Ignitedby Jim Amidon
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Almost every boy growing up in America wants to be the quarterback, wants to be the hero who throws the game-winning touchdown pass, wants to be the guy who dates the cheerleader and who signs autographs for little kids. Every guy wants to be the quarterback. Including Russell Harbaugh, Wabash’s three-year starter.
Who wouldn’t want to be like Russ? He’s tall and good-looking, with sandy-brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and a powerful right arm—a dictionary-definition quarterback.
But for Russ, it’s not quite so simple. He came to Wabash to be the quarterback, "the guy" who would lead Chris Creighton’s Little Giants to conference championships and the playoffs. Football is the sole reason he chose to come to Wabash.
Football is also the reason he almost left Wabash.
Russell and his twin brother, Barry, were born to Glenn and Patti McCrory-Harbaugh, a pair of university professors. The twins shared everything—material stuff, sure, but also thoughts, ideas, dreams, and despair. And they shared a stuttering speech impediment that imprisoned them in years of speech therapy classes that, ultimately, had little effect.
Russell and Barry shared Wabash, too. For a year. While they lived just down the hall from one another in Martindale Hall, Russ had football to engage him. Barry did not. And so for the first time in their lives they began to grow apart. In a memoir he wrote for Professor Joy Castro’s class, Russ describes the experience:
"In a secluded dorm room a hallway’s length away from my own, he sat surrounded by those that were poised to take my place: Eggers, Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Russell Banks, Anne Lamott, Emmanuel Carrere, Chekhov, and Flannery O’Conner. I tried to keep up. Tried to appreciate the same things. Tried to initiate conversations that would strike a chord in him, make him realize that I, too, could be new and exciting; that I, too, could produce a world that he could thrive in. That year is lost to me in the blank stare of a brother who knew he was being held down, but couldn’t tell me, didn’t know how. For the first time ever, we could not communicate."
This was more than growing pains; this was akin to separation of conjoined twins—minds and bodies torn in two.
"I felt so disconnected from my brother that year," Russ says two years removed from the experience. "It was so painful. I felt like I had lost him, that he was angry. Now I understand that he had made some decisions based on our relationship, including coming to Wabash. He didn’t want to be generic; he didn’t want to be a Doublemint Gum commercial. He wanted to be an individual, and I didn’t. I still wanted to share everything."
It got worse for Russ when Barry transferred to the University of Evansville and quickly made friends with smart, beautiful women. As a sophomore, Russ felt more alone than ever. He made trips back and forth to Evansville every weekend to be with his brother and share in his experiences, still hoping to live the same life.
Football, which had brought Russ to Wabash and distanced him from his brother, further exacerbated the growing gulf between them. After a promising sophomore season, Russ lost his starting job early in his junior year. "I told my friend Chris Ogden that I’d win it back in four weeks, before the Wooster game." He earned it back in just two weeks.
Russ had the most efficient season in Wabash history, completing 62.6 percent of his passes. But Wabash lost four of its last five games.
In his memoir he wrote: "Football, to me, is not like what it is to everyone else. It is not about the blood. It is the feeling of the ball as it snaps from my hand. It is poetry. No one understood that. He did. I was now lost in a different category—from twin to quarterback. At least when I was Russell the twin, I had someone to share it with. Now I was Russ Harbaugh, No.3, and I had no one."
He took out his frustrations with himself, with Wabash, and with his depression in the only way he knew how: He took an independent study course and made a shockingly beautiful film about Wabash as a college for men. Some people thought it was his attempt to turn Wabash coeducational. Russ knew it was his way of working through his own personal identity crisis; Wabash’s identity crisis was the metaphor.
"The film allowed me to deal with what Barry’s absence had amplified in my own mind," he recalls. "It was a way for me to process things, to come to terms with my relationship with Wabash and with Barry."
THE TWINS WERE REUNITED during the summer of 2005 in San Francisco, with Barry working for Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope magazine and Russ interning with the San Francisco Film Society.
"Barry’s leaving Wabash was the best thing that could have happened to us," he now realizes. "It allowed us to grow as individuals and to experience different things and enjoy them intellectually in a way we couldn’t before. The space has been good for us."
Harbaugh returned to campus a different, more balanced person this fall. When he threw three touchdown passes in the season- opening thrashing of Kalamazoo College, he knew that the identity crisis was finally over; he knew who he was and what he wants to become. Even the stuttering seemed to subside or no longer matter.
"I’m involved intellectually at Wabash in a way that I never was before," he says. "I have some amazing relationships with professors like Elizabeth Lee, Warren Rosenberg, Mike Abbott, Joy Castro, Jeremy Hartnett, and Coach Creighton. I’ve got a balance in my life that has given me a calmness, a peace with the game of football."
Harbaugh will apply to a half-dozen film schools for graduate work, but he realizes his chance of gaining admission is a long shot. If he doesn’t get in right away, he’ll move to one of the coasts, get a job at night, and write scripts by day. "To be successful, I know that I have to sit down, every day, and write from 9 to 5."
It’s been about a year since he wrote: "I am my own blooming leaf, ignited and burning with maturity, desperately hanging on."
Today, though, Russell Harbaugh is no longer in the doldrums of autumn; he is reborn in spring and in full bloom at Wabash.
Contact Harbaugh at email@example.com
Visit www.wabash.edu to read about his record-breaking senior season.