“What counts in sports is not the victory, but the magnificence of the struggle.” — Joe Paterno
Shortly after the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup, ESPN’s Linda Cohn posted a picture of herself hugging the Stanley Cup a few years earlier at the Hockey Hall of Fame. Her caption started “This is how the St. Louis Blues feel.”
With all due respect, there is no way any of us can know how the St. Louis Blues felt. In the world of Twitter-Facebook-Insta-Snap, posing and posturing is in. Quietly relishing the journey as it unfolds is out. But by comparison the moment of triumph always pales next to the efforts it took to get there.
For St. Louis Blues players this was likely a lifelong journey. Years of early mornings at rinks practicing a sport they loved. There were probably countless days of Mom or Dad driving them to youth tournaments on icy roads through bitter cold and drifting snow. In moments of youthful optimism they dreamed of an ultimate championship they probably never thought they’d attain.
A price was paid to make the NHL, one that none of us can really understand. Maybe it was college hockey, the AHL and time spent away from family, hours of intense physical and mental preparation. With the Stanley Cup summit within sight, they played through pain and endured relentless fatigue.
The journey wasn’t free and it exacted its toll. But the journey is valued above all else because it is what ensures all else.
Years ago on a recruiting visit to Jarrett Payton’s home, we were blessed to listen to Walter Payton and Joe Paterno talk about winning championships. Neither one talked about rings or trophies. They smiled the smiles of nostalgic reflection, recounting stories of individual and shared sacrifices. Early mornings, late nights, long days of preseason hell-fires, the icy cold of November or December games, key big-game moments when the preparation produced championship performance.
This week as the U.S. women’s national soccer team marched to their destiny, they all paid the price earning those memorable moments in France. Penn State alumna Alyssa Naeher stopping a crucial penalty kick did not just happen. She arrived at that crucial moment on a world stage after countless hours of preparation.
Joe Paterno always talked about life lessons learned and the confidence gained by a long ascent toward the summit. In 1997, Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr used a pickaxe as a symbol of the climb all season long on his team’s way to a championship. He wanted his team to realize championships are earned daily.
There are seasons when you can see it coming and you look forward to the climb every day. You know that a team has the drive and commitment to a goal and to each other. You see the love, the unity. Not every person on the team may like everyone else, but they love, trust and respect one another. The trust and respect comes from witnessing each other’s efforts toward excellence.
In the middle of those years I’d tell guys I coached to soak up the moments and to savor the ride… because it will end. When it passes like the blink of an eye, you want nothing more than to capture that feeling of being on that team at practice or in a game just one more time.
Not long ago I spoke with a coach at a big-time college football program at the end of a disappointing season. When I asked what had gone wrong he was candid: “We have a bunch of guys who like getting recruited more than they like paying the price to play football.”
That spoke volumes about society’s premium placed on flash and style, while we’ve discounted the substance of the march toward life’s real victories. Signing day isn’t a destination but rather a step. All that you have done in high school vanishes and it won’t get your team one first down or one basket or one goal. Posting pictures on social media won’t get you a single point. Music on the practice field, or cool amenities in your team facility mean nothing.
What matters is the hard work where there is no applause, where there are no television cameras and no fans. It is in the hardest physical and mental moments in practice when you summon enough grit to push through one last play, one last sprint and know the fire you’ve endured forged a steely resolve. And through that you and your team know you’ll never bend in the face of daunting challenges.
Everyone wants to be a part of the championship moment and have some of that magic rub off on them. That is why we are drawn to the presentation of the Stanley Cup, or the Lombardi Trophy or the World Cup. But you can bet that years from now those coaches and players will hold dearest the memories of what it took to get there and how much they relied on one another.
Those moments can’t be hash-tagged or tweeted, but they mean more and last so much longer in the minds of those who became champions. Maybe it’s old school or out of touch with a new reality. But technology and changing times will never overcome treks across life’s landscapes that are most treasured by our unchanging human nature.