Before he was hurt last week, taking his place with no fewer than seven other injured NFL quarterbacks in hospitals or on the bench, James J. Harbaugh started 12 consecutive games for the Chicago Bears.
Before that he was a Michigan man.
Before that, growing up as a football coach’s son in eight Midwestern and California communities, Harbaugh developed into the most competitive member of a most competitive family.
Even in grade school, he was in every organized youth league in town: basketball, wrestling, hockey, football and baseball. The Saturday wrestling matches were at 6 a.m., and, with his mother or father at the wheel, he changed clothes in the family car en route to basketball at 10 o’clock and then on to the afternoon sports.
And he counted the day irretrievably lost when he didn’t come home a runaway winner in every game.
One winter morning, however, the neighborhood was snowed in. So with the help of his brother, John, who is 15 months older, Harbaugh designed a deceptively rugged little inside game in which the only prop is a deck of playing cards.
“If you turn up a seven--let’s say the seven of diamonds--you have to do seven pushups,” he said the other day. “If it’s a king or queen, you have to do 10. An ace, 15. The joker, 20.”
The last time they played, last summer, the Harbaugh brothers ran through the deck twice. Depending on the luck of the draw, that, in an hour or so, was an average of 400 pushups apiece.
When at the end, Jim drew an eight and three face cards in succession, he staggered through the last 38 pushups, then joined immediately in the prearranged push-off.
“John was still going strong at 67 when I died of exhaustion,” Harbaugh said. “So he beat me--John and the cards. But I’ll get him next time, and he knows it.”
Next time. Sure. Harbaugh is always confident that he’ll win next time. But in football, that won’t be soon.
Last September, he won the starting job from the two other Bear quarterbacks, veteran Mike Tomczak and rookie Peter Tom Willis, but a shoulder separation has suddenly ended his season two weeks before the playoffs.
That brings up two questions:
--Who will lead the Bears in the playoffs?
--Who will lead them next season?
Because Tomczak is the club’s only remaining experienced quarterback, he has the post now, Coach Mike Ditka said.
The favorite for next year is Harbaugh. The therapy prescribed for full recovery from shoulder surgery, if it is necessary, would be child’s play to a guy whose idea of fun on a snowy day is 467 push-ups.
But Willis could be a threat to both. The rookie from Florida State is the best passer on the club--or so it seemed in Detroit this month when, after Harbaugh and Tomczak were injured, Willis drove the Bears 74 yards, completing seven of eight passes, each thrown crisply and accurately, the last for a touchdown.
Even though the Lions were in a prevent defense with only a three-man rush, Ditka announced that the rookie “intrigued” him.
“Peter Tom had a great awareness of where to throw the ball, when to throw and who to throw to,” Ditka said.
Clearly, Willis is a possible Bear starter sooner or later.
That makes three of them now.
From Red Grange to Walter Payton to Neal Anderson, for 71 years, the Bears have been a running team. Except for two short interludes when they were led by Sid Luckman and Jim McMahon, they always have had, or seemed to have, flawed quarterbacking.
Among other kinds, they have had:
--Good passers who lack mobility. That’s Willis now.
--Tough, mobile quarterbacks who, somehow, never quite last until the playoffs. This year that’s Harbaugh.
--Big-play passers who throw killing interceptions. That’s Tomczak.
The three Bears in Ditka’s 1990 quarterback collection are linked, someone has said, only by fiery field presence.
One day in a training-camp scrimmage last summer, Tomczak, a blue-collar type who identifies with offensive linemen, dropped back nimbly and threw a perfect interception to a Bear linebacker, Mickey Pruitt.
But instead of shuffling unhappily over to the sideline, Tomczak, jogging, followed the flight of his errant pass. Then, stepping up to Pruitt, he grabbed his face mask and gave it a sharp little twist.
“There,” he said.
That’s what Tomczak thinks of his passing game, sometimes. But he has assets and values, too. He is, in short, a Bear quarterback.
Having recovered from the leg-muscle injury that stopped him Dec. 16 in Detroit, Tomczak won his first 1990 start Sunday against Tampa Bay as Chicago, champion of the NFC Central, improved to 11-4.
Next month, though, the Bears will be on a rougher playoff road than the other NFC champions. For the first time, winners of two of the league’s six divisions will have to play on wild-card weekend Jan. 5-6.
The NFC team is the Bears because they lost more games than the San Francisco 49ers or New York Giants.
If that’s particularly tough on a club that has lost its starting quarterback, it is also an opportunity for Tomczak or, possibly, Willis.
