35 years seems like yesterday for U.S. hockey fans

I think I’ve mentioned before how I’ll try my best to update this more regularly. I’m starting that today, but, if you can hang with me, I’m doing so with a “reprint” from about seven years ago. I’ve updated it for clarity sake, showing that it’s been 35 years. Wow..35 years! Hard to believe. But so much fun to remember.

Ken Morrow’s heard the stories. Countless people could tell him today what they were doing 35 years ago this past weekend.

I remember vividly 35 years ago this week, Feb. 25, 1980. Thirty-five days ago is a little sketchy. Shoot, 35 minutes ago is a struggle to remember. But 35 years ago is clear.

That’s likely how it is for most anyone born in the United States before the mid-1970s or so.

Ken Morrow

Personally, I was playing intramural hockey at Dorothy Moody Elementary School in Overland Park. Intramurals gave kids like me a reason for going to school. Well, that and whenever they served beef fritters for lunch.

We played hockey in the gymnasium with yellow and red plastic sticks, and we had a blast. In 1980, thanks to dumb luck or gym teacher Mr. Sears’ uncanny timing, hockey week at Dorothy Moody came during the Olympics.

Our last day of hockey fell on Monday, Feb. 25, a day after we watched the United States hockey team cap off the greatest sports moment of the 20th century by beating Finland and capturing the gold medal in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Seeded seventh, just reaching the final four was going to be an accomplishment for the young U.S. team. Winning a bronze medal was nearly unthinkable. A gold medal?

“You don’t go into it saying you can’t win (the gold),” says Morrow, a defenseman on that American team. “Really, the assumption going in was that the Russians had the gold and if we made it to the final four, we’d fight with Sweden and Finland for the bronze.”

Of course, that’s not exactly how it played out. Morrow and his teammates spoiled it for those other three countries. First, by knocking off the Soviets on Friday in one of sports’ most unlikely upsets. The Soviets hadn’t lost an Olympic hockey match since 1968.

“We had practice on Saturday morning and we definitely were feeling good about ourselves after beating the Russians,” says Morrow, who’s lived in the Kansas City area since the early 1990s, when he spent two years as an assistant coach for the Blades of the International Hockey League.

“Guys were patting each other on the backs. (Head coach) Herb Brooks came in and put the hammer down right away. But it was needed. He let us know in no uncertain terms that if we didn’t straighten up that we would blow a great chance.”

They didn’t. The United States, which wasn’t guaranteed a medal going into their game on Sunday, came from behind in the final period and beat Finland, cementing their place in American history. The team then had to wait for the Soviet Union-Sweden game to be played before the medal ceremony.

“A lot of us had family and friends up there for the whole two weeks,” Morrow said, “and we brought everyone into the locker room, shut the doors, and basically spent the next two hours kind of in disbelief with them and a couple bottles of champagne.

“That was my greatest moment of the whole Olympics — being able to sit there with a lot of tears, sharing the moment with family and friends.”

The funny thing is, being secluded like that had become normal for Morrow and his teammates. In fact, they had no idea their wins were carrying any magnitude at all around the country.

By Brooks’ design, the players were sheltered from all of that. He kept them away from giving interviews during the Olympics and they lived three men to a trailer which had only radios — no televisions. Their lone focus was hockey.

The players didn’t even realize there was a tremendous American following until they flew to Washington on Monday morning on Air Force One with other U.S. Olympians to meet with President Jimmy Carter.

“To our amazement, there was a huge crowd of people when we landed,” said Morrow. “Then, busses took us from the Air Force base to the White House, and all along the route, people lined the streets, waving signs and flags. Some of the guys have said that’s when it really hit them that the whole country was excited; not just the people in Lake Placid.”

So, is that when it hit Morrow?

“I can’t say that it’s ever hit me,” he said. “I know the magnitude of it, but I don’t know that I ever really sat down and went ‘whew!’”

For Morrow, who was one of the older guys on the team at 23 (and the only one allowed to have a beard), there really wasn’t much time to think about the accomplishment. Later that Monday, abruptly after being together for seven months, members of the team went their separate ways and went on with their lives.

Morrow spent a couple of days with his wife Barb — they got married in August of 1979, right before the team left for Europe to begin exhibition play. But then, three days after being toasted in Washington, he was practicing for the first time with his new NHL team, the New York Islanders. Then, on Saturday, he was playing in his first NHL game. (Incidentally, the Islanders went to the Stanley Cup finals in each of Morrow’s first five years in the league, winning the title four times.)

Following a 10-year NHL career, Morrow coached in the IHL in Michigan and Kansas City, before becoming the Islanders’ Director of Pro Scouting.

Over time, the 1980 U.S. hockey win against the Soviet Union and then ultimately the gold medal has gone from a legendary Olympic moment to an important piece of American history. It’s one of the few feel-good “I remember what I was doing when that happened” historical moments.

