky., to Oxford, Ohio, from Pittsburgh to Morehead, Ky., from Cincinnati to Bloomington, Ind., from Philadelphia to Baltimore, from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Chicago, from Indianapolis to San Diego, from Oakland to Palo Alto, Calif., to San Francisco.
When Harbaugh looks at the picture of his mom and dad at Bowling Green in the 1950’s, he calls their story “magical.”
It is magical. That photograph foreshadowed how Jackie would spend her life -- standing behind her family and supporting them. Jim says it’s as if she lives in a time warp, defying her age. She still visits her children and grandchildren and attends every game she can.
When asked why his mother is special, Jim doesn’t hesitate to find an answer.
“Just all the times she’s been there through the years,” Jim said. “I’d hate another Mother’s Day to go by without her knowing that I appreciate that. I love her.”