Before Marvin Harrison, before Peyton Manning, before Edgerrin James, before Reggie Wayne, there was Jim Harbaugh.
An unlikely hero in virtually every way, he was, in a truly remarkable way, the Indianapolis Colts’ first hero.
A gifted passer, he was not. A regular starter, not always. A perennial Pro Bowler, hardly. A franchise fixture, not exactly.
But a fan favorite, most definitely.
Maybe even iconic.
Jim Harbaugh won’t be remembered by the NFL nation as one of the game’s great quarterbacks, if history remembers him at all for his playing prowess. His fledgling but dazzling achievements as a head coach will surely be his legacy.
Except, of course, in Indianapolis, where Harbaugh the player is still adored for putting the city on the NFL map.
In 1994, he came to town as just another competitor for the starting job — something he didn’t earn and keep until his second season.
In 1997, he departed a folk hero, having left an indelible imprint of the franchise.
If you were around then, you know the story. If you weren’t, here’s the cliff notes version.
The Colts were horrid, with virtually no postseason tradition to speak of. They’d been to the playoffs only once — in 1987 — after relocating from Baltimore in 1984.
Losing was the norm. So were blackouts. Every season was a new exercise in futility. Playoffs? Are you kidding me? There was never serious talk of that.
Then along came Harbaugh, and Colts fans finally got a glimpse of what was possible. Although they wouldn’t see a sustained version of it until the Peyton Manning era, Harbaugh was the first to demonstrate the Colts could accomplish something special.
One year after bouncing in and out of the starting lineup, Harbaugh took the reins from the long-forgotten Craig Erickson early in his second season and led the Colts on a wild ride that ended one play short of the Super Bowl.
“Captain Comeback,” as he was dubbed in 1995 after engineering weekly rallies, guided the Colts to a 9-7 regular-season record and steered them to an improbable appearance in the AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh on Jan. 14, 1996.
On the game’s final play, Harbaugh’s end-zone pass to Aaron Bailey slipped through the wide receiver’s fingers — and with it slipped the Colts’ storybook bid to reach the Super Bowl.
Despite the 16-10 loss, Harbaugh by then had won the devotion and admiration of win-starved Colts fans. The catch-phrase, “Let ‘er rip,” then-coach Ted Marchibroda’s weekly pre-game advice to Harbaugh, appeared on banners and T-shirts throughout the city.
It didn’t hurt that the Chicago Bears cast-off — the quarterback then-coach Mike Ditka famously loved to hate — was, by all outward appearances, a humble, down-to-earth guy who just happened to be a fierce competitor.
Harbaugh earned his one and only Pro Bowl nod and was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.
The following season under new head coach Lindy Infante, the Colts again went 9-7 again and again reached the playoffs. Only this time, they were hammered 42-14 by Pittsburgh in the first round and were about to enter a downward spiral that would continue until the Manning years.
Indianapolis went 3-13 in 1997, and Harbaugh was traded to Baltimore after the season.
But few Colts fans dwell on the disappointing events of 1997. Most hail Harbaugh for the thrill-a-minute accomplishments of 1995, when Indy — for the first and only pre-Manning time — was the NFL’s best story.
How great was it? Consider: The Ring of Honor in Lucas Oil Stadium immortalizes the greatest Colts players of the Indy years. At the moment, the ring features only five players.
Harbaugh, who only played here two seasons, is one of them. Before 2011, he was one of only three, the others being Bill Brooks and Chris Hinton. Marvin Harrison was inducted in 2011. Edgerrin James was honored in 2012.
That’s the impact Harbaugh the player, the Colts first hero, made on the franchise.
Today, Harbaugh the coach is one win from a Super Bowl ring. Whether he gets it or not, it’s fairly safe to assert that the most noteworthy aspect of his NFL legacy will be as a head coach. What he’s accomplished in San Francisco in only two seasons is phenomenal, easily as phenomenal as putting the doormat Colts on the Super Bowl doorstep.
For that alone, Captain Comeback was truly the Indianapolis Colts’ first hero.