In the final seconds of our game at Dorothy Moody on that Monday, our yellow team was down by one, and I got the puck in the high slot (directly in front of the goal). Wanting to be like Mike Eruzione, who scored the game-winning goal three days earlier against the Soviets, I quickly dropped my right hand down the stick, raised the skinny piece of yellow and white plastic back and fired a slap shot toward the red team’s goalie. (And, no, Eruzione didn’t take a slap shot, but I was caught up in the moment.)

It missed. Never came close. Although I think I nailed Chris Garrett in the head with the stick. Luckily he was one of my best friends. Otherwise, he could’ve pounded me. That is, if he didn’t have double-vision from that small stick that I thought would score the game-tying goal.

Morrow hears plenty of stories like that. Or people who were in a bar on the beach in Hawaii. Or a father and his son in a basement in Wichita, Kans.

“The one thing I’ve taken from all of this is how (the moment has) struck people in a certain way. I still get mail everyday, at least one or two pieces,” Morrow said. “The guys will tell you that we’re amazed and shocked that people still talk about it the way they do.”

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Moore and Yost built winner

Throughout the World Series — and even before — there’s been plenty of talk about the job Ned Yost has done managing the Royals. (Or, more appropriately, mis-managing the Royals.) Hey, even I’ve been on that bashwagon. Sure I could do a better job of managing this club, at least that’s what we all think. Is Ned Yost the best manager in baseball? Of course not. He’s not even the best manager in the American League. But like it or not, Yost is doing something that only one other manager in Major League Baseball is doing right now — managing a team in the World Series. Getting to this point has been years in the making, starting with David Glass hiring Dayton Moore to become Kansas City’s general manager. So, before you bash Yost much more, here’s a quick little piece about Moore — and Yost — deserve credit for this club being right here, right now.

What a difference a year makes. Or seven or eight.

Royals general manager Dayton Moore, a baseball man from the days before he could even think about becoming a man, has desired to cultivate the Royals into winners more than you can imagine. That’s been the case since he became the club’s sixth general manager on June 8, 2006. Developing a winner, though, takes time — longer, evidently, than many fans were willing to wait — especially with how depleted the Royals farm system was, according to various people around baseball, when Moore took over.

And it certainly took time. In Moore’s seventh full season, 2013, the Royals finished 86-76. It was the club’s first winning season since 2003, and the most number of victories since winning 92 in 1989. Even though the Royals were in the chase for a Wild Card berth until the last week of the season, they fell short and finished third in the Central, seven games behind Detroit.

Key players on the 2013 roster were homegrown, including Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, both of whom were Allard Baird draft picks; Greg Holland (10th round, 2007), Eric Hosmer (first round, 2008), Mike Moustakas (first round, 2007), and Salvador Perez (non-drafted free agent signing, 2006).

After the winning record and Wild Card push in 2013, many fans remained unhappy with the progress and with Moore’s excitement. Still, he felt there was reason to look ahead optimistically to 2014.

“I believe that all our players that are signed long-term or under team control are going to get better,” he said during his 2013 postseason press conference. “That is a comforting feeling. Is it just going to happen? No. They are going to have to continue to work hard, apply instructions and make adjustments. They are going to have to continue to commit to becoming great players.”

But decades of losing can do funny things to a fan base, whether that fan base is old enough to remember the “glory days” of the 1970s and ‘80s or young enough to be part of today’s society of instant gratification. So, after enduring losing season after losing season and bad trade after bad acquisition under previous general managers, seven seasons of waiting for “the process” to work was an eternity.

Are you kidding, Zack Greinke to Milwaukee for (mainly) a light-hitting shortstop named Alcides Escobar and an outfielder named Lorenzo Cain, who had played a whopping 43 games in the big leagues in six professional seasons? And then you’re going to send the future greatest Royal ever, Wil Myers, along with two stud minor-league pitchers for a short-term starter in James Shields and a barely-average starter named Wade Davis?

Of course, making matters worse, Moore backed Ned Yost, whom he’d hired in May 2010 to lead this club. Throughout 2013 and ‘14, in particular, fans came up with all sorts of words to describe Yost, and most of them aren’t very pleasant. He’s unapologetic. He comes off as condescending. And he’s made moves that fans and former players alike think are boneheaded, which has fostered the term “Yosted” to describe anything and everything negative in life.

Of course, it was a controversial decision Yost made in the sixth inning of the Wild Card game that almost kept the Royals from advancing in the 2014 playoffs. After starter Shields gave up a bloop single and then issued a walk, with two on and nobody out and Kansas City holding a 3-2 lead with Brandon Moss — who homered earlier — coming to the plate, Yost pulled Shields, who’d thrown 88 pitches, and brought in starter Yordano Ventura. Moss sent Ventura’s third pitch 432 feet to dead center. It seemed as though social media might combust at once with thousands of fans and other detractors saying how the Royals had been “Yosted.” Funny, though. The Royals overcame any questionable judgment decisions in that first postseason game and went on to make 2014 the “Yostseason.”

