INDIANAPOLIS – The quarterback is a sweetheart, trust me. Yeah, I’m seeing the same pictures you’re seeing of No. 3 for Wabash, not just the best quarterback in school history by most measures, but the most barbaric: Mouth roaring, veins popping, hair all over his head, all over his face. He doesn’t exactly look evolved. He looks – what’s the word? – cave-manny.
Before he was noticed by the intellectual elite on both sides of the Atlantic, before he slayed ‘em at Sundance and Tribeca and signed up Andie MacDowell and released a film last week to hosannas from Variety and Village Voice and The New York Times, before he was called an American cinematic prodigy for his debut film, “Love After Love” …
He was called: Russ.
Remember Russ Harbaugh? Wasn’t that long ago. It was 2005 when he was Wabash’s All-American, throwing for 3,521 yards and 29 touchdowns and just five interceptions, guiding the Little Giants to the No. 1 national ranking in 2005. Even today, all over the Wabash record book, there’s the name: Russ Harbaugh.
But that’s the only place you’ll find the name today. Everywhere else, to everyone else, he’s Russell. It’s more mature, more formal, more … pretentious? Is that what happened to No. 3? We know he went all international on us – did he go pretentious on us as well? Someone had to ask him. So I asked, first words out of my mouth, start of a conversation that would last an hour, a conversation about life and death and someone named Maurice Pialat:
Russ was good enough for us here in Indiana, and there at Wabash. Is it not good enough for The New York Times?
No, the question isn’t all that remarkable. Just a question, you know? But the answer is revealing: the way Harbaugh approaches it, paws at it, disappears inside his terrifyingly, intimidatingly powerful brain to search for it.
“That’s interesting,” Russell Harbaugh says, his first two words of more than 5,000 that will come over the next hour, and he stops. But I’ve been prepped in advance: He pauses a lot. He’s thinking. That brain of his, bottled up inside his shiny bald head like a fine wine, it’s breathing.
“Why Russell? I don’t know,” he says. “I think … I don’t know.”
“I guess I wanted to make sure when I was 70, that I didn’t look back and say I wished I went with my full name with my movie. I went by ‘Russ’ at Wabash. Maybe it’s a way of …”
He’s getting closer to the answer, he can feel it.
“OK,” he says. “Maybe this is getting to why: It was a way of forcing some kind of distinction between the football part of my life, and what came later.”
Russell Harbaugh answers a question – my questions, life’s questions – the same way. He works it through.