SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- A day after doctors used an electrical shock to adjust the rhythm of his heart, Jim Harbaugh answered questions directly and simply, without hesitation, evasion or adornment. A couple of reporters pressed for more from the 49ers coach, perhaps some sign of introspection about mortality, a hint of sentimentality. One of them uttered the word "vulnerability,'' language as out of place at an NFL field as a lobster order at a drive-through window.
“Big picture? Peel back the onion and get a little introspective?'' Harbaugh said. "No, I really haven’t. I really haven’t. Just want to do what I’m supposed to do and get back to living.”
The only thing remotely unusual about that comment was that he used "I'' three times in less than 15 seconds. In the course of Friday's interview session, he may have used it more than in all of his other meetings with the media since he became San Francisco's coach 22 months ago. In the one-for-all manner of a coach, Harbaugh carefully excises that pronoun whenever possible.
But with "peel back the onion,'' he ran one of his favorite plays. He has used it many times, including before Thanksgiving last year, when reporters wanted more emotion from him in the lead-up to the holiday night showdown with brother John's team in Baltimore.
“You probably want to peel back the onion some more and get into my soul,'' he said, "but this week my brother is just somebody we’re trying to beat.''
It's always an onion, stinky and capable of provoking meaningless tears. The stripping of layers can yield nothing good.
The perfect football specimen recognizes only the emotions of the sport. “I can honestly tell you that every time you win a game, it’s like … six hours of just the greatest feeling there is,’' Harbaugh said early last year, as the 49ers' renaissance took shape.
After they learned that he needed the procedure, his players kept saying that they knew the coach would come back to practice quickly. Harbaugh couldn't do anything else. They were sure of it. They had received assurances that his condition, atrial fibrillation, can be treated efficiently. They knew that his doctor had cleared him to work. But they talked about Harbaugh's toughness and determination, not the medical details.
This is their conditioning. It deplores consultation with everyday common sense or looking beyond the most immediate goal and gratification. It's the reason that Terrell Owens played in a Super Bowl only seven weeks after breaking a leg and tearing an ankle ligament. It's why Charles Haley played five weeks after back surgery in another Super Bowl and both of the Raiders' cornerbacks of 2002, Charles Woodson and Tory James, played only weeks after having plates inserted into their legs to stabilize their fibulas.
The recent enlightenment about head trauma has forced the NFL to confront dire vulnerability, the horrible prospect of short-term memory vanishing in a retiree's 40s, of more players dying like Dave Duerson, taking his life with a strategic gunshot to the chest so that the brain could be preserved for an autopsy. But the absurd instinct to applaud a quick comeback from a concussion has only been muffled. It has not vanished.
Alex Smith can return from last Sunday's concussion and play well on Monday night against the Bears, he will be applauded for his grit. It's irrelevant that no one can will himself to regain proper brain function. Pro football depends on the suspension of normalcy and the rejection of basic biology.
Delanie Walker, a 49ers tight end, broke his jaw in two places during a Christmas Eve game last year. It had to be wired shut, and he couldn't talk or eat solid food for close to two weeks. If a desk worker with a decent sick-time policy sustained the same injury, he or she would probably be out of work for a month. Four weeks after the jaw broke, Walker returned to his violent job, in the NFC title game.
The 49ers could have put Walker on injured reserve after the wires went into place. But Walker had slogged through the dreadful years that preceded the Harbaugh administration in San Francisco. He had never been to the playoffs. Harbaugh kept him on the roster, willing to wait out the vulnerability, as if it didn't exist.
To them, it probably didn't. They do not think normally.
The two reporters who sought more from Harbaugh on Friday were middle-aged men, one of whom said he'd had a heart problem that made him reflect on his life. Harbaugh didn't dismiss them with any of the disdain that he often brings to meetings with the media. The whole time, he genuinely seemed to be striving for candor, if not expansiveness.
"I hope my answers haven’t been short,'' he said after one of the reporters noted his compact replies. "I feel like I’ve been real forthcoming, telling you exactly everything I know about this, even emotionally how it feels and what-not.''
In truth, Harbaugh revealed nothing that gave away how he felt about his outpatient heart procedure, except that he didn't want to feel anything about it. But to him, the 13-minute session, two-thirds of which was devoted to his cardiac care instead of football, probably seemed like an Oprah Winfrey special.
Maybe if this had been the first time his heartbeat had gone haywire, Harbaugh would have felt differently. But he said he had probably had the condition his whole life, and he had gone through a more intensive procedure, ablation, to correct another fluttering episode in 1999. He still played football then, and he was in training camp with the Chargers. He said he "missed maybe a practice as well, maybe two.'' The symptoms, he said, felt worse then, when he was only 36.
Harbaugh's boyish face, not to mention a second-wave brood of two young daughters and an infant son, tends to disguise the fact that he is solidly middle-aged, a month from turning 49.
"He's that old?'' defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois said. "I think he looks a lot younger than that. Don't you think?''
A pronounced hitch in Harbaugh's gait, a stiffness that suggests encroaching arthritis, calls to mind all the shots he took as an NFL quarterback. But the stress of coaching football has not revealed itself in his posture or his face. Plenty of coaches age visibly as the season goes on. They invariably look younger a few months after the last whistle, and better still in retirement.
Harbaugh's heart condition, if it's been described properly, cannot be connected directly to job pressures. If it could, he wouldn't be coaching on Monday night. But the fact is, he seems more invigorated by coaching than almost anyone else in the business, often bounding around the field like a Labrador. It helps that, in nine years as a head coach, he has never produced a real failure.
But that's his outward appearance, with none of the layers peeled back.
Harbaugh did admit to living out a bad dream this week. He said he had imagined a football practice going on without him, just like the nightmares people have about missing college exams, even years after they've finished school. It would seem very ordinary, except for one thing. The typical dreamer imagines missing a test because of negligence. Harbaugh arrived late at Thursday's practice and could only visit briefly because he had just undergone his cardiovert treatment. He hadn't blundered. He had just been sidetracked by a human frailty. In football, though, the difference may be impossible to discern.