Forty years past, and the memories are still vivid.
I do not remember exactly where I was on Feb. 22, 1980, but I remember practically holding my breath for 10 minutes with the United States clinging to a tenuous one-goal lead before they held on to complete what became known as “The Miracle On Ice” — a 4-3 victory over the vaunted USSR in the Olympic Games at Lake Placid, N.Y.
I have witnessed lots of upsets and thrilling finishes over the years. They all pale in comparison to that one in 1980 that sent our country into a star-spangled frenzy.
Chants of “USA, USA, USA” broke out in the Lake Placid arena, and they echoed across the country in countless living rooms and establishments. U.S. flags waved, players tackled each other and rolled around on the ice, a reporter broke the code of silence in the press box. I had goosebumps from my head to my toes as I watched the scene unfold, even though it was on a three-hour tape delay.
It was during the Cold War. The mighty Soviets had not lost the Olympic hockey competition since 1968. They dominated professional teams and were widely regarded as the best collection of players in the world. They had been honing their collective skills for years. The Americans were just a bunch of college kids and former college players.
But at a time when the U.S. and USSR governments were at each other’s throats, and the threat of nuclear war hung over all our heads, that rough and tumble bunch of U.S. hockey players made us forget about all of that for a while.
To me, it was sweet revenge.
In 1972, I was an 11-year-old basketball fanatic who been captured by the Olympic movement from as young as I can remember. But in the gold medal basketball game at the Olympics that year, in what could be considered the most controversial on-the-court moment in Olympic history, the Soviets were given three chances in the final three seconds to go the length of the court in a game they were trailing 50-49. They finally scored on the third try, and the game ended.
It was the first United States loss in Olympic basketball since the sport began Olympic play in 1936. I was devastated and angry. The U.S. team refused its silver medals.
A couple years later I was at a basketball camp at Wittenburg University. One of our speakers that week was one of the players from the 1972 Olympic team. He talked about how the team felt cheated, and the myriad of emotions he and his teammates experienced. It brought my anger and frustration all back again.
Then came the winter of 1980.
Three days before the Lake Placid games began the Russians defeated the U.S. 10-3 in an exhibition game. The U.S. entered the Olympics seeded seventh, with few even giving them a chance at the medal round. Their average age was 22, and their team captain, Mike Eurzione, had been recruited from the obscure Toledo Blades of the International League.
But they were a scrappy bunch and surprisingly made it through the opening Olympic round undefeated with four wins and a tie. That put them in the four-team medal round, where the Soviets were the heavy favorites.
The U.S. faced the USSR in the first game of that medal round. The U.S. fell behind 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2, but each time they rallied. With 11:21 left to play, Mark Johnson scored for the Americans to tie the game again. Then 81 seconds later, with exactly 10 minutes left in the contest, Eurzione scored again to give the U.S. a 4-3 lead.
That’s when I started holding my breath, and as time wound down announcer Al Michaels asked his audience, “Do you believe in miracles?” Ten minutes later I exhaled with a triumphant leap, and I believed.
Two days later the U.S. played Finland for the gold medal. I was sitting in my parents’ den, hoping against hope that the Americans could complete the amazing story. When they fell behind 1-0 and 2-1, I found myself barely breathing again. But they rallied for a 4-2 victory that clinched the gold medal, and I knew miracles were possible.
Few people know that if I’m at a sporting event (or even watching one on TV) and the national anthem is played before the game, visible goosebumps will appear on my arms. Sometimes I feel them forming down my legs and clear to the top of my head. This sensation started when I was playing high school basketball. I don’t think I gave it much thought back then. But as I aged and it continued to happen, I wondered why? It still happens almost 41 years to the day that I played my last high school game. And it can be in any setting, like somewhere on Memorial Day or Veterans Day. If the national anthem starts playing, I get goosebumps.
I’ve always assumed the sensation started largely because of the sense of anxiousness and excitement that tingled through my body just seconds before tipoff. But I’ve come to believe it was a mix of those emotions, while at the same time hearing the national anthem, staring at the flag, and understanding all that song and flag stand for.
And more than likely, it has something to do with emotions that rattled me to my core on Feb. 20, 1980, when I watched a “Miracle on Ice.”
Jeff Gilliland is the editor of The Times-Gazette. He can be reached at [email protected] or 937-402-2522.