“I don’t need vindication,” Yost said after the Royals swept the Orioles in the ALCS. “I’m comfortable with who I am. And everything that I look at, I don’t look at much. But I’m the dumbest guy on the face of the earth. But I know that’s not true. … I am smart enough to hire really, really good coaches and use them. But I’m real comfortable in my own skin. I don’t feel like I need vindication. I’m not looking for it, don’t care for it.

“My whole goal — none of this was ever about me. To winning a championship was all about this city, our fans and these players. I’ve been there six times before, I know how special it is. And I wanted my players to experience it. I wanted the city of Kansas City to experience it and our fans.”

And, thanks to Dayton Moore, who built a deep farm system and assembled a club with pitching and speed that could win at spacious Kauffman Stadium, Ned Yost was able to take that group of players, push the right buttons and use each player to his strength, and lead them to the World Series for the first time in their careers and only the third time in Royals franchise history, en route to becoming the first manager ever to win his first eight postseason games as a skipper.

“These kids, from the minute you saw them you knew they were going to be special,” Yost said after winning the A.L. championship. “Then they won championships in A-ball together and they won championships in Double‑A together and they won championships in Triple‑A together. And then their goal was to get up here and win a championship, and today they accomplished that.”

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Even the Royals doctored the field

I came across this article earlier today about how, allegedly, the Giants groundscrew might’ve doctored the infield dirt a bit in hopes of slowing down the Royals’ running game. Wouldn’t you know it…I happened to write about legendary groundskeeper George Toma in the book, “100 Things Royals Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die.” The piece on Toma is a Q/A. So, although I’d like you to buy the book, here is an excerpt of that interview with Toma.

Royals 100 Cover

You eventually ended up here in Kansas City at Municipal Stadium. Even though the A’s, Chiefs and Royals love you and your fields, one player who wasn’t a fan of coming to Municipal was Mickey Mantle.

GT: Sometimes we would do things that we’ll call “groundskeeping by deceit.” Mickey Mantle didn’t care for (Municipal) because I kept centerfield hard and it was hard on his legs. One of my best buddies and a guy who serves as a coach for the Twins during spring training is Harmon Killebrew, who played with the Royals. I used to keep third base like concrete. The trainer would tell me, “you’re going to get my third baseman killed down there” because Harmon could hit that ball but he was a little slow. So we’d make it hard to make sure the ball would get through the infield. Groundskeeping by deceit.

Royals pitchers will say how they liked the way you could doctor the mound or a part of the infield a certain way when they were pitching.

GT: Guys like Steve Busby always wanted a little hole next to the rubber so he could push off. In the batter’s box, there used to be a special hole for George Brett and a special hole for Amos Otis and for Hal McRae. You could say we did a lot of cheating because we moved the batter’s box back about 10 inches. If we got caught, I’d blame it on my son, Chip. Everything went great until the Royals traded Buck Martinez to Milwaukee. The first time they came to town, manager George Bamberger came up to me and said, “George, I don’t want any of that stuff, moving that batter’s box.”

We could do a lot of things. At Municipal Stadium we had a Butternut clock on the left-field tower. It had two dots. … We would send Bobby Hoffman into the scoreboard before the game and then we’d get the other team’s signals. If those two dots were on, it was a fastball. If one dot was on, it was a breaking pitch. Or, they could look down the third-base line to (the mule) Charlie O’s pen. If the lantern was on, that was a fastball. If the lantern was off, it was a breaking pitch. All of that was just part of the game back then.

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A primer for Royals newbies

Royals 100 Cover

In case you’re curious (or even if you’re not), here’s the cover of that “100 Things Royals Fans…” book.

As the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles begin the 2014 American League Championship Series tonight in Baltimore, it seems like a good time to offer a primer, of sorts, to all Royals fans but particularly the bandwagoners, newbies and out-of-towners. After all, if you believe this ESPN Sports Nation poll, the only place in the country not pulling for the Royals are the states of Maryland and Virginia, and the District of Columbia. So, since I kinda wrote the book on things Royals fans should know, I figured now would be a good time for a quick guide so you can sound somewhat intelligent.

(Most of what you’re about to read is taken from that book on the right. If you want or need more info, I’d say buy the book. Not that it’ll completely help you, but at least you’ll have another book on your shelf.)

MR. K

The Royals weren’t the first Major League Baseball team in Kansas City.  That distinction belongs to the Philadelphia-Kansas City-Oakland A’s. After woeful seasons in Kansas City, though, thanks largely to a cheapskate owner Charlie Finley, the team bolted to Oakland. (Finley threatened/promised often to move the team, including to Peculiar, Mo.)

