Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Sports: Remembering the Miracle Worker

Eric McErlain posts a fitting tribute to the late Herb Brooks on his blog:
I never knew Herb Brooks. I never saw him in person, and after the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, never rooted for a team he coached.

Then why have I been walking around all evening feeling like I've been gut punched?

It may be hard for readers even just a few years younger than me to understand, but even back then as a 12-year old, I could tell that things just weren't right in America. The nation was locked in a recession, with gasoline rationing a recent memory. Our nation seemed impotent in the face of a radical Islamic regime in Iran that invaded our Embassy and took its staff hostage. The Cold War was real, and we didn't know if the good guys were going to win.

Enter Brooks and a team of college kids he had molded into a fiery squad that at times may have hated and resented him more than the Olympic opposition. Brooks had taken the 1980 team on a brutal pre-Olympic tour that culminated in an exhibition against the powerful Soviets at Madison Square Garden just a week before the start of the Games in Lake Placid.

I can still remember begging my father to take me. And I should feel lucky that he didn't, as the Russians cruised to a 10-3 victory, hardly noticing the Americans at all. Heading to Lake Placid, expectations couldn't have been lower.

Which made what happened next all the more delightfully improbable. The Olympic Tournament started quietly enough, as the team salvaged a last-minute tie with Sweden, then rolled through the rest of the preliminary round without a loss and earned another date with the Soviets in the medal round.

In a 300-channel universe with satellite tv and digital cable, can anyone still understand the concept of tape delay? But that's what the geniuses at ABC served up for us on that February evening, not starting the telecast until 5:00 p.m. in the East, several hours after the game had already begun.

But this was a miracle we're talking about, and the weekend would be magic. Even today, nearly a quarter century later, when I watch the highlights of Al Michaels counting down the final seconds of the 4-3 win over the Soviets the tension all comes flooding back, as if the Soviets might actually be able to tear a rift in time and come out on top.

But it wasn't over yet. Team USA still had to beat Finland on Sunday morning in order to win the gold medal. How Brooks was able to bring his team down from such an emotional high on Friday, and then have them focused for success on Sunday has to be one of the greatest coaching achievements of all time.

But bring them down he did, and a 4-2 win secured the gold for the Americans. And then, over the next few weeks, something equally improbable happened. All over the country, after being out of fashion for some time, it became ok to say you loved your country again. Full throated, flag waving patriotism was back, and it was Brooks and 20 kids with names Eruzione, Schneider, O'Callahan, Craig, Christian, and all the others, that made it happen.

Yesterday, on a highway outside of Minneapolis, America lost a hero. A team lost it coach. A family lost its father. And I said goodbye to a cherished piece of my childhood. Rest in peace, Herb Brooks. And thank you. Thank you for more than you could ever know.

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