Both are privately gearing up--along with the seven other first-round quarterbacks--to move through four January weekends to the gold at the end of the Super Bowl.
Though they wear the same uniform, Ditka’s passers are distinctly different types.
Tomczak, 27, a six-year Bear veteran, is a gritty walk-on from Ohio State who, at 6 feet 1 and 198 pounds, is built like a defensive back.
Willis, 23, a 188-pound third-round draft choice standing nearly 6-3, has the fluid presence of a basketball player.
Michigan man Harbaugh, 25, 6-3, 225, is the only Bear with the physical appearance of an NFL quarterback. A four-year veteran, he is also the only active Bear quarterback drafted in the first round. He would be in his prime next month if he could play.
The three Bears all have the collar-ad look that attracts large quantities of fan mail from admirers. All three are single.
In addition, almost daily the mailman brings Tomczak one or two new teddy bears to add to the collection he once mentioned in an interview.
Tomczak, less extroverted than Harbaugh but no introvert, usually hangs out with the offensive linemen, as is the custom of many quarterbacks.
Harbaugh’s outgoing personality pushes him to make friends easily. At one time or another, his teammates say, he has played cards with every Bear card player--even the coaches and players on the defensive side.
Willis, whose locker is between Harbaugh’s and Tomczak’s in the club dressing room at Halas Hall, is the shy, quiet one. Those who know him report that Willis is as self-confident as the other two, he just doesn’t show it.
Except, as they say at Florida State, on game day.
Willis has ambitions to dethrone Harbaugh and Tomczak soon. The Bears, consulted about that, say it’s too early to tell.
Man was placed on earth for one simple reason, Harbaugh reasons.
The sole goal of life, in his view, is to succeed. To win. To beat other people--at football, chess, push-ups, whatever.
When Harbaugh revisits the family home--now in Bowling Green, Ky., where his father coaches at Western Kentucky--he walks in clutching big boxes of games in both arms.
One recent holiday afternoon, he brought a new Monopoly set, his father, Jack, remembers--instead of, say, flowers for his mother, or Bear-Packer tapes for Jack.
And even before dinner, he got the whole family involved.
As the family went at it ruthlessly, daughter Joani was the first to be forced out, then brother John and finally his mother, Jackie.
An hour or so later, when it became clear that Jim had the drop on Jack, too, Jack admitted it. He pushed back his chair, looked at his scant remaining properties, then at his son, and said, “You win.”
“Not so fast,” said Jim. “It isn’t over until it’s over.”
And, as Jack tells it, Jim kept the game going until his father had been stripped bare.
“He’s a strange one,” said Jack. “Just winning isn’t enough. He has to destroy you.”
Jim’s fiancee, Linda Miller, recalls that after he’d taught her to play chess, he regretted it bitterly whenever she won, which was every now and then.
They played their last game several years ago on an airplane, she said, while seated comfortably in first class, where the flight attendants, as usual, hovered.
A last-semester law student at Loyola of Chicago, Linda, playing aggressively, seemed on the point of checkmating Jim when he abruptly stood up, grabbed the chessboard and threw it across the aisle as the pawns and pieces scattered up and down the airplane.
“I thought I was competitive, but, oh, my,” she said.
That reminds Jackie Harbaugh of the year her son was 13, when, tidying up his room one day, she came across a sheaf of Jim’s black-and-white pencil drawings, foretelling, she hoped, an artistic career.
“But I knew I’d lost him to sports when I saw the best one,” Jackie said. “It was a very realistic sketch of a human hand with the index finger pointing upward--No. 1.”
During Jim’s boyhood, his father coached at eight high schools and colleges--Stanford and Michigan among them--putting down stakes in eight towns.
That would make neurotics of some kids, but Jim said, “I loved it. It was exciting. Today, the only thing I miss is old friends. I wish I had a hometown to go back to.”
He does have compensating memories. At Palo Alto, where he finished high school, he spent two years throwing the football with John Elway and other Stanford quarterbacks.
Said Jack Harbaugh: “I didn’t take Jim seriously as a football player until the day Elway came up to me and said: ‘Your boy is very impressive.’ ”
That was likewise Bo Schembechler’s judgment.
Then coaching Michigan, now president of the Detroit Tigers, Schembechler said, “The first time I set eyes on Jim, I knew he was tough, confident, and athletic--our kind.
“He was an ornery little kid then, when his dad was coaching for me. When he grew up, we recruited him. He grew up to be a fun guy and a real competitor, an intense competitor.”
