Hero to zero, zero to hero. When you've made that round-trip as
many times as Indianapolis quarterback Jim Harbaugh has, you end
up with a nickname like Captain Comeback and a nice collection
of self-deprecating anecdotes. This is one of his favorites: The
Colts were out of the playoff hunt going into the final week of
the 1994 season, and coach Ted Marchibroda wanted to take a long
look at backup quarterback Browning Nagle. And so Harbaugh was
informed, a day after he led the team to victory over the
Dolphins, that he was being benched.
"I'm running the scout team a few days later," recalls Harbaugh,
"and Rosie Potts, our fullback, says, 'Jim, just look at you.
One week you're beating Marino, the next week you're Rudy.'"
These days, Captain Comeback, as Harbaugh has been dubbed by the
local press corps, is back in the starting lineup. The man whose
career has been all peaks and valleys is now on a sustained
high, having been named the AFC Player of the Month for October.
In Indianapolis's 36-28 win over Miami on Sunday, Harbaugh threw
for three touchdowns and rushed for another score.
Last April the Colts traded two high draft choices to the Bucs
for quarterback Craig Erickson. Harbaugh wasn't concerned. "I'm
not perceived as a very good quarterback," he said at the time.
"If I can beat out Craig, maybe I'll change that perception."
December 4, 1995
But Erickson was immediately handed the starting job. Even after
Harbaugh rallied Indianapolis to two come-from-behind preseason
wins, Marchibroda never wavered. Erickson was his choice. In the
season opener against Cincinnati, Erickson threw three
interceptions, bobbled a shotgun snap that resulted in a Bengal
safety, and was replaced in the fourth quarter by Harbaugh,
whose touchdown pass with seven seconds to play and subsequent
two-point-conversion throw sent the game into overtime. Although
the Colts wound up losing the game, Indianapolis gained a
The next week Harbaugh subbed for Erickson in the third quarter
with Indy trailing the Jets 24-3. Helped by two Harbaugh
fourth-quarter touchdown passes, the Colts sent the game into
OT. Four minutes into the extra period, Harbaugh's 24-yard
completion to wide receiver Sean Dawkins set up the game-winning
52-yard field goal. Marchibroda caved in and named Harbaugh his
starter. On Oct. 8, Captain Comeback sparked a second
second-half, 21-point rally, this time against the Dolphins,
whom Indianapolis edged in overtime. The following week he led
the Colts to their most stunning win of the season, an 18-17
upset of the 49ers.
The back-to-back wins over Miami and San Francisco were
noteworthy in that Harbaugh is incessantly invoking those teams'
quarterbacks, Dan Marino and Steve Young, respectively, to
define what he is not. "I don't have a big arm like Marino, and
I can't read coverages like Steve Young," says Harbaugh, who
describes himself as a "mudder" and dreads seeing himself on
video. "I might think I looked pretty good on a play, but then
I'll see this guy on tape, just sort of stumbling and bumbling
Is it any wonder that six-year-old Jay Burke, the son of
Harbaugh's fiancee, Miah Burke, sees his stepfather-to-be in
less than heroic proportions? Jay recently drew a crayoned
portrait of Harbaugh and a Dolphin quarterback, facing one
another. One player towered over the other. But who was who? Jay
cleared up the confusion, telling Harbaugh, "Marino's huge,
you're tiny." Harbaugh cracked up; Jay's drawing was tacked onto
the fridge at home. Tiny Jim can afford to be expansive these
days. His 108.4 quarterback rating tops the league. And his
fourth-quarter numbers are outrageous: seven touchdowns, zero
interceptions and a 120.3 passer rating.
It may come as a surprise to learn that one of Harbaugh's most
ardent champions is Mike Ditka, the coach turned TV analyst with
whom he will long live in highlight-video infamy. "There's
nobody any happier for him than I am," says Ditka. "I live
vicariously through him on Sundays. I sit in the studio and pull
Their relationship has not always been marked by such harmony.
On Oct. 4, 1992, the Bears and the Vikings squared off in what
is now popularly known as the Audible Game. Ditka called for
Harbaugh to throw a bomb; Harbaugh changed the play at the line
of scrimmage and promptly threw an interception that was
returned by Minnesota cornerback Todd Scott for a touchdown. The
apoplectic rage Ditka then directed at his insubordinate
signal-caller was captured for posterity on tape. The Vikings,
who had trailed 20-0, won 21-20. Ditka was fired after that
season, and he would later say, "That one play turned our whole
season around, and my life with it."
But when he recently sat down with Harbaugh to tape a segment
for NBC's pregame show, the first thing out of Ditka's mouth was
an apology for going ballistic that night in Minnesota. "It was
a class move," says Harbaugh, 31. "He didn't have to do it."
"He was a leader, and one of the toughest players I ever
coached," says Ditka, keeping up his end of their mutual
admiration society. "He was the ultimate competitor."
In the off-season after Ditka was fired, Harbaugh signed a
five-year, $13 million contract with Chicago that would pay him
$5 million the first season. Harbaugh was booed so resoundingly
before the team's home opener that year that his mother, Jackie,
began sobbing in the stands. As the Bears struggled to a 7-9
record and the fans and media pilloried Harbaugh, first-year
coach Dave Wannstedt and his staff didn't exactly go out of
their way to shield their quarterback. "Jim was scapegoated,"
says former Bear wide receiver Tom Waddle. "Jim had to bear the
brunt of the fact that our offense stunk."
Two months after the '93 season ended, Wannstedt telephoned
Harbaugh's Orlando apartment. We're waiving you, the coach said.
A few days later Burke broke up with Harbaugh. "I'd been a
little bit of a jerk, wrapped up in myself, not paying enough
attention to what was going on in her life," says Harbaugh.
Before the week was out, Wrigley, his golden retriever puppy,
nearly died. "I felt like I was living a country music song," he
The song ended on an up beat. Wrigley recovered from his
intestinal ailment, the Colts signed Harbaugh, and he got back
together with Burke, in that order. True, he's out the big money
that remained on his Bear contract (Harbaugh is playing for
$950,000 this season). But he prefers to look on the bright
side. "Hey," Harbaugh says with a grin, "I got the five."
Over the past few years Harbaugh has done a better job of
separating his personal life from his work. "If he doesn't play
well one week, he doesn't take it into the next," says Burke.
"He's not as worried about what everyone thinks of him."
Time was, according to former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler,
when Harbaugh didn't care what anyone thought. Schembechler
tells the story of walking into his office one day and
discovering the 10-year-old Harbaugh, whose father was then a
Wolverine assistant, with his feet up on the legend's desk. "How
are you, Jim Harbaugh?" growled the coach.
Without taking his feet down, Harbaugh answered, "O.K. How you
This carefree kid grew into an intense competitor with enormous
athletic talent, which he took seriously. Sometimes too
seriously. "No matter how well Jim did, he always had to do
more," says his dad, Jack, who is now in his seventh year as
head coach at Western Kentucky. "And if he didn't play well, it
tortured him. It just devoured him. Now he doesn't take life so
seriously. He's so much fun to have around."
Harbaugh tries to account for the happiness that has invaded his
life. "There was a time when football was more important than my
relationships with my family, my friends, my girlfriend," says
Harbaugh. "I was always thinking, 'I've gotta do well, or I'll
let my dad down. I've gotta do well, or I won't live up to
expectations.' I didn't have perspective. I didn't appreciate
the best thing I had going in my life, which was my family."
So even if Harbaugh doesn't play another NFL game, he still has
got the love of his fiancee and family and the loyalty of a fine
Plus, as he mentioned earlier, he's got the five.