Jim Harbaugh fell in love with football after tackling 'Ralph'

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Lansing – Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh remembers the day he fell in love with football.

He was 9 years old and participating in practice for the Ann Arbor Junior Packers in 1973. The night before, he had donned his football uniform, looked in the bathroom mirror and said, "Jim Harbaugh: Football player."

With the new $13 cleats his father, Jack Harbaugh, then an assistant coach at Michigan, had purchased for him, Harbaugh waited in line for the tackling drill. They had to run between two dummies on the ground and then tackle the runner.

Problem was, Harbaugh was about 95 pounds and he was going up against a 6-foot, 152-pound player he identified only as "Ralph" as he related his story to a full house at the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association clinic on Friday.

Harbaugh, on the job at his alma mater since Dec. 30 after four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, spoke to the high school coaches about football, what it meant to him and what it means for the future, and the role they play.

"As I see it, it is the last bastion of hope we have as a country for toughness in our young people," Harbaugh told the coaches.

He spoke about his first tackle as the moment he understood what the game means.

Ralph, as he described him, was a beast with a "5 o'clock shadow." Harbaugh was the seventh tackler in line and had counted the seven runners lined up — Ralph was seventh.

"I just said a prayer," he said. "I said, 'Dear Lord, I know I'm only 9 years old, I haven't done a whole lot wrong, I haven't asked you for a lot of things up until now, but please dear Lord, when I recount this, please do not let Ralph be No. 7.'

"Ralph was still there."

Harbaugh said he thought about quitting, but remembered his father had bought the cleats with the condition he would play football for the full season.

"I went at Ralph with everything I had," Harbaugh said. "The next thing I felt was Ralph's knee coming up through my sternum."

His head slammed the ground.

"And he just started running, knees are churning, and I'm holding on," Harbaugh said. "He's dragging me across the ground like a plow. My shoulder blades are tilling the ground. And I don't know what happened. I don't know if he got tired, I don't know if he stepped in a hole, but he went down. He went to the ground.

"And I said, 'You just made your first tackle.' I started checking body parts to make sure nothing was broken. 'You made your first tackle. You tackled Ralph.'

"I opened my eyes and I couldn't' see. I was blind. True story, honest to God. I'm laying there and I'm looking at this darkness, and said. 'Well, this is how it ends. It ends like this.' And then I saw a small circle of light. I kind of focused on that circle of light and I realized I wasn't blind, I was just looking out of the side of the helmet."

It was then Harbaugh found his passion.

"That was it," he said. "I loved football. That was the day where I figured out that I love this game. I love football."