Two years ago, Jim Harbaugh was shown a plot of land the Catholic church had recently purchased in the city of Piura, Peru. Harbaugh saw a small stream, some rocks and scrub and a lot of dirt. "It looked like a piece of wasteland that nobody wanted, basically," he said.
When he returned in June, there was a K-11 school on the plot with 690 children - all of them neatly dressed in school uniforms - filling every desk. "It was beautiful," he said.
Harbaugh has a reputation for quick turnarounds as far as rebuilding downtrodden programs at the University of San Diego, Stanford and the 49ers. The project he works on each summer, however, promises to last a lifetime.
Harbaugh first visited Piura in 2009 after hearing a friend describe his own experience with the Most Blessed Sacrament Parrish there. The 49ers coach has been going back ever since, and he even missed a rookie minicamp -- gasp-worthy when it comes to control-freak NFL coaches -- to go this year. He used the word "transformational" three times in a recent interview in describing the effect of the visits.
Asked how he's been transformed, Harbaugh hesitated a bit. "In some ways, it's a little uncomfortable talking about it," he said. "The scripture says, 'Don't let your left hand know what your right hand's doing,' you know? On the other hand, it's so good. It's not only been a great experience for me but my friends that I want to tell people about it. I feel like I should share this. I'm lucky to participate and be surrounded by so much good."
Harbaugh goes with a group of friends - contrary to what he's said in the past, he has several - and each of them sponsors a child in the town north of Lima where 60 percent of the population lives in poverty and 20 percent is in extreme poverty.
In Piura, Harbaugh is known not as Jim but Diego. He's not sure if it's because Diego is Spanish for James or because during his first visit was decked out in University of San Diego gear. He said he was being taught how to build houses during that initial visit when the locals started calling him by his alternate name.
"I was building the house and they would say, 'No, Diego, no,'" he said while miming someone hammering nails into boards. "After a couple more days it was, 'Muy bien, Diego. Muy bien.'"
Of course, it's not all work.
When Harbaugh visits, he passes out football gear - there are more than a few USD, Stanford and 49ers jerseys in Piura - and he's rolled out a few footballs as well. He said he and the kids there invented a sport called "Peruball," which substitutes soccer goals for end zones.
"When we had the camps at Stanford, we introduced them to Peruball," he said. "It's a really good game, actually. And our Stanford football players have played Peruball. Somewhere there's video out there of the Peruball games with some of the kids."
* photo from Catholic News Agency
-- Matt Barrows