Harbaugh’s lawyer, Leigh Steinberg, who has a stable of 15 NFL quarterbacks, said, “Jim is as competitive a human being as I’ve met in my life.”
In college, Harbaugh set some Michigan records, leading the nation in pass efficiency one year, but as a pro he has yet to set Chicago afire again.
Although the Bears got off to a 9-1 start this fall in Harbaugh’s first season as an NFL starter, they have since leveled off, prompting some to divide the blame between the players and Ditka’s conservative, old-fashioned offense.
The problem, if any, doesn’t seem to be quarterback inexperience. Harbaugh has been either fantasizing or playing big-time football for 20 of his 25 years.
In kindergarten, he said, he used to get off the school bus pretending it was the team bus at the Rose Bowl.
As a grade-school kid on freezing winter days in the Midwest, he practiced catching his own passes, bouncing the ball noisily off the basement ducts in the furnace room hour after hour, until his mother, at wit’s end, stormed down the stairs, took possession of the ball and yelled, “No more.”
Then Harbaugh would sit in a corner, peering into a pretend microphone, and interview himself.
“I was always Howard Cosell,” he said, very slowly, using Cosell’s inflections. “I always interviewed the star, Jim Harbaugh.”
Asked why he likes football, he said, “A, I’m good at it. B, Unlike other professions, you know for a certainty every week, every day, whether you’re best or not.”
T-ZAK AND P.T.
In Chicago these days, with Harbaugh down for a while, it’s Tomczak & Willis vs. the world.
They’re both on the spot. The playoffs are vital to the Bears, for two reasons:
--They want another Super Bowl.
--And contemplating their future, they want to compare Willis and Tomczak head-to-head, as a coach said, “without having to divide the (repetitions) three ways (as they would if Harbaugh were in the picture).”
Michael J. Tomczak, who is known as T-zak or T, is the senior Bear quarterback, the club’s 1989 starter before he was demoted and a part-time starter before that. He is also more accustomed than Willis to the spotlight.
The operator of several nightclubs for teen-agers in the Chicago area, Tomczak is a ham whose ambition is to live on a Caribbean island and play steel drums in a Jamaican band.
"(I’d like to) cruise on a Formula 3-11 cigarette boat all day (and drum) at night,” he said.
One problem with moonlight drumming in the Caribbean is financial; pro football pays better. After six years in the league, Tomczak makes $800,000 to Harbaugh’s $320,000 and Willis’ $300,000--figures sure to be adjusted in 1991 when Harbaugh plans a move into the NFL’s millionaires’ club.
In a sense, however, Tomczak is the ideal Chicago quarterback--a role model for the hard-working, hopefully upward-bound majority.
Born without standout talent, he has spent much of his life struggling to make a place for himself. Nobody wanted him in the Big Ten, where he was an Ohio State walk-on. Nobody drafted him in the NFL.
At heart, Tomczak isn’t a quarterback at all.
“I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve achieved, (beginning) in high school,” he told Chicago Sun-Times writer Kevin Lamb. “I kind of look at myself as an offensive lineman in a quarterback’s number, because those are the guys who really work their butts off.”
By contrast, Peter Tom Willis, known as P.T., looks at himself strictly as a quarterback--as a superb passer--although at Florida State for a while, he was almost the only one who did.
A starter for Coach Bobby Bowden as a redshirt senior, and a big producer that season, Willis began at Florida State by spending four years on the bench.
If he takes the Bears to the Super Bowl someday, the four-year snub will be remembered, no doubt, as the personable Bowden’s biggest mistake.
In his only shot, Willis, a Morris, Ala., native, took the Seminoles to No. 2 in the United Press International voting and No. 3 on the Associated Press list, leading the team past Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Bears drafted the former Alabama player of the year with a pick they got from the Raiders for wide receiver Willie Gault. The fourth quarterback in the draft, Willis went behind Jeff George, Andre Ware and Tommy Hodson.
After a quiet start in Chicago, he became a rave story the night he whisked the Bears down the field to an easy touchdown this month in Detroit.
One reason it was so easy, he said, is that he persuaded Ditka to let him run only two-minute drill plays.
“That’s all I get to work on at practice,” he said.
He threw the eight-yard touchdown pass on a heads-up broken play. When the Lions blanketed his intended receivers on the right side, he wheeled around, scrambled left and found an end-zone target, Wendell Davis, who may be the surest-handed receiver in the league.
The long, quick touchdown drive didn’t surprise Willis. His philosophy after years as a backup is to be prepared.
“You have to be ready when your turn comes,” he said. “You might not get it again. If you don’t answer the bell, they’re not going to keep ringing it.”