Why Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh once played 5 games of racquetball while recovering from chicken pox

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — He looked like fresh hell. Fresh hell in spots. Jim Harbaugh was covered head-to-toe in chicken pox, a two-legged banana waiting to be read its last rites.

“And I’m the first one to greet him,” Ken Valdiserri recalls. He was the head of the Chicago Bears public relations staff at the time, and the designated greeter of No. 1 draft picks.

“I said, ‘Can I get you anything, Jim?’ He says, ‘Hey, just get me some water.’ ”

Fun fact No. 1: The future Michigan Wolverines coach and the 26th overall selection in the 1987 NFL Draft greeted his new employers wearing makeup applied by his mother to try and cover up the impromptu virus that’d turned his face into a flesh Titlelist ball.

Fun fact No. 2: He wanted to play racquetball. Like, immediately.

Again, while battling chicken pox.

Actually, that second one requires a little explaining. Some 30 years ago this month, the last week of April, Harbaugh was whisked into the Windy City to meet the powers that be at Halas Hall — president Mike McCaskey, personnel director Bill Tobin, coach Mike Ditka — and then the media.

One problem: When the future Captain Comeback arrived, sick as a dog, the war room was locked up tight.

“I had to explain to him that the guys were still in the draft room and they couldn’t meet him at this point,” Valdisseri continued, “and it would probably be a little bit, because I think we had a lot going on — we were trying to trade, we had a high second-round pick, who knows? It was going to be some time.

“He asks, ‘Is there a workout room?’ He says, ‘By chance, do you play racquetball?’ ”

By chance, Valdiserri did.

“And I go down with him and play 5 games of racquetball with him having chicken pox,” Valdisseri chuckles. “This is before he meets (Ditka) and McCaskey and Tobin and so forth. He’s competitive, as we know.

“And he finally showers, we bring him upstairs and meet the crew, because now they had a break in the action in the draft. They bring him in, he’s now both wet and has chicken pox. You can imagine how they looked at it.”

‘The ultimate competitor’

We’ve got ourselves a winner here. Or a goof. Or both. The competitiveness — the obsession, the passion, the drive bordering on bonkers, Jim Harbaugh’s best ally and worst enemy, two sides of the same coin — was largely the same beast 30 years ago.

Just younger. Younger, with better hair.

“He was kind of a dual-threat before dual-threats (were big),” recalled former NFL scout Bill Rees, who’d tried to recruit Harbaugh to UCLA when the young quarterback was at Palo Alto (Calif.) High School. “He could run and throw. At that point, he was probably a little better runner than he was a passer. But he was very good at both. He was very competitive and very athletic and had good size.”

Fun fact No. 3: Harbaugh went to the 1987 NFL Combine — it was a closed shop then, a cloak-and-dagger bubble in which…

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