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Backstory behind infamous 2011 Harbaugh-Schwartz handshake

NBC Sports
The Harbaugh-Schwartz handshake

The start of NFL free agency saw the 49ers lose a 12-year member of the organization who will not be listed on any transaction report.

Bob Lange, 44, the 49ers’ vice president of communications, is returning to his hometown of Philadelphia to accept a senior vice president position with the Eagles.

Lange’s role with the 49ers has mostly been behind the scenes, prepping coaches and players for media interviews and coordinating the team’s publicity efforts.

But his departure brings back memories of one notable time in which he found himself in the middle of the action and left little doubt of his Philadelphia roots.

A while back Lange shared with NBC Sports Bay Area his recollections of that Week 6 game in 2011, which is best remembered for the postgame “handshake” between 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz.

As the story goes, Harbaugh joined his brother, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, and Schwartz for a dinner at the NFL owners meeting during the lockout months before the start of the regular season.

Schwartz, in essence, told Harbaugh he would have little chance for a successful first season with the 49ers if the lockout lasted into the summer. That’s exactly what happened.

But, in fact, the 49ers with their new coaching staff somehow managed to get off to a fast start.

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The 49ers were 4-1, and the Lions were 5-0, entering the mid-October game at Ford Field.

It was a heated encounter. At one point, Schwartz could be seen mocking Harbaugh from across the field when he challenged a call that could not be challenged.

 

Alex Smith hit Delanie Walker on a 6-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-down play with less than two minutes remaining and the 49ers escaped with a 25-19 victory.

Harbaugh was ecstatic. He untucked his shirt, chest-bumped offensive lineman Alex Boone and bounded toward Schwartz at midfield.

Harbaugh went in aggressively with his right hand for the “handshake,” then gave Schwartz a hard slap on the back with his left hand.

And that’s when Lange entered the picture.

Lange would always be situated on the 49ers’ sideline for the final minutes of the game. Then, he would take an angle to intercept the coach on his way to the locker room to begin the process of briefing him for his postgame responsibilities.

“As I’m getting closer to Harbaugh, I’m 10 feet from him, I see a white blur come around from the other side of him,” Lange said. “And I realize it’s Jim Schwartz, and he’s jawing at Harbaugh. He bumped his chest into Harbaugh’s shoulder.

“And so I literally stepped in front of Harbaugh and swung my body around between the two of them.”

Lange said it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to step between the two men. His adrenaline was racing, his heart was pounding, and he does not recall what was being said among Harbaugh and Schwartz.

“I just knew it wasn’t going to end well,” Lange said.

If nobody could relay what, exactly, Schwartz and Harbaugh communicated to each other, it did not take a trained lip-reader to see what Lange was saying.

Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!

“I don’t recall what I said, but certainly all of the subsequent TV coverage you could see very clearly what was coming out of my mouth,” Lange said. “And it’s typically not out of character for me to say, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa.’ ”

Anthony Davis, the 49ers’ right tackle, was in the middle of the action. He seemed to find the confrontation particularly amusing. Meanwhile, Lange, Lou Pezzola of the 49ers’ security staff and several members of the Detroit Lions staff tried to restore order.

Both teams clustered in the back of the end zone, near the tunnel that leads to the locker rooms of both teams.

“Both teams were yelling at each other,” Lange said. “And all 5-foot-6 of me was trying to keep people off each other.”

Back on the field, 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman had his back turned to all of the action as he conducted a postgame interview. When he concluded, Bowman asked 49ers public-relations staffer Dan Beckler about the commotion.

Beckler handed Bowman his helmet and said, “Be smart.”

"I got ya," Bowman replied.

If Beckler had meant it to sound the alarm for Bowman to avoid the confrontation, that message might have gotten lost in translation. Bowman put on his helmet and buckled the chinstrap en route to joining the fracas.

 

In all the chaos, one 49ers offensive lineman figured Lange had done enough.

“I feel fingers down the back collar of my dress shirt,” Lange said. “And I’m being dragged out of that scrum. And I look up and it’s Chilo Rachal. He looked at me and says something along the lines of ‘What are you doing in there? You’re going to get killed.’ ”

Even Harbaugh, the former NFL quarterback, knew this was no longer a place for non-players, such as himself and Lange.

“We’re coming up the tunnel together and there’s still a little bit of a scrum in the actual tunnel,” Lange said, “and he looks at me and said, ‘We have to get out of here.’”

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Harbaugh and Lange entered a locker room that grew more raucous as wave after wave of 49ers players streamed in.

The bus ride from the stadium to the airport was particularly enjoyable, as many players greeted Lange enthusiastically.

“The Philly in you came out.”

“I didn’t know you had it in you.”

“We got to see the Philly today.”

The social media world exploded. Lange had not had a haircut since training camp. A lot of eyes were drawn toward the short guy in the suit shouting, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!”

“I saw more comments about the guy with the slick-backed hair and the mullet on Twitter,” Lange said. “It was just funny to see the fan response.”

Lange was in his third season with the 49ers, and his first with Harbaugh, his staff and many of the players. He might have earned some credibility with the team for his willingness to throw himself into the mix.

An old story resurfaced, too. Because of his role in a scuffle during a high school football practice, Lange was nicknamed "Clubber." The name was inspired by the boxer in Rocky III, Clubber Lane, played by Mr. T.

Former 49ers front office member Tom Gamble learned of the story from Lange's past and the nickname caught on inside the 49ers' facility in Santa Clara. There was only one problem, of course. Rocky Balboa was the one from Philadelphia.

Lange made it through the handshake incident unscathed. He did not get trampled, as Rachal feared he might.

However, Lange did lose a cufflink from his suit coat — most likely during the chaos in that corner of the end zone.

But, hey, that was a small price to pay for having such a significant role in the most memorable postgame handshake in 49ers history.

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