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O Brother, Must Beat Thou

BALTIMORE — Football is a game of inches, and Jim and John Harbaugh have been pushing and tugging over exactly that for more than four decades.

"In my memory, it was always about space — on the couch, in the back seat of the car," said their younger sister, Joani Crean, who served as a buffer between brothers on family trips. "I just remember Jim would always shove me to John's side and John would shove me down to Jim."

A turf war that began in the back seat of their father's 1962 Chevy Biscayne moves onto a national stage tonight.

That Jim's 49ers and John's Ravens lead their respective divisions already makes for a good football game. The fact that they are the first head-coaching brothers to meet in the NFL — and are doing so on Thanksgiving — makes for a compelling family drama.

Joani and her parents, Jack and Jackie, are in Baltimore today for a gathering of the extended Harbaugh family, and they hope to get together with the brothers for a brief moment before the game.

After that, they'll head for cover.

Said Jack Harbaugh, who coached football at the high school and college level for 43 years and encouraged his sons' competitive instincts: "We're going to find a basement somewhere, a nice dark basement somewhere with no lights and maybe a couple of Bud Lights."

More than 335 sets of brothers have played professional football at the same time, from the Abiamiris (Rob and Victor) to the Zolls (Marty, Carl and Dick).

Thirteen sets are playing this year. That includes identical twins Mike and Maurkice Pouncey they both play center and the Gronkowskis. Rob Gronkowski plays tight end for the Patriots. Chris is a fullback for the Colts. Another brother, Dan, also played tight end for New England but was released this month.

San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis' younger brother, Vontae, is a cornerback for the Dolphins. Ravens fullback Brendon Ayanbadejo's older brother, Obafemi, played 10 years in the NFL.

Hans Steiner, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford, said he's not surprised by the numbers. Steiner said most people assume that parents have the biggest influence on their child's development. Siblings and peer groups, he said, have as much if not more.

He said younger siblings typically try to imitate — and surpass — the things their older siblings do well.

"The closer you get in age, the closer you get in strength and size, the more intense the competition is going to get," said Steiner, adding that rivalries between twins can be particularly contentious.

Reggie and Raleigh McKenzie are among 14 sets of twins who have played in the NFL. Reggie, a linebacker, played for the Raiders, Cardinals and 49ers. Raleigh, an offensive guard, spent most of his career with the Redskins.

Reggie, 48, said they dueled over every aspect of their lives, from who could take home more "As" on his report card to who made more money mowing lawns. Some of his earliest memories are of facing off against Raleigh in card games.

Their mother taught them to play spades at an early age.

"That was when my mom noticed how bad of a loser I was," Reggie said. "Especially against my twin brother. I didn't throw fits or anything. But it was hard to talk to me afterward. I didn't like to lose, and I'm a sore loser to this day."

Reggie isn't apologizing.

He's currently director of football operations for the Green Bay Packers, and he credits his competitive streak for his professional accomplishments. Moreover, he said, he and his colleagues seek that same fire in every player they sign and every coach they hire. In the ruthlessly competitive world of the NFL, it's the only way to win.

"That was ingrained early in us," Reggie said. "The longer you've been in that competitive realm, the more it molds you and makes you into that."

'Knock-down, drag outs'

John Harbaugh's first win over his brother was chronological. He beat Jim into the world by 15 months. But little brother quickly started catching up, and early on the boys were evenly matched in the games they played.

When the sun went down, they went inside, fashioned basketball rims out of wire hangers and turned their bedroom into Madison Square Garden. When the Midwest snow was too deep for football, they fired snowballs at tree branches to see who could hit the highest one.

They weren't little angels. Jack and Jackie would hear crashing and thumping from the boys' bedroom above. Sometimes they'd hear yelling and screaming, too.

"We had some knock-down, drag outs when we were younger," John recalled this week. "I can remember my mom screaming, wailing and crying, 'You're brothers! You're 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."

As they got older, Jim grew bigger and his right arm became more powerful. His mental toughness? Former schoolmates still are telling tales to this day.

Dave Feldman played basketball with Jim at Palo Alto High. During a particularly rough and nasty game against Santa Clara High in 1982, one of the Santa Clara players tripped Palo Alto's center.

Soon the two sides were brawling.

"As soon as the fight broke out, four guys came out of the stands and went after Jim," recalled Feldman, who is now sports director at the FOX affiliate in Washington, D.C. "And Jim didn't back down for one second. In fact, Jack Harbaugh he was in the stands that day had to run onto the court and hold him back."

Feldman said that Jim, the team's best player, was regularly the object of opposing taunts and cheap shots. It never worked.

"He was mentally tough at an age when most people aren't mentally tough," Feldman said.

There was never any resentment from John, who watched Jim go on to become a starting quarterback at the University of Michigan and later the NFL, while as a player John never rose beyond being a backup safety at Miami University in Ohio.

"That's not who John is," Joani said. "I don't think John has a jealous bone in his body."

Rooting for your brother

In fact, John long has been Jim's biggest defender, a full-time job when they were growing up. Every time his father moved for a new coaching position there were 15 moves in all another town would be introduced to Jim's ferocity.

During a Little League game, for instance, Jim beaned a girl between the shoulder blades with a pitch, drawing jeers from the parents in the stands.

"I was always glad when my dad would take a job and move somewhere else, because by the time I went through there I'd pretty much worn out my welcome," Jim said.

Jim said John has been smoothing things over for him his entire life, including helping him land in the NFL. John's Ravens have been to the playoffs every season since he took over in 2008, and Jim suspects the mere name association made him a more desirable candidate.

John also shared with his younger brother everything from technical advice on the best ways to schedule practices to broader ideas on how to mold his team.

In August, Jim handed out blue collared work shirts with his players' first names stenciled onto the fronts. He was celebrated for the creative approach to instilling blue-collar ideals in his team. In fact, he stole that idea from John, who did it in Baltimore in 2008.

John hinted that a lot of Jim's repertoire has been imported from the east. "Keep digging," he joked this week.

The flow of advice and phone calls has dried as today's game has approached, but the brothers tossed compliments at each other this week like they used to hurl snowballs.

Said John: "If you can't root for your brother, I don't know who you can possibly root for in the world. I was always just so proud of what he was doing."

Jim, meanwhile, had his own memories of what went on in the back of his dad's Chevy Biscayne.

Jack Harbaugh has a sweet temperament and he gushes positivity. But on those seven- and eight-hour trips to grandmother's house in Ohio, the back seat battles were too much for even him to bear. Every once in a while, he'd turn around and give Jim it was always Jim a thwack with his right hand.

"That's because I was always sitting directly behind him where he could reach me," Jim said. "John sat behind my mom. He was always the smart one."