Friday, February 22, 1980. More than 8,000 manic fans, including Vice President Walter Mondale and first child Amy Carter, pack at the Olympic Center Arena in Lake Placid, New York. I remember sitting on the opposite side of the arena on the other side of the arena, and I clearly remember the two Secret Service agents who were right behind Al Michaels, Ken Dryden and me. They were striking in dark suits and shades, and wore earphones while monitoring movements. I will never forget to offer a bottle of water to one of them and encounter a cold, hard shake of the head. They were all business.
It was 5 p.m. ET when the first puck fell. ABC Sports wasn't live in the air – in fact an attempt to postpone the game until 8pm. The International Hockey Federation rejected it so that it could be broadcast live in the USA. That would have been 4 am in the Soviet Union, and the Soviets protested this injustice – and won. But nobody in the arena cared who else was watching live. They were in the house and the game was on.
Spring 1979. I graduated from Brown University on an unusually cool spring day in Providence, R.I. After packing up a crowded dormitory, I take Route 95 to Boston to start my summer job as a Gofer / production assistant for ABC Sports & # 39; "Monday Night Baseball".
I had been involved in the jewelry sports network in my last year when Brown's sports information director, Rosa Gatti (who retired in 2013 as senior vice president at ESPN) asked me to take good care of Keith Jackson, the legendary announcer, strangely enough, that Brown Harvard football game for ABC called. I think I did a good job of justifying an attaboy not only from Rumblin, Fumblin Keith, but above all from the assistant director who told me to keep in touch.
Stay in touch since I was determined not to study law and instead was seriously considering a career in sports television production. And so began a fantasy year, which repeatedly brought close encounters with cult figures and moments in sports.
For example, in the fall of 1979, when I was at a “Monday Night Football” game in Washington, I was hired as a stand assistant to find the legendary Howard Cosell within three minutes. I finally found him in a lounge where two women were having a drink and was greeted by his scream: "Don't hurry up with the star of the show!" Ninety seconds later, he put on his headset and delivered a perfect opening segment with no script.
ABC kept me busy most weekends driving up and down the east coast by car (gasoline and tolls) to work on professional and college football games, golf tournaments, and boxing matches. I chauffeured the infamous Cosell many times, saw Jack Nicklaus win the 16th and 17th of his record 18 championships and had moments up close with Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner. And they paid me – $ 35 a day.
The climax of the whole thing started in December 1979, however, when I managed to be hired as a research / production assistant / gofer / food and beverage porter for the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid.
At the first production meeting for us bottom feeders, everyone wanted glamorous jobs like speed skating, ski jumping, skiing and figure skating. When ice hockey surfaced, nobody volunteered because the US team was obviously terrible, the Soviet Union was despised and strongly preferred, and who, in their right mind, wanted to waste time in the hockey rink to watch the crowning of the Russian gold medal?
However, someone noticed on my resume that I had gone to Brown and asked if I knew anything about ice hockey. Unfortunately, I mentioned that I had actually attended a couple of college games and even saw US goalkeeper Jim Craig play at Boston Garden last winter at the Boston University beanpot tournament. My moan was audible when they hired me as assistant to the recently retired NHL all-star goalkeeper Ken Dryden (I had actually heard of him) and a baseball announcer on the West Coast (whom I had never heard of) named Al Michaels ,
We start working in Lake Placid about a month before the games begin. I accompanied Al and Ken for a few nights in an arctic cold ABC minivan and watched the US team play some exhibition games. I even spent a few afternoons playing with Craig and Mike Eruzione Flipper in the Olympic Village dorms and felt like they were thrilled (if not so much with their trainer Herb Brooks) and just wanted to do their best what they wanted and hopefully not be embarrassed.
When the first round games started on February 12, attendance was fairly low. When I sat next to Al at all the TV games (always on his right), I tried to compile meaningful statistics or inside stories, but frankly there wasn't much to say at first.
However, as the United States pushed deeper into the tournament, the strange, cautiously optimistic mood was in the air. These pucksters with bad news just kept on winning. And win. A first duel with Sweden was followed by successive victories against Czechoslovakia, Romania and West Germany.
When the baby-faced US team reached the last four in the medal round (together with the USSR, Finland and Sweden) and wanted to face the chiseled, grizzled Soviets, there was a noticeable buzz in the air from: Hey, that happens somehow! Everyone who worked at the Olympic Games felt it. Fans in the arena sensed it, and the toughest and hottest Olympic ticket to get was the United States against the USSR, scheduled for February 22. Of course, my seat next to Al and Ken was reserved from day one, and I hardly knew it would become the most valuable seat in sports history.
I can hardly remember the game itself, as it was hissing past in one of the moments in the zone of life where three hours seem like three minutes. The Russians scored first. The United States bound it. Then the Russians took a 2-1 lead and when the initial hope seemed lost, Team USA's Mark Johnson somehow scored to end the game by a second in the first half. The atmosphere was dizzy and most of us were visibly surprised that this US team that had been cheated in an exhibition by the same Soviet team in Madison Square Garden 10 to 3 weeks earlier was still involved. But then the Soviet Union hit 3-2 early in the second half, and at the end of the half there was a feeling of deflation.
Well, it was a good ride and we were preparing for the upcoming knockout blow. Somehow the blow never came. Eight minutes and 39 seconds after the beginning of the third half, Johnson scored again to end the game with 3, and 81 seconds later, Eruzione – the captain and my pinball buddy – shot a shot that was heard around the world ,
The atmosphere for the last 10 minutes of the game was almost indescribable. Craig made 36 saves in the game and it seemed like all 36 were coming in those last minutes. The Soviets, which staggered and attacked wildly, could not get past him. Ken and Al were crazy – just like the crowd. As everyone counted down the last 10 seconds, it seemed as if Al was slowly saying a foot away in my left ear, a foot away, saying these famous words: “Do you believe in miracles? YES!"
I was kicked out (and thrown against the wall) by Secret Service agents after trying to help Jim Lampley find players for post-game interviews. My press card, which had served me so well, was now worthless. The Vice President was in the locker room and I was the low man on the totem pole again – but wow, it was a great ride.
Jim McKay went on the air that evening and said he would not release any hockey results as the network delayed broadcasting the game on tape. As nobody knew.
The gold medal clinch game took place two days later on February 24th. Yawning. A 4-2 win over the Finns. I have an old Kodak picture of the team storming the ice on the last horn. Most people don't even know that the US didn't win the gold medal against the Soviets in this earlier historic game. Nobody cares. The battle of the century had been fought and the final was relegated to the undercard.
A year later, on February 22, 1981, I was in Durham, NC, yawning over a contract textbook in the Duke University Law School library. I had followed Howard Cosell's advice to get out of "this lousy business" (i.e. sports television) and go to law school. Bye, career as a sports producer. Could anything ever exceed my year on the road that included this 1980 Olympic hockey experience?
After packing my books and going back to the dorm, I checked Duke's upcoming basketball plan. There was this new trainer, a guy named Mike with a long Polish name that nobody could spell. "Coach K" was unlucky and there were rumors that he would be fired. Ha!
When I walked across the main campus, a group of students were sitting on the lawn playing field hockey with a tennis ball. One shot wildly and sent the ball past a makeshift goal. He shouted loudly, "Do you believe in miracles?" when the ball passed and almost hit me. I immediately shouted back: "Yes!" When I wanted to tell them where I had been a year earlier, I stopped. Who would believe it I smiled and went silently into the night.