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Mike Eruzione – Miracle

By:  Michael D. McClellan |  This game never lets go.  Decades have passed since Mike Eruzione’s go-ahead goal gave the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team a 4-3 lead over the Soviet Union, a lead that would be fiercely tested over the final ten minutes of the final period, the Russians blasting shot after shot at goaltender Jim Craig until those final, frenetic seconds drained away, a young Al Michaels immortalizing the moment with his signature “Do you believe in miracles?  Yes!”, and chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” reverberating throughout the Lake Placid Olympic Fieldhouse.  There have been other sports moments to take our breath – moments punctuated with a Tiger Woods fist pump, or an Usain Bolt lightning bolt pose, or a Michael Phelps primal scream – but nothing to match what transpired on that sheet of ice during the height of the Cold War.  That’s what happens when a team executes the perfect game plan on the biggest stage against an unbeatable opponent.  Herb Brooks’ team did just that, shocking the Russians and creating a world where coaches everywhere were instantly and forever given license to dream aloud, inspiring their teams to do the impossible: Kids, let me tell you a story about a hockey game back in 1980.  Time marches on, yet this game hasn’t loosened its grip.  Lives turned on the outcome, and lives are affected still:  Heroes made, opportunities paved, careers set in motion.

Funny thing about the “Miracle on Ice”:  The average American didn’t give a damn about hockey heading into Lake Placid.  Hockey was a fringe sport, a curiosity to most, goons on skates from other countries mostly, the games rarely shown on TV.  People knew Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr.  After that, blank stares and confused looks.  Hockey was a big deal across the border in snowy Canada, and popular in cold weather cities like Detroit and Chicago, but football was king everywhere else, the NFL loaded with household names like Staubach, Simpson, and Swann.  Mike Eruzione?  He was just another nameless, faceless kid on a team constructed of nameless, faceless kids, unrecognizable to most unless you happened to be a hardcore hockey fan.

Brooks didn’t give a damn that we didn’t give a damn, and he could have cared less that his team was constructed with a bunch of no-names.  There were no stars on Brooks’ 1980 U.S. squad.  He knew that beating the Soviets – Olympic gold medalists in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976 – would require selfless players who could not only fit his system, but players who could be pushed beyond the limits of ordinary men.

Players like Mike Eruzione.

 

Mike Eruzione, named team captain by head coach Herb Brooks, was twice nearly cut from the team in the weeks leading up to Lake Placid. He would score the winning goal against the Soviet Union.

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That Eruzione could even appear on Brooks’ radar is something of a miracle in itself, given that the Winthrop, Massachusetts native wasn’t the most fluid skater and dazzled nobody with his puck-handling.  Eruzione’s sports in high school were football and baseball.  He’d barely found his way onto a college hockey team, getting a scholarship offer the summer after finishing prep school and only after a recruit bailed on Boston University at the last minute.  He’d toiled for the Toledo Goaldiggers in the International Hockey League before getting an invite to the Olympic tryouts in Colorado Springs in the summer of 1979.  He’d made the team as much for his intangibles – an infectious, likable personality that had endeared himself to his teammates and that had caught the eye of team doctor George Nagobads, who had pushed Brooks to make him captain – as he did for his tireless work on the ice.  And when a scoring slump prompted Brooks to consider cutting him from the team not once, but twice, in the weeks leading up to Lake Placid, it was Eruzione’s servant leadership that saved him.  It’s hard to cut a guy whose never-say-die attitude helped keep a team together through six months of hellish practices and rugged exhibitions, all of it underpinned with Brooks’ relentless brand of psychological warfare.

“Eruzione’s your leader. You need a leader,” Gus Hendrickson – Brooks’ friend and the coach of Minnesota-Duluth at the time – said over dinner in late January, less than a month before the start of the Games.  “Herbie, don’t start screwing things up now.”

It’s been said that every coach has a gimmick, and Brooks’ gimmick was playing the role of hard-ass overlord, with mind games a huge part of the arsenal.  Struggle to put the puck in the net, especially the way Eruzione was struggling in the lead up to the XIII Winter Olympic Games, and Brooks wouldn’t hesitate to give other players a long look, even if those players hadn’t sacrificed and suffered like everyone else.  That’s the way Brooks rolled.  He was prickly, impatient, and unrelenting in his button-pushing.  No one on the team, including Mike Eruzione, was off limits.

 

“Herb would have cut his own grandchildren to gain an advantage.  He didn’t play favorites, and he didn’t get close to his players.  He was hard on everyone.” – Mike Eruzione

 

“Herb would have cut his own grandchildren to gain an advantage,” Eruzione says with a laugh.  “He didn’t play favorites, and he didn’t get close to his players.  He was hard on everyone.”

