by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

CHICAGO — He ran in. He took the snap. He got sacked. He ran out.

Jim Harbaugh had just made his first play in the National Football League.

“What’d I lose, nine yards?” he asked in the locker room after his Chicago Bears mauled the Lions, 30-10.

“Uh, actually,” someone said, “it was 15.”

“Fifteen?” He shook his head. “Oh . . . bleep.”

Welcome to the NFL. This was not the moment Jim Harbaugh dreamed of when he was quarterbacking the Michigan Wolverines last year. But then, a lot has happened since then. And anything can happen with the Chicago Bears.

Witness Harbaugh’s moment of, well, it wasn’t glory, it was more like, not really celebrity as much as . . . well, let’s just call it his moment. Here is how it came about: Jim McMahon, the starter, had been quarterbacking the Bears and guiding them to an easy lead. But suddenly, with less than two minutes left in the first half, the Bears ran out on offense — and their quarterback did not.

“What’s the matter with McMahon?” someone quickly asked. “His ankle? His head?’

Who knew? In came back-up Mike Tomczak, who ran a few hurried plays, scurrying about like a madman. On the sidelines, coach Mike Ditka was waving furiously, screaming. Harbaugh, sensing an opportunity, eased into position a few feet away.

“What’s the matter with Tomzak?” someone quickly asked. “His ankle? His head?”

Who knew? But suddenly, out he came, into the screaming face of his coach.

And in trotted Harbaugh.Trying for a big play

What a perfect opening. Remember, this is the same guy who arrived late for his first freshman team meeting with Bo Schembechler. He’d forgotten the time. He poked his head into a room full of already seated teammates. “You’ll never play at Michigan!” Schembechler lectured him that day.

So little wonder that, although Harbaugh took that snap Sunday, spun around and was smothered by the Lions’ Mike Cofer, and came out immediately, replaced again by Tomczak, who, it turns out, had just been pulled by Ditka for instructions — well, he really wasn’t that upset. “I just should’ve stepped up in the pocket,” he said. “I was trying to make a big play. You know me.”

You know him. Jimmy Harbaugh. Coach’s kid. Played tag along the Michigan sidelines as a 10-year-old. And now he was dressing alongside McMahon and Walter Payton and Refrigerator Perry. He is a member of the wildest team in pro football, and perhaps the best in the NFC. He slipped on his loafers and his Michigan jacket.

You know him.

“To be honest, it’s been a little boring,” Harbaugh said, when asked about his pro career so far. “I’d really like to play. I try to stay mentally ready on every down. But not even handling snaps . . . it’s just weird.”

He says he’s adjusting OK. He lives in an apartment in a Chicago suburb
(“I got a bed, a couch, and a 35-inch Mitsubishi TV”). Says he watched the Michigan-Ohio State game Saturday, and wagered Tomczak — a former Buckeye — that Michigan would win. The prize was a week of “slavery.”

“Now I gotta clean his toilets or whatever,” Harbaugh moaned.

All around, the Chicago press pushed past him, clamoring for interviews with the “stars.” It cannot be easy for Harbaugh, who probably mumbles “Put me in, coach” in his sleep. But it is part of the process. Wait for your chance. Make the best of it. Even if it lasts only one play.

“Fifteen yards I lost?” he asked again.

“Yeah. But there was a penalty, too.”

“Oh.” His eyes drifted far away. “I shoulda stepped up into the pocket . .
.”Ditka is spittin’ image

It was funny to see Harbaugh, once such a Michigan fixture, now a smaller name on a team full of video stars and Taco salesmen. Funny, and in a way, familiar. On those sidelines Sunday, he shadowed Ditka the way he once shadowed Schembechler, his helmet on, his chin strap snapped. Put me in, coach. Never mind that Ditka is perhaps the most fiery-tempered coach in the NFL. After Bo, how tough can anyone be?

“Last Monday night in Denver, Ditka got so mad, he was screaming at an official and he just spit his gum right into the guy’s ear! I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Yeah. That does sound original.

So anyhow, here it was, the professional debut of Jim Harbaugh, ex-Wolverine. He said he wasn’t nervous. He said he was actually supposed to stay in for another play, but, well, you know.

Welcome to the NFL. Somehow it is doubtful that the words “November 22d, second quarter, 47 seconds left . . .” are going to give Harbaugh goosebumps years from now. Nausea, maybe. “I guess it wasn’t the perfect first snap,” he said, shrugging.”But hey. Could be worse.”


He could be playing for the Lions.


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