So, after the 1967 season, a group of local businessmen, plus Joe McGuff and Ernie Mehl, long-time sports writers and editors with “The Kansas City Star,” convinced Major League Baseball owners that Kansas City needed an expansion team. The only condition was that they had to secure an owner.

After much searching, that owner came in the gift of long-time Kansas Citian and pharmaceutical billionaire Ewing Kauffman. He was everything Finley wasn’t. And more. Conservative in his thinking and loved by his employees and others around him, Kauffman, who wasn’t a sports fan and didn’t understand the game of baseball, loved Kansas City and felt the city needed a major-league team. Maybe it’s more appropriate to say that with some encouragement from close friends and his wife, Kauffman decided to step up to the plate for the city.

KAUFFMAN STADIUM

The Royals spent their first four years at old Municipal Stadium, near downtown Kansas City. Municipal had been the home to several teams throughout its history, including the Negro Leagues’ Monarchs and the A’s…not to mention the Kansas City Chiefs. In ’73, the club moved to state-of-the-art Royals Stadium, which featured a monstrous (and now, iconic) scoreboard in center field, flanked by a water spectacular and (argh!) artificial turf. It was one of the few new single-use stadiums (read: non-cookie-cutter that could be found in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia to name a few) in baseball. The old girl, since renamed Kauffman Stadium, underwent a $250-million facelift prior to the 2009 season.

WE LOVE DON DENKINGER

If the Royals advance past the Orioles — and, perhaps, even if they don’t — you’ll likely hear the name Don Denkinger, who was the umpire at first base during Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. You will hear St. Louis fans curse Denkinger because they believe he lost the World Series for them with a questionable call late in that game.

In the bottom of the ninth, with the Royals trailing the game, 1-0, and the World Series, three games to two, pinch-hitter Jorge Orta led off the inning by grounding a ball toward first base. Cardinal first baseman Jack Clark fielded it cleanly and flipped to pitcher Todd Worrell, who was covering first. Although Worrell seemed to touch first before Orta on the bang-bang play, Denkinger called Orta safe. (There was no replay at the time.)

“As a pinch-hitter, in my mind I just was going to try to get a good at-bat and see if I could get on base,” Orta told me 25 years later. “I wanted to help start a rally. When I hit that soft groundball, my instincts said to run as hard as I could. I hustled down the line and was called safe on the play. And I thought I was safe, yes.”

Right or wrong call, the Cardinals self-destructed after that. First, Jack Clark missed a popup in foul territory off the bat of Steve Balboni, who went on to single. Royals catcher Jim Sundberg then tried to sacrifice bunt, but the Cardinals threw out Orta at third. With runners at first and second and one out, a ball got past Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter, which moved Balboni and Sundberg up 90 feet.

Pinch-hitter Dane Iorg, who had been hitless in the Series, delivered a base hit that scored Balboni and Sundberg, on a headfirst slide, and sent the Series to a seventh game. The hit should’ve turned Iorg into a hero. Instead, with the controversy from earlier that inning, Iorg’s hit often remains forgotten in World Series lore.

Of course, any time there’s mention of 1985 or blown calls in baseball, Denkinger’s name comes up. And usually with a cuss word immediately before or after. There’s one thing to remember, though.

“We scored the winning run with one out,” says Royals pitcher Mark Gubicza. “We still had an out (left in the inning) if the play went differently at first (with Orta). The way things had been going for us that season, who’s to say that whoever was coming up next doesn’t hit a home run and we win anyhow? It was a magical season for us. … (The Cardinals) had every opportunity in the world to come back in Game 7, but we blew them away. … Hey, they had us down three games to one. If you can’t close it out at three games to one, don’t blame it on the umpire. Yeah, (the call) went our way … (But) you have to be able to close out a team when you have them down like that.”

YEAH, GAME 7

Improbable teams have won the World Series, but none has come back from such improbable odds as the 1985 Royals. Kansas City came back from a 3-games-to-1 deficit in the ALCS against Toronto and then did the same thing against the Cardinals. In Game 7, the Royals turned in one of the most lopsided wins you’ll ever see in World Series history, beating St. Louis 11-0. A young pitcher named Bret Saberhagen threw a five-hit, complete-game shutout en route to becoming the series MVP.

BEST OF TIMES, WORST OF TIMES

As fans during the 1970s and ’80s, we didn’t think we’d ever see bad baseball played by the Royals. Why would we? They won the American League West division in 1976, ’77, ’78, ’80, ’84 and ’85. (They also played in a three-game Western Division playoff against the A’s following the strike-split season of 1981.) They reached their first World Series in ’80, where they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies, and then beat the Cardinals in ’85. Are you kidding me? They’ll be great FORRRR-E-VERRRR! Shows what little we knew. After beating St. Louis in 1985, as you’ve heard way too many times already during this postseason, they didn’t reach the playoffs again until this year. Along the way, they’ve had only seven seasons of better than .500 baseball and way too many years of ineptness with a few 100-loss seasons mixed in. So please pardon our excitement. I hope you can understand.

