NEW ORLEANS — One of the major story lines for Super Bowl XLVII has been the Harbaugh family, with brothers John and Jim coaching on opposite sidelines, each game-planning so his team can win the NFL’s ultimate prize.
The reality is that while the losing brother will be happy for the winning brother — eventually — one of the two will feel the long-lasting sting of not lifting the Lombardi Trophy.
But there are brothers in this game on the same team, with the chance to rejoice together.
San Francisco safety Donte Whitner and return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. aren’t brothers in the biological sense; they became brothers during shared training sessions, over the desire to become great, through the prodding and love of one man.
Ted Ginn Sr. has coached hundreds of football players at Glenville High School in Cleveland, and has sent dozens of those players to college programs. Five have made it to the NFL.
Ginn Jr. and Whitner are the last of that quintet still in the league, and now they’ve made it to the Super Bowl.
“In high school, me and Teddy were like this,” said Whitner, crossing his fingers. “His dad was the main motivator in pushing us to where we are now.
“I remember the first day I met him. I think I was in eighth grade and I ran into him at a function, and he was like, ‘What are you doing? You’re about to go to John Hay High School?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’
“He said, ‘No you’re not, you’re going to Glenville.’ He called my mom, made me go to Glenville High School, and it was honestly the hardest thing I ever did in my life.”
Ginn Sr. put the teenagers on a program. Through those high school years, they were up at 6 o’clock, trained for whatever sport they were participating in that season, went to classes, practice, and more personal training in the evenings, and Ginn Sr. made sure both finished their homework.
“This was four, five days a week,” said Whitner. “No school dances, none of that. Protein shakes before we knew what protein shakes were. He was the main motivator in getting us to this level.”
In a way, they were extended family even before Ginn Sr. brought Whitner to Glenville; Ginn Jr. said his father and one of Whitner’s uncles were best friends, and one of Whitner’s cousins was a close Ginn family friend.
But over those days of training, which included former Patriots linebacker Pierre Woods and former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, the bond became stronger. The group saw themselves almost as ambassadors: Their success could inspire others in their impoverished neighborhood.
“We excelled at it, to give a vision for somebody else,” Ginn Jr. said. “And me and [Whitner] are the last two standing dogs, but we’ve still got a nice little pack of us underneath us.”
There are four former Glenville players on the current Ohio State roster and two at Michigan, with several others at BCS colleges.
And Ginn Jr. drew inspiration from Whitner, who was a grade ahead of him.
“I watched Donte his senior year, watched him go to Ohio State, watched that man change his whole way of living, and he kind of gave me a little bit of a different way to do things,” Ginn Jr. said. “That’s how we kind of go — we all live and feed off each other.”
After Whitner wrapped up his successful career with the Buckeyes, he was a first-round pick of the Bills in 2006; in 2007, the Dolphins took Ginn Jr. in the first round.
Ginn Jr. arrived in San Francisco first, traded to the 49ers in 2010 after some disappointing seasons in Miami. Whitner signed with San Francisco as a free agent in 2011.
Though Whitner has had the more successful career in the NFL, he still has faith in his friend, the 49ers’ top punt returner and a kickoff returner but still a bit player in the offense.
“He’s not getting balls [in games] but in practice he’s looking really, really good,” said Whitner. “He’s running his routes the best he’s ever ran them, he’s catching the football, so when he gets his opportunity to get out there and make something happen, he’s going to do it.”
Ginn Jr. said they never talked about getting to this point, of sharing the field at the Super Bowl. Through their connection, they know how important it is.
“Right now we might not go and have a conversation about what the Super Bowl means, but we can look each other in the eye and know what time it is,” said Ginn Jr. “That’s just us being together for so long.”
They are dedicating the game to Ginn Sr., who has been battling pancreatic cancer and wasn’t able to be on the sidelines with his Glenville team last fall. But he was able to come to New Orleans, to see his sons play Sunday, with the possibility of seeing them share football’s greatest accomplishment. It would be tangible proof that their 6 a.m. workouts and missed school dances were completely worth every sweat-soaked moment.
Their girlfriends are best friends, their children have “Uncle Donte” and “Uncle Ted,” their parents are like parents to both men. Whitner feels so strongly about the impact Ginn Sr. has had on him he has “Thank God for Ginn” tattooed on one of his arms.
“The network we [had] coming up is still there, and the blessing is everybody can still watch us, at the same time, on the same team. That’s just a blessing,” Ginn Jr. said. “It ain’t just Donte Whitner or Ted Ginn, it’s the both of us. That’s the joy we have.”