Eruzione might have been the captain and the unquestioned heart and soul of this team of nondescript overachievers, but, with the Olympics looming, he wasn’t performing at the level his coach demanded.  Brooks response:  Bring in a willing pair of freshman forwards from the University of Minnesota, where he’d coached the Gophers to three national championships, and hold open auditions less than three weeks ahead of the opening ceremonies.  That Tim Harrer and Aaron Broten would be brought in so late, without sacrifice, sat well with no one.  Eruzione knew that his roster spot was on the line, and that surviving Brooks’ boot-camp grind for six months ensured him nothing.  It took the team confronting Brooks for him to relent.

“If Herb had cut Eruzione, we weren’t going to go,” teammate John Harrington later insisted.  “We had become a family after everything we’d been through.  There was no way we were going to let Herb cut Rizzo.”

The show of unity spared Eruzione the same cruel fate that had befallen Brooks twenty years earlier, when, on the cusp of his own Olympic dream, he was singled out by his coach and sent home.  Jack Riley’s decision to replace Brooks on the roster hadn’t been an easy one.  He’d recruited 1956 Olympic standout Bill Cleary for months, and when Cleary finally agreed – on the condition that his brother, Bob, join him in Squaw Valley – Brooks was the odd man out.  The cut occurred just days before the start of the 1960 Winter Olympics, and a cutout of Bob Cleary’s head was pasted over Herb Brook’s body in the team picture.  Brooks watched on TV as the U.S. defeated the Soviets and Czechoslovakia in the medal round, winning the gold medal.

Keeping Eruzione meant that Brooks would gamble on his captain’s leadership instead of Harrer’s superior puck handling, but he still had choices to make in order to reach the twenty man roster limit.  The final cuts were Jack Hughes, a defenseman from Harvard, and Ralph Cox, a forward from the University of New Hampshire.  Brooks had his team.

Two weeks later, his team would shock the world.

 

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS


Decades before his iconic goal broke that 3-3 tie with ten minutes left in the medal round against the Soviets, a young Mike Eruzione was growing up in Winthrop, an old seaside town on a jutting piece of land a little east of Boston, bounded on the east by Massachusetts Bay and on the west by Logan Airport and the harbor, a compact place with 20,000 people jammed into a 1.6 square mile area, a postage stamp with rows of clapboard and shingled homes shoehorned together on lots not much bigger than a penalty box.  The Boston skyline rises up across the harbor but feels much farther away.  Revere – connected to Winthrop by a narrow isthmus, and named after Revolutionary War icon Paul Revere – is where Eruzione would get his start playing hockey.

“Winthrop didn’t have a youth hockey program of any kind back then,” he says. “We’d skate where we could – on flooded tennis courts or in sand traps that had frozen over – but we had to go to Revere to play organized hockey.  Today, Revere and Winthrop are big high school hockey rivals.  A lot has changed.”

From 1880 to 1920, an estimated 4 million Italian immigrants arrived in the United States, most from 1900 to 1914, and most from southern Italy and Sicily.  Italian unification in 1861 worsened conditions in those places, where the soil was exhausted, taxes and tariffs were high and young men were conscripted for seven years.  In 1880 about a thousand Italian immigrant families came to Boston, the first wave to the city bypassed by most Europeans save for the Irish.

These immigrants didn’t speak English.  They were forced to take low-wage jobs and exploited by middlemen.  They settled in ghettos known as Little Italies: Front Street in Hartford, Central End in Bridgeport, Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, the South End of Springfield, Mass.  The biggest Little Italies – the North End of Boston, Wooster Square in New Haven, Federal Hill in Providence – were once crowded tenement neighborhoods.  Today they have gentrified and are now tourist attractions.

 

Mike Eruzione’s dream would begin in Winthrop, MA. It would culminate with a gold medal in Lake Placid.

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Eugene Eruzione – affectionately known as Jeep, and who worked as a maintenance man in a sewage treatment plant and as a waiter in Santarpio’s pizzeria in East Boston – was one of those Italian immigrants, settling in Winthrop with his wife, Helen, and quickly starting a family.  The Eruziones lived in a three-story family compound that had been subdivided into three apartments, the place always buzzing with activity, aunts and uncles and cousins coming and going, children playing all manner of sports, the air thick with the smell of pasta sauce.