That said, although there are multiple players and managers who should be mentioned, here are three who have had their numbers (5, 10, 20) retired.

GEORGE BRETT

Simply put: he’s recognized as “Mr. Royal.” (If there were such a distinction.) He’s the only Royals player in the Baseball Hall of Fame (excluding guys in the HOF who played a season or two here, such as Harmon Killebrew). The career numbers remain staggering: 3,154 hits, 317 home runs, 665 doubles, 137 triples, 201 stolen bases and three American League batting titles (the first person to earn one in three decades). Maybe it’s appropriate, then, that many remember the player by a single number: 5. For 21 seasons, George Brett wowed Royals fans with his offensive numbers and his ability to come through in the clutch. Brett was the 1985 American League Championship Series MVP and eight-time Royals Player of the Year. By the way, Brett is the distinguished, tan guy in the suite that’s been shown countless times on TBS during the postseason.

FRANK WHITE

Frank White is one of the greatest success stories in Royals history. After growing up in Kansas City and attending Lincoln High School, which didn’t have a baseball team, White was working as a sheet-metal clerk when the Royals selected him from a tryout for their experimental Baseball Academy. The test paid off for the Royals. White played 18 seasons at second base in front of his hometown fans. During that time, he was an eight-time Gold Glove Award winner, a five-time All-Star, collected more than 2,000 hits, and, in 1985, became the second second baseman in major-league history to bat cleanup in the World Series. In 1980, he was the American League Championship Series MVP. His No. 20 was retired in 1995, nine years before the Royals honored him with a statue outside Kauffman Stadium. He should be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Travesty that he’s not.

DICK HOWSER

Dick Howser is one of the greatest managers in Royals history, along with Whitey Herzog. Howser, who managed from 1981-87, is best known for leading the Royals past Herzog’s Cardinals in ’85. Three days after managing the American League club in the 1986 All-Star Game, on July 18, doctors diagnosed Howser with a malignant brain tumor. Less than a year later, on June 17, 1987, Howser lost the battle. He was 51. That same year, his number 10 became the first number the Royals retired. They’ve since retired numbers 5 and 20.

NED YOST

The Royals current manager is Ned Yost. He isn’t particularly loved by the fans or the media like Howser was. And we’d swear that he’s tried to screw up this team (we call that being “Yosted”) with the way he’s rested everyday players and used pitchers, but there’s no denying that he’s helping put this club in a position to win. Now, as long as “we” can avoid being Yosted against Baltimore.

DAYTON MOORE

Like Yost, fans have been ready to run general manager Dayton Moore out of town for a couple years. He took over a franchise that had a wretched farm system, asked for patience, took more criticism than George Bush and Barack Obama combined, and now can sit back with an “I told you so” grin if he wanted. He’s too kind to do that, though.

THE TRADE

The news in December 2012 shocked every baseball insider, along with every wanna-be seamhead. The Royals acquired James Shields, an All-Star front-end starting pitcher, Wade Davis, a solid pitcher, and reserve infielder Elliot Johnson (the “player to be named later”) from Tampa Bay in a monstrous deal that sent Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard to the Rays. To date, it’s the biggest trade in Dayton Moore’s tenure — and one of the most notable in franchise history.  Most “experts” felt Moore had been bamboozled. Or simply lost his mind.

It’s too early to tell the complete significance and label it as a good or bad deal, but without Shields and Davis, it’s doubtful the Royals would be playing Baltimore in the ALCS.

DENNY MATTHEWS

The radio “voice” of the Royals, Denny Matthews has been with the organization since its first game in 1969. (Mainly) younger fans today think Denny is dry and boring in this day of screamers and countless catch phrases. He was brought up in this business at a time when the idea was for the broadcaster to paint the picture and then let you as the listener envision it. He doesn’t feel a need to scream during a game. For (many) fans my age and older, Denny — and his longtime broadcast partner Fred White, who died last year — is the voice of summer. He’s been honored by the Hall of Fame with the Ford C. Frick Award. It was well deserved.

Now, as you prepare to watch the ALCS and listen to the TBS broadcasters go on and on about how it’s been more than a generation since the Royals have been in the postseason, you can try to impress your spouse, kids and buddies with at least a little wisdom about what this organization has been and why Royals fans have painted Kansas City blue during the past couple weeks.

 

 

 

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CwM: Ken Morrow and the “Miracle on Ice,” Part 2

Last week, I started a weekly Q&A with some type of sports or entertainment “personality.” I’m cheating a little, perhaps, because the first two weeks are with the same person. So, here is the second of two parts with Kansas Citian Ken Morrow, who was a defenseman on the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. hockey team that beat the Soviet Union and then subsequent gold medal against Finland two days later. (You can read the first part here.)

