Sports and the NFL in particular have a way of creating lasting images of our heroes: memories so vivid and iconic that we can instantly recall them. Brett Favre sprinting down the field, helmet raised high as the clock ticked down towards the Packers Super Bowl XXXI victory. John Elway the following year finally raising the Lombardi Trophy.
But of all the famous NFL images the one that is indelibly burned into my mind is not of a Super Bowl victory. It isn't even of a playoff or regular season victory. In fact, the image I recall the most is of a loss. A brutal, destiny-denying loss. And a throw that defined a personal belief.
Jim Harbaugh's nickname during the 1995 season was "Captain Comeback." Taking over a beleaguered Colts franchise in Week 2 he guided them to a 9-7 record and a playoff berth. In the AFC title game trailing 20-16 to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Harbaugh's iconic moment happened.
The "Hail Mary" pass is just that. It is a prayer. A wish that will most likely go unanswered. With apologies to Doug Flutie and Boston College, the final destination for such a pass is usually the ground. The fate of Harbaugh's pass was the same as thousands of others that came before it. Harbaugh's heave was batted, tipped then rolled off wide receiver Arron Bailey's stomach, tantalizingly close to being caught but ultimately incomplete. Game over. Season over.
What makes it an iconic image is the expectation. Harbaugh expected the pass to be caught. He was 100 percent sure he would throw a touchdown and the Colts would win. And his belief became contagious. The fans expected it, even the Steelers players watched in agony as the ball crested into the end zone fearing their season-long goal was about to be dashed.
Watch the look on everyone's face as the ball is in the air: 1995 AFC Title Game.
That contagious belief has followed Jim Harbaugh to the 49ers sideline. The personnel is the same from last year but the tenor of the team has changed. The 49ers expect to win and are reaping the rewards of that confidence. The expectation for this team was not to finish .500 for the first since 2002. The expectation is to win. Win until you can't win anymore.
Harbaugh's impact on the San Francisco 49ers cannot accurately be measured in X's and O's, stats or even wins. The true gauge is the fanatical belief that follows in his wake. The 49ers have taken on their coaches identity: stubborn, confident and resilient. In the end this season may turn out much like that Hail Mary pass in Pittsburgh. But for the 2011 49ers and Jim Harbaugh, that pass is still in the air waiting to be caught.