11/23/2011 11:22 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2012

Football and Family: Harbaugh Brothers Face Off On Thanksgiving Day

On Thanksgiving Day, families across America will gather together as they have for generations and dig into the real main course: watching NFL football. But for certain families, the ritual is about much more than just sitting and digesting on the couch.

This year's prime-time Thanksgiving game between two of the league's best teams on NFL Network, the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, is a perfect example. It features two head coaches, Jim and John Harbaugh, who are the first brothers to serve as head coaches in the NFL. The Harbaughs' father, Jack, was a longtime college coach. From boyhood, Jim and John's entire experience of learning about the world both on and off the field was shaped by their dad's profession and the family's deep connection to football.

I can definitely relate. My father, Jim E. Mora, and I are one of only five father-son combinations to have both served as NFL head coaches. I can remember growing up wondering how "regular" families celebrated Thanksgiving cooped up in the house all day. It's always fun to watch games on TV, and as a father of four children now, I certainly treasure any of the time we get to spend together. Growing up, though, it felt pretty special to not sit on the couch, and to know that my dad was a big part of what happened on the other end of those games being played on TV that week.

By my teen-age years, dad had moved up from the college ranks to the coaching staff of the expansion Seattle Seahawks and I was spending a lot of time at his "office," aka the Kingdome. In between my high school football practices, I worked as a visitors' locker-room attendant. Thanksgiving in those years unfolded like a short pause during the heat of battle, but that was just fine by me. Reflecting on it now, it isn't that I relished the sacrifice or the time spent apart from my dad, but the reality is that football has given us a common language so I intuitively grasped the tradeoff. Football may have limited family time but it made up for it by imprinting on us the meaning of brotherhood and teamwork and unity. In that way, it made us thankful. And isn't that the whole point of Thanksgiving?

Whether or not it is manifest at the NFL level, passion for football passed down from father to son is a precious thing, and for a lot of us that legacy defines the game. Plenty of other families you know --- the Ryans, the Mannings, the Belichicks, the Shulas, the Elways, the Matthewses, and many more -- can attest to that.

Sometimes, the passion is complex -- as the Harbaughs are undoubtedly going to discover if they haven't already. It has the power to temporarily divide families, to pit brother against brother. If you've ever sparred with relatives over the outcome of a game on TV, just imagine if your entire career were also at stake.

In 2005, my second year as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, I got to experience Thanksgiving Day in a familiar place: on the football field. I became the first Mora to coach an NFL game on Thanksgiving Day, and happily the outcome was a 27-7 win over the Detroit Lions. We were on the road that day, so there wasn't much time for turkey or trimmings. But my wife, four kids, two brothers -- and certainly my dad -- would probably tell you they wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Jim L. Mora, son of former NFL coach Jim E. Mora, is a former NFL head coach and an analyst on NFL Network and Fox Sports.