Besides the game itself, Morrow and I talked about coach Herb Brooks and his influence on the team. Although the movie “Miracle” brought Brooks to light more a few years ago, he isn’t considered one of the greatest coaches of all-time. He should be.

Matt Fulks: When was it apparent in that Olympic game with the Soviets that you could actually win?Ken Morrow

Ken Morrow: For me, it was coming out of that first period, tied 2-2. For those who don’t remember, we had been down 2-1 in the first period, and with a few seconds to go before the buzzer, our guy dumps it into their goal, it comes out, Mark Johnson rebounds, splits two defensemen and scores at the buzzer. So we went into the locker room with a 2-2 tie. At that point, not that we knew we were going to beat them, but we knew we’d be in the game. We felt good about ourselves, having gone through that first game at Madison Square Garden, to come out of the first period tied 2-2 was huge for us.

MF: I’m guessing you guys were a handful for Herb after you beat the Russians, and were getting set to play for the gold medal two days later. You guys, mathematically, still could’ve ended without a medal after the game with Finland. What was the feeling like the next day?

KM: You’re right; I won’t go into the mathematics of it, but there was a chance that if we’d lost to Finland, we could’ve finished outside the medals. So, Herb Brooks did his greatest coaching job on Saturday morning (after beating the Soviet Union). Here’s this young group of kids who’d pulled off this monumental upset, so we came into practice feeling pretty good about ourselves, and he has to get our attention on the next game. He put the hammer down real quick and real hard. We needed that. We had to get ourselves ready for the next game, which was Sunday morning. Sure enough, as we’d done all Olympics, we were trailing going into the third period against a very good Finland team. We had come from behind all Olympics long, and we put together another one against Finland.

MF: As we talk about Herb Brooks, one of my favorite things about him are all of his quotes, some of which, as you’ve told me before, you guys didn’t really understand.

KM: He had a bunch of them. [Laughs.] He was a great psychologist. He knew exactly which buttons to push on the players. Everything he did worked. We didn’t realize this at the time, but we found out years later. Throughout the year, he was constantly digging at the Soviet team, saying things like “these guys aren’t that good.” Well, their captain was a dead ringer for Stan Laurel (of “Laurel and Hardy” fame). He was one of the all-time best hockey players, but he looked like Stan Laurel. Herb would make comments like, “You guys are playing Stan Laurel out there. You can’t beat Stan Laurel?” There was always a motive behind everything that Herb Brooks did and said, and it all worked.

I do believe that for anyone thinking about going into coaching in any sport, it should be mandatory to study Herb Brooks. This guy was ahead of his time. He was innovative, and, as I said, he’s the sole reason we won a gold medal at Lake Placid.

MF: At that moment, during the entire Olympic experience from tryouts to the end, what were your feelings toward Herb?

KM: I never had a problem with him. Again, he knew what made every player tic. We actually did a psychological test, which was unheard of at the time. Now, being a part of the New York Islanders, we do a psychological test with all of the kids we’re considering drafting. I think Herb’s was a 300-question psychological test. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. There’s no doubt in my mind that he took those, looked at them, and figured out how he could get the best out of each one of those players, whether it was riding a guy hard, backing off, when to kick them in the pants and when not to. He did that throughout the year, and it always seemed to work. When you’re talking about 20 players, you’re talking about 20 different ways to motivate. He was a master of that.

MF: As we look at hockey in the Olympics now, what are your thoughts on NHL guys playing?

KM: I’m really torn. As a hockey fan, I like seeing the best players in the world out there, but I also understand there won’t be another “miracle on ice” with that. I doubt that you can have the stuff going on around the world that made our “miracle on ice” bigger than it was, but I also understand that I was given a chance to play in the Olympics because NHL players weren’t playing in the Olympics at that time — not that there were a lot of great American NHL players at that time. It gave us our chance. Eventually I’d like to see it go back, but I’m going to enjoy watching these best players of the world out there.

MF: I’ve asked a few guys this over the years, and since you won four Stanley Cups and a gold medal, which would you rather win: a Stanley Cup or a gold medal, although, of course, your gold medal experience was different than most people’s because of everything surrounding it?

KM: If I had to choose, I’d take the gold medal simply because it’s playing for your country. It’s a unique experience, a unique moment. Not many people get to do that. A lot of people have won professional championships, but to think the Olympics come around once every four years, and then to be fortunate enough to say you’re a gold medal winner, that’s tops.

MF: As I say to you every time we talk, it’s been a thrill reliving 1980 with you. Thanks for your time.

KM: Great talking with you and I appreciate you letting me tell my story.

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CwM: Ken Morrow and the “Miracle on Ice,” Part 1

I’ve long thought that I’d like to post a Q&A with some type of sports or entertainment “personality” every Friday. With my love of the Olympics (especially the winter Olympics) and the fact that the U.S. will face Russia tomorrow in hockey, I’ve been motivated to start today.