“I had a great childhood,” Eruzione says.  “I had very loving parents.  I lived in a three-family home, which I actually live next door to now, so in a way I never really left.  We lived on the second floor, where I grew up with four sisters and a brother.  Upstairs from us was my mother’s brother – he married my father’s sister, and they lived on the third floor with their five kids, which was three girls and two boys.  On the first floor was my father’s other sister, who lived with her husband and their three kids.  So needless to say, there were a lot of kids in the house.

“Having three families under the same roof was a great way to grow up.  There was a lot of love, a lot of fun, a lot of singing, a lot of great food, and some pretty good competition among the boys in terms of sports that we were playing in the backyard.  Looking back it seems like a lot of people in one house, but growing up I thought that everybody lived in a three family home.  I wouldn’t change a thing about it, because my childhood was outstanding.”

Sports were a huge part of Eruzione’s childhood.  Anything with a stick or a ball.  His parents taught him to pursue and expect success, but to do it humbly and not to take anything for granted.  His name is the Italian word for “eruption,” and that’s how Eruzione went about everything from an early age:  Full throttle, with a spirit and energy that was equal parts Rudy Ruettiger and Rocky Balboa.  It was this same never-say-die attitude that would later propel him to Olympic greatness, but back then it was unleashed, without prejudice, on every sport Eruzione played.

 

“I didn’t start playing hockey until I was around eight or nine years old.  We had a big yard next door, so we played a lot of touch football and tackle football in that yard.” – Mike Eruzione

 

“I didn’t start playing hockey until I was around eight or nine years old,” Eruzione says.  “We had a big yard next door, so we were always playing something.  There was no soccer or lacrosse when I was a kid.  There was no youth football.  We just went outside and picked teams.  We played a lot of touch football and tackle football in that yard.  That’s how we got our football fix.

“During the summer months I played a lot of stick ball and Wiffle ball.  I also played a lot of something called hack ball, which is a game that a lot of people don’t know about.  What you do to play is cut a tennis ball in half, and then someone pitches it and you try to hit it with a broomstick handle.  That was a very popular game in my neighborhood when I was a kid.  When I got a little older and the cold weather came, we’d all get together and play hockey.  There was no rink in my hometown, so we had to skate outside.  We’d do that until baseball season started.  Even then I couldn’t wait to play baseball, which was my favorite sport to that point.  By the time I graduated high school I’d probably played more baseball in my life than hockey, but back then kids didn’t specialize in one sport.  They played whatever sport was in season.  So, in high school I played hockey, baseball and football.  I have a lot of great memories from that period in my life.”

Wearing his older sister’s white hand-me-down figure skates, Eruzione begged his mother to let him skate on the lake with the older kids.  Helen eventually agreed, redeeming her stash of S&H green stamps to buy him a pair of hockey skates.  And then, when he wanted to sign up for organized hockey, she agreed to that, too, with one stipulation:  Quitting wasn’t an option.

“Neither was pouting,” Eruzione says with a laugh.  “If you didn’t get into the game or didn’t score any goals, you still worked hard and you had fun.  Winthrop didn’t have a hockey team, so I actually got my start with the Revere Youth Hockey Association.  In winter we had league play in Revere, where we could go skate on Saturday mornings from 6 o’clock until 8 am.  That was our ice time.  Mark Buckley and a handful of other guys used to run a couple of great programs – the Learn to Skate program and the Revere Youth Hockey program.  It was a great way to learn, but we didn’t have a team that played anywhere.  By the time I was around nine or ten years old I was starting to become a pretty good player, and that’s when I was finally old enough to play on a team in the town of Revere. A couple of years later Winthrop started up a hockey program, so I went back and started playing in Winthrop.”

Throughout his childhood, Eruzione’s natural athleticism fueled his passion for sports, but he never thought of himself as a star athlete.  He wasn’t cocky, and didn’t need anyone stroking his ego.

“I never looked at it that way. I wouldn’t come home and say ‘I’m the best player on the team,’ or ‘I’m going to be a pro player because I’m better than the next guy.’  I always took things in stride and was part of a team.  To me, the team was always more important than how well I was playing.”

Eruzione may have been humble and fun-loving, but he also had a competitive streak a mile wide.  This trait, which helped propel a tough kid from Massachusetts to the Olympic stage, was easy to spot during those early years.

