Three days later, it's an image I still can't get out of my mind.Jim Harbaugh, for the first time since becoming 49ers coach a year earlier, unexpectedly revealed a part of himself he had gone to great lengths to hide.He tried as best he could to obscure the pain of the 49ers' gut-wrenching overtime loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game a day earlier.
But at the end of his 22-minute press conference on Monday, his eyes reddened and watered. He wiped his right eye, and then he abruptly exited the podium.
The snapshot in my mind that I'll remember about the end of the 49ers' season won't be Kyle Williams in the locker room accepting words of encouragement from teammates, coaches and others.
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It won't be Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes and his teammates celebrating on the field while a stunned Candlestick Park crowd fell silent.My lasting memory will be Harbaugh's brief emotional moment a day later that went unnoticed by many at his season-ending press conference.From my from seat, less than 10 feet from where Harbaugh stood, it was obvious that a simple question prompted Harbaugh to lapse into unspoken introspection.How did you spend your time after the game? What did you do last night?Harbaugh paused. And then he tried his best to deflect the question and change the subject as his eyes told that the true answer would reveal more than he was willing to share."Is it just California that everybody just wants to know how you feel? Care about what you thought, what you did, how you felt, how your pinky feels," Harbaugh said, trying to turn light-hearted. "Is that just a California thing? Back where I come from, nobody really cares. In my opinion, it is a California thing."Actually, it's a human thing.People are emotionally attached to their team. Part of the media's job is to bring the people on the TV sets to life for the general public. People want to root for individuals with whom they can relate.Harbaugh does not want to "peel back the onion," as he likes to say, for fear that he'll show weakness. He often speaks of the "mighty men" in the 49ers' locker room. Perhaps Harbaugh believes the leader of these mighty men must be the mightiest of them all."This team's not defeated by any stretch of the imagination," Harbaugh said just minutes after the 49ers' season-ending loss. "A man can be destroyed, but he can't be defeated as long as this team knows that there's hope."Harbaugh borrowed the thought from Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Harbaugh is a football coach, but there's a lot more there, too. A week earlier, he spoke of Candlestick Park as a fortress, a clear reference to the work of Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey.When speaking about the advantages of practicing in the same weather that the 49ers might play in Sunday at Candlestick Park, Harbaugh said, "Admiral Bull Halsey once said, 'If you're going to fight in the North Atlantic, then you've got to prepare in the North Atlantic.'"(It's difficult to pin down exactly whom first used that quote, but it has been attributed to Admiral Chester Nimitz.)As the season wore on, Harbaugh became more relaxed around the handful of media members who were around his team every day, though you might not have seen any evidence of it when he was standing in front of the group answering questions.Harbaugh began making regular stops inside the locker room to make small talk with reporters during the second half of the season. There was another time early in the season when Harbaugh broke out of coach mode around the media. It was the day the 49ers were leaving Youngstown, Ohio, en route to Philadelphia for their Week 4 game. Three reporters who cover the team shared with Harbaugh their plan to spend that Friday in Gettysburg.Harbaugh seemed genuinely excited to share his thoughts, in great detail, when asked if he had any advice on what to see and what to do. Harbaugh and his family visited the Civil War battlefield several months earlier. A few days later, he followed up with questions of his own about the reporters' visit.We've seen a lot of emotion from Harbaugh this season. He gets excited on the sideline. He gets upset. He can be defiant, stubborn. He's fiercely loyal to his players. And it's difficult to find anything he did wrong during his first year as 49ers head coach.After all, he took over a poorly coached 6-10 team, assembled a strong staff, put a plan into place during the lockout, managed to get the players to completely buy into his program, and he changed the culture inside the 49ers building.The 49ers were a couple mistakes away from playing in the Super Bowl. As a player, he experienced it. As quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, he got tantalizingly close to the Super Bowl, only to lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 20-16, in the AFC Championship Game in January of 1996. Harbaugh, as well as anyone, knows how difficult it is to get this far.It was an emotional loss for players and for fans of the team, to be sure.After the game, Harbaugh tried to hide his own emotions. He made his rounds inside the locker room to inform all the players of a final team meeting set for 1 p.m. the next day. He tried to handle it with a business-as-usual approach.But that evening, Harbaugh spent time with his family. A day later, his eyes told a story about the pain of the defeat. It's a story he did not want to share with the public.Still, there was something there. He showed the human side -- if for just a brief moment. And it made me feel something about Jim Harbaugh that I had not felt since I began covering him.Maybe it is just a California thing.