After all, there aren’t many sporting events that have stuck with Americans as a whole as the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s win over the Soviet Union in 1980, and then subsequent gold medal win over Finland two days later. I’ve held a fascination with those games and that time period. (Perhaps I’ll re-release an article I wrote about that time.) As it turned out, I was 9 years old for the game against the Soviets and 10 for the gold-medal game. So maybe I was at an age when it stuck to me. Either way, whenever I get a chance or have an excuse, I’ll spend time with Kansas City’s own Ken Morrow, who was a defenseman on that team. Ken Morrow

In this particular conversation, we talked about the events around the Soviet game and how a seemingly simple hockey game between a bunch of kids, true amateurs, from the United States, beat an invincible team from the Soviet Union — amateurs, but only because they were technically in the Soviet Army. The Soviet Union had won every Olympic gold in hockey since 1960. They embarrassed teams of NHL all-stars.

By the way, do yourself a favor: if you can’t find the actual game to watch, watch the movie “Miracle,” which brought coach Herb Brooks and this Olympic moment to light more a few years ago. Brooks isn’t considered one of the greatest coaches of all-time. But he should be.

Matt Fulks: It’s amazing how that moment, more than 30 years ago, seems like yesterday.

Ken Morrow: Hearing Al Michaels’ call still gives me chills. It never gets old hearing that. I still get people writing me on almost a daily basis, telling me how they were watching that game as a kid, sitting there with their dad. Now I’m getting kids who are writing to me telling me how they learned about it from the movie, so it’s being passed down to another generation.

MF: Are you ever amazed at how there was this perfect combination of coach in Herb Brooks, and Brooks putting together a team of, let’s face it, many kids not really seen as Olympic prospects?

KM: Yes, because he took this group of North American kids, and he wanted to play a European style of hockey, which was almost 180 degrees from what we’d been playing our whole lives. We used those six months that we were together as a team as our training camp, preparing us to eventually beat the Soviets at their own game. I say to this day that that was the best skating team that I ever played on. That was his plan all along. He wanted a team that could skate with the European teams and one that could hold onto the puck. Those are the types of players that he chose.

MF: Was his entire focus, even going into the tryouts, to beat the Soviets?

KM: We couldn’t put all of our focus there, but certainly they were the team that everybody knew you had to go through to win a gold medal. So, I think in some regards yes, his focus was on finding a way to beat that team.

MF: An odd thing Brooks did, at least on the surface, was scheduling an exhibition match with the Soviets a week before the Olympics. The Soviets crushed you guys, 10-3, at Madison Square Garden. That’s like the Oklahoma City Thunder taking on UMKC. Was that in back of your minds when you did play them in the Olympics?

KM: The loss wasn’t in the back of our minds but it was a very important part of what we were able to do when we faced them at Lake Placid. For many of the players, it was the first time they’d been on the ice with this Soviet team. You have to remember, this Soviet team was considered the best in the world, and many of us had watched them on TV beating NHL All-Star teams and winning Olympic games. To be stepping on the ice with them, a lot of us were in awe. So playing them at Madison Square Garden helped our nervousness out. When we stepped on the ice at Lake Placid, we didn’t have to worry about that. We could just step on the ice and play hockey.

MF: With all that was going on between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at the time, did Herb Brooks have to say much to you guys to motivate you?

KM: He didn’t have to say much, but he did give what I’d consider the best motivational speech I’ve ever heard. They did a pretty good job of recreating that in the movie. He basically said, “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here at this time. This moment is yours, so go out and take it.” It certainly wasn’t a rah-rah speech, but it was the right words at the right time.

Part 2 of this “Chat with Matt” with Ken Morrow will run on Friday, February 21.

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Mike Webster: A Fallen Warrior

After watching PBS’s stunning Frontline last night, dealing with head trauma in the NFL, I thought this might be an appropriate time to post an excerpt about Mike Webster from a book I wrote several years ago, THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY: PITTSBURGH STEELERS. (Shameless plug: you can purchase the book here!) Webster, who played for Pittsburgh and ended his career with Kansas City, was featured prominently in the Frontline special. Without further delay, here you go…

There’s a photograph from 1984 of Mike Webster, the Steelers Hall of Fame center. He resembles a warrior of any time or place, striding triumphantly off the field of battle. He’s carrying his helmet. His hair is wet from perspiration. His knuckles and wrists are taped. There are drops of blood below the No. 52 on his white jersey as well as on his gold pants.

For 17 years, 1974-90, Mike Webster gave his sweat, his blood (as well as the blood of others), and really everything he had to the Steelers (1974-88), the Kansas City Chiefs and the game of football.

Webster was tough. He was a throwback.

