Don’t Look Back

by Tom Swift

Dave Brooks, brother of the late 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey coach, Herb Brooks, while being interviewed by KFAN’s Dan Barreiro this week, shared a story about the miracle moment I had not heard before. Famously, after beating the Soviets, the coach had immediately left the ice. As his players began to celebrate in commemorative print fashion, the camera panned to the bench where the view was of Brooks’s backside. The coach was elbowing his way through a crowd of people slapping his back, shielded by security, up the tunnel and quickly out of view.

Dave, himself a former Olympic hockey player who had been watching the game in the stands, had a credential to go down to the secure area where his brother the coach, escaped. Dave jubilantly approached Herb to offer his attaboys and congratulations in a moment for which there were no adequate words.

In response, Herb said only: “It’s not over yet.”

The man who had just orchestrated the greatest upset, arguably, in the history of modern team sports had already moved on to the next game.

It is hard to fathom that level of focus.

One could make a comment about that. One could try to psychoanalyze. One could say such focus is to the point of being unhealthy. Certainly, it is not in line with the view so often espoused, circa 2020, in which the ultimate goal in life is not a gold medal but rather the ever-important and amorphous concept of “balance.” After all, who wants to devote one’s life to attain a goal — and Herb Brooks had been chasing his goal since the moment he had been the last player cut from the 1960 Olympic team, so 20 years, nearly half of his 42-year life to that point — if you cannot pause for even a moment so as to enjoy an achievement of that order?

To ask the question is to suggest a guy like Brooks could have answered it in more than one way. That is who he was.

Seems, too, you would have to accept that had he not been so otherworldly focused the result you might think he should have celebrated almost certainly would not have come about.

Besides, his team did have a game to play less than 48 hours later. Had they lost that final game, against Finland, they might not even have earned a medal, much less a gold, and few would remember, and none would celebrate forty years after the fact, the win that had just occurred.

Herb Brooks had achieved something the rest of the world had an opinion about. But he had not achieved his goal — the gold — yet.

I don’t wish to do anything with this anecdote, save for this: affirm that the extreme shows us the rule. Even for those of us who don’t wish to, or do not have, a singular goal of the sort than could result in someone putting a medal around our necks, clarity of purpose serves. There is a whole lot of noise in this world intended to capture our time and attention — every minute of every day we must choose how to respond to other people’s wishes for how we shall spend our lives. You can cut through so much this if you know simply what to focus on. That could be raising a child or or making music or being a fantastic sandwich-maker — certainly, one’s purpose doesn’t have to be of the sort of endeavor that is broadcast on television. And while the pursuit of rare excellence can be more than one thing, I suppose, we know it can’t be an endless number of things. The number is small. We might tacitly think we have time for a long list but we do not. We only have so much time on this planet. Whether we know it or not, we choose how we spend that time every minute of every day.

So we might as well focus on something that so great that there are not adequate words to describe what it means to achieve it.