“It’s interesting what you remember from your days playing sports as a kid.  I enjoyed playing baseball and football because I enjoyed the changing seasons, which allowed me to get away from the rink.  Fortunately for me I was a pretty good player in both sports.  We won the town championship when I was in Little League, which was pretty cool.  I remember playing baseball in the Boston Record-American league when I was fifteen, which is when I made the Hearst All-Stars and got to play two games at Fenway Park.  That was a pretty exciting accomplishment for me, because kids from all over New England tried out for this team and they only selected a handful.  Getting an invite to play at Fenway was a proud moment.  Unfortunately, the Record-American folded after that, and they were one of the largest sponsors.  In high school I got to play football in the Agganis All-Star game, which is now the Massachusetts Shriners All-Star game.  I was a defensive back.  I have a lot of great moments and memories of the sports that I played.

“I think those experiences helped me to become a better hockey player,” Eruzione continues.  “I look back on those fun moments fondly, because I was fortunate to play on some very good teams.  My senior year we won our conference in both hockey and in baseball, and our football team only lost one game. Unfortunately, Swampscott was the team that that beat us, and they went undefeated and kept us out of the playoffs.  It’s funny, I graduated from high school in 1972, and I still remember every play of the one football game that we lost.”

Eruzione’s focus on sports didn’t leave much time for anything else, but he still managed to have a blast in high school.  Popular and fun-loving, he made friends easily, even if he wasn’t always up on the latest pop culture trends.

“Winthrop is a small town, so everybody knew everybody,” Eruzione says.  “I loved my high school days – I was the treasurer of my senior class, and I was pretty active in a lot of things at my school.  Socially, I hung out with my friends when I wasn’t playing sports.  I didn’t have a stereo or what they later called boom boxes, so I listened to whatever was playing on the radio.  I really wasn’t a big music guy.  I didn’t spend a lot of time in music stores flipping through albums.  At home my father would listen to singers like Jimmy Roselli, or Jerry Vale, or Connie Francis.  I had some great teachers, but I think I probably spent a little more time in the gym and outside playing sports than I did in the classroom.  But I think that was an era when you could get away with doing that.  That isn’t the case today.  My high school years were nothing but fun.”

That Eruzione has stayed put – he lives on a sloping street not more than 100 yards from Winthrop Golf Club and not even a mile from Winthrop High School, walking distance from the houses he and his wife, Donna, grew up in – gives testament to his love of the area.  He holds a day job at his alma mater, Boston University, and he’s also one of the most sought-after speakers in the country, hired by corporations of all sizes to inspire and motivate.

 

Mike Eruzione defied the odds to become the captain and career scoring leader at Boston University.

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“The requests have kept coming, even though Lake Placid happened so long ago.  The demand never lets up.”

Nor has he tired of telling it.  He’s shared the same story countless times through the years and it never gets old, not when he tells it as if it happened yesterday.  He’s completely at ease reliving the miracle, although he doesn’t consider it one, not when that 1980 U.S. hockey team was in better condition than the rest of the field at Lake Placid, and not after all of the sacrifices made by the team to get there.  An upset for the ages, perhaps, but an earned upset, nonetheless.

“We were prepared, mentally and physically,” he says.  “We approached each game like we deserved to be there, knowing that we would eventually wear down the other team.  It was the same approach when we played the Soviets.  We kept skating and they didn’t have an answer.”

Eruzione gives dozens of speeches each year.  He speaks in a thick Boston accent, the audience rapt, every eye fixed on a beloved hero who refutes the idea that winning gold was about any one individual standing out above the others.  Sports Illustrated selected the “Miracle on Ice” as the greatest sports moment in history, bigger than Jesse Owens’ gold medal on Adolph Hitler’s home turf, bigger than Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, bigger than any magical moment fashioned by Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods or Muhammad Ali.  Eruzione knows this when he strides briskly onstage and takes control of a room.  It’s clear that he’s immensely proud of what the team accomplished, and he enjoys telling the story as much as the audience enjoys hearing it, but he doesn’t assign himself any special celebrity.  Spend any time with him at all and you’ll quickly learn that Mike Eruzione is a lunch pail guy, a hard hat guy, a blue collar guy.  He’s never been one to put athletes on pedestals, least of all himself.

“I didn’t have a lot of sports heroes growing up, mainly because we didn’t have a television when I was kid.  We never really knew what was going on in the sports world.  My uncle always had the radio on, so I’d occasionally listen to Johnny Most when the Celtics were playing, but that was about it.  You’d hear a name but you didn’t know much about them, other than they played for the Boston Red Sox, or the Boston Bruins, or the Boston Celtics, or the New England Patriots.