“The sight of Mike Webster on a cold, snowy winter day taking the field with short sleeves was the one picture that symbolized the strength and toughness of the Pittsburgh team,” former Steelers center Dermontti Dawson said.*

Picked by the Steelers in the fifth round of the 1974 draft out of Wisconsin, Webster joined three other future Hall of Famers taken by the team: Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert and John Stallworth.

Webster backed up Ray Mansfield at center for two years before becoming a starter. He went on to play a team-record 15 seasons with the Steelers and set the model for consistency by playing in 220 games, including 177 consecutive. That streak might’ve been longer if it hadn’t been for a dislocated elbow that kept him out of four games in 1986.

“I’m not sure I was a Hall of Famer,” Webster said during a conference call in January 1997, minutes after the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s selection committee saw otherwise. “I was there every Sunday, and I did everything I could to be as good as I could be.”

Former teammates with the Steelers will point to Webster’s play and consistency as one of the cogs in the team’s success throughout the 1970s, including Super Bowls XIII and XIV. Then, at the end of Webster’s career, the Chiefs signed him hoping that their young guys could learn from his work ethic and dedication to the game.

“I’ve never seen anybody like Mike Webster. He is the most professional football player I’ve ever met,” quarterback Steve DeBerg, who played with Webster in Kansas City, told The Kansas City Star in December 1990. “To be honest, I think Mike Webster has had a very big influence on the reasons I’m playing well this year. He was my roommate in training camp. He’s my roommate on the road. His professionalism just wears off on you. The guy is amazing. I feel really honored to be exposed to a guy like that. I feel he has had an impact on my performance.”

DeBerg, who had been in the league 11 years before taking snaps from Webster, went on to have the third-best season of his career with 3,444 passing yards in 1990.

After spending those last two years with the Chiefs, Webster, like so many ex-athletes, struggled to find a post-playing life. Business deals fell through, costing him his finances. Things were so bad at times that his family couldn’t even afford toilet paper. His marriage fell apart and his wife moved with their four kids to her hometown of Lodi, Wisconsin.

All the while, Webster’s health was deteriorating. He endured constant pain, headaches.

He was homeless at times, sleeping in his car or at a Pittsburgh train station. Sometimes he’d stay at a budget motel near the Pittsburgh airport. He was a volunteer assistant strength and conditioning for about nine months with the Chiefs, and he’d sleep in the equipment room, hoping no one would find out.

“Mike would not accept any assistance for any reasons,” said Chiefs President and General Manager Carl Peterson. “I knew he was having not only financial problems but also health problems, but he would never allow anyone to try to help him. He’d just disappear.”

“My problems are my problems,” Webster would say.

Those problems mounted. In 1999, Webster was diagnosed finally with brain damage from repeated and long-term head trauma — basically, dementia. Also that year, in September, Webster pleaded no contest to forging a prescription for Ritalin. He was placed on probation.

The dementia worsened. Webster would forget where he lived. And the damn pain wouldn’t go away. His head, his back, his shoulder, his knees, his feet. Seemingly every inch of his body hurt. It would get so bad that Webster stunned himself with a Taser gun in order to sleep.

Throughout the early part of the 21st Century, a battle increased between retired NFL players, the NFL and the NFL Players Association over, mainly benefits. Diseases and ailments such as dementia, Alzheimers, and numerous back, knee and hip problems started taking their toll on a large number of players. According to many ex-players, the NFLPA, led by Gene Upshaw, turned its back on its own who were in desperate need.

Former players receive benefits based on time of service and when the injuries occurred. Although an alarmingly high number of players are suffering from dementia-type illnesses — including former Steeler Ralph Wenzel — the NFL Players Association has argued that there isn’t a correlation between head injuries and life as an NFL player.

Webster was convinced to seek benefits. He unintentionally became the poster child for the ex-players’ cause.

The NFLPA argued that Webster didn’t qualify for full benefits because there was no evidence in their eyes that his problems started before 1996. However, Webster was awarded — and won in an appeal seven years later, in December 2006 — full benefits retroactive to his retirement in 1991.

Tragically, he wasn’t able to see the fight against the NFLPA to the end. On September 24, 2002, Mike Webster’s physical and mental pain went away forever. He died of an apparent heart attack. He was 50.

About two years before Webster died, one of his sons, Garrett, moved to Pittsburgh mainly to be with him, but also to play high school football in Pennsylvania.

“Normally it’s the parent waking up the son to go to school,” Garrett Webster, then 22, told The New York Times in 2006. “With us, it was me waking him up to tell him to take me to school. There were times it did get to be too much for me, but there is no way I would trade what I went through. I loved the moments when we sat in a car and shared a pizza or sat in an apartment with no furniture and watched a movie because we didn’t have anything else to do. Those memories made me grow up faster, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”

*Sources for all quotes are listed in THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY: PITTSBURGH STEELERS. (Shameless plug #2: you can purchase the book here!)

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