Who Do You Play For?
There is this beautiful scene in the movie Miracle—about the unlikely gold medal 1980 USA Men’s Hockey Team—that makes me cry every time. Sports movies have their way of pulling at the strings inside me that bleed for sacrifice and greatness.
Herb Brooks, the team’s coach, is the silent, powerful type. He’s the kind of guy that’s playing chess whilst others are playing checkers. Studying film and human psychology with a crazy degree of obsession.
With this team, he has his work cut out for him. He must push a group of young men to their limits—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Not to mention, he must dismantle their egos, piece by piece. [Many of the players have competed in the past as opponents for collegiate national championships, and still hold mile-deep grudges against one another.]
This hodgepodge of amateur players are tasked with joining each other on the ice, learning skate and pass in unison, and completing a feat that no group of American hockey players had yet to do: beat the Soviet Union.
Throughout the movie, Herb often pauses practice to ask random players to introduce themselves with their names, where they grew up, and who they play for. This is an exercise in “getting to know each other” if only on the surface level.
The typical player responds something to the effect of, “Jack O’Callahan. Charlestown, MA. Boston University”, and then play resumes.
After a loss in an olympic qualifier that easily could have been a win, Herb is fed up. In an embarrassing sort of fashion, he keeps his players on the ice as the crowd exits. The whistle blows. The players skate—red line, back, blue line, back, far blue line, back. Again and again, the whistle blows and the players skate with everything left in their tanks.
Between each whistle, Herb yells things like:
“You better think about something else, each and every one of you. When you pull on that jersey, you represent yourself and your teammates...and the name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the one on the back. Get that through your head. AGAIN!”
As the team doctor and assistant coach grow uneasy, Herb keeps pushing the players. They are far past the point of exhaustion, gagging on the ice, falling over.
What saves them from Herb’s wrath? Not the ice manager, the lights shutting off, or their doctor interjecting. But a b-level amateur player—one that the scouts never thought would make a first cut for the team.
Through labored breath, he musters the words: “Mike Eruzione. Winthrop, MA.”
Herb asks, “Who do you play for?”
“I play for… The United States of America.”
At their best, athletes exhibit the best of what it is to be human.
Athletic competition requires collaboration, risk, passion, sacrifice, camaraderie, effort, skill, discipline, and mastery. It helps us to connect with our bodies and minds in a sort of primal way.
It is an exhibition of what greatness takes in any arena. A spectacle of the highs and lows, the wins and losses of life. The underdog always has a chance to unseat a longstanding victor.
But most of all, sport highlights what we crave at the deepest level—to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. We want to work for something with others.
This is what Herb Brooks was trying to get his players to realize. When you are playing for something far bigger than yourself, for your family, your team, your community, your tribe, your mission, your company, or your country—this deeper meaning drives you to lengths you could never otherwise go.
So I’ll pose to you the same question as Herb Brooks did to his players:
Who do you play for?
It’s perhaps one of the most important questions you will ever answer.