 

“Back then my heroes were the people that I looked up to, which were the school teachers and police officers in my hometown, because I really didn’t know a lot about the athletes.” – Mike Eruzione

 

“Back then my heroes were the people that I looked up to, which were the school teachers and police officers in my hometown, because I really didn’t know a lot about the athletes.  Bill Russell was someone that I knew about, obviously.  My dad would talk about guys like Ted Williams, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek, and I admired all of them because of the stories that my father would tell.  I remember guys like Gino Capalletti and Babe Perilli because my dad and my uncle would talk about them, too.  Carl Yastrzemski is another one, but I was a little older when Yaz was playing, and by then we had television. I think I was around 13 years old at the time, but even then I didn’t really watch a lot of TV.  Bobby Orr was someone else that I admired greatly – I was in high school when Bobby came on the scene.”

The winter sport of choice in town during Mike Eruzione’s childhood was basketball.  He grew up at the height of the Bill Russell Dynasty, when the Celtics were busy winning eleven NBA Championships in thirteen years.  Eruzione has long admired Red Auerbach’s team-first approach, with Russell leading the way and the Celtics putting the collective effort above individual stats and accolades, principles that resonated with him as he transitioned from youth hockey to high school sports, and then later when he survived Brooks’ tryouts in Colorado Springs.

“I was a big fan of Bill Russell and those great teams they had during the Sixties,” Eruzione says.  “I went to see the Celtics play years later.  A friend of mine had season tickets and I used to go to the Boston Garden with him when Larry Bird was playing.  The biggest moment for me came right after the 1980 Olympics, when Red Auerbach and the Celtics contacted me to be introduced at a Celtics game.  I actually sat next to John Havlicek – I’d met John at that point through some of the celebrity events that we both attended in Boston.  It was unbelievable to be the guest of honor and to be introduced at a Celtics game, especially with Mr. Havlicek, as I called him back then, sitting next to me.

“I would go to a few games a year when Larry Bird played, but over the years I’ve become something of a homebody.  I really like sitting at home and watching the games on television, or going down to the golf club or the local bar with my buddies and watching sporting events there.  High definition television has changed everything.  Back when the Celtics were winning all of those titles in the Sixties and the Celtics were on TV, and I was watching Sam Jones and KC Jones and that whole crew of players, there was no way you could see it like you see it today.  Maybe in those days it was better going to the games live, but now it’s so much more enjoyable sitting at home and watching it on the big screen.”

At Winthrop Senior High School, Eruzione was the unquestioned leader of an overachieving team that reached the state tournament.  Larry Bird on skates.  He was all of five feet six inches and 145 pounds at the time, but his teammates will tell you a disproportionate amount of the weight was heart.

“High school hockey was a good experience for me, because we were one of the first hockey teams in the town – I think we’d only had hockey at Winthrop for four or five years at that point.  We were the first hockey team at Winthrop Senior to make the state tournament.  That was my junior year.  Making the tournament was pretty exciting for the town and for the future hockey, because it helped inspire other kids to play the game.  I was fortunate to play with some really good players.  High school hockey is like any high school sport – it’s exciting, because you’re representing your town, and you are kind of like the cool kid in school, because everybody knows you’re on the hockey team, or the baseball team, or whatever.  You get accepted more easily because everybody knows you.”

 

COLLEGE LIFE


Mike Eruzione graduated from high school with a plan, and it didn’t include becoming the spark plug for the greatest upset in Olympic history.  He’d been a multi-sport jock at Winthrop Senior High, his world oscillating from shoulder pads to ice skates to baseball bats, and he envisioned more of the same in college.  Surely a school would see what he saw in himself and take a chance.

Turns out no one did.

Athletic enough to play collegiately, but not athletic enough to turn heads at the Division I level, Eruzione found himself being recruited by no one.  Hustle and heart go a long way at the high school level, but it only gets you so far in the world of big-time college sports.  Forced into Plan B, Eruzione decided to prep for college at Berwick Academy in Maine.

“My cousin had gone to Worcester Academy as a post graduate, and the post graduate route struck me as a good idea and a pretty good opportunity,” Eruzione says.  “I wasn’t a very big guy coming out of high school – I was about 155 pounds my senior year – and I knew that I needed another year of physical growth if I wanted to play college sports.  I also knew that I needed to get another year of academics under my belt if I wanted to make it in the classroom.  Berwick provide me an opportunity to do both.

“My goal was to use Berwick as a springboard to go to the University of New Hampshire.  I thought that UNH would be a perfect place for me, because I wanted to go to a school where I could play three sports.  So I played football, hockey and baseball at Berwick, while dreaming of playing three sports at UNH.  Going there was a great decision not only from an athletic standpoint, but from an academic standpoint.  It helped me to prioritize education above sports.  I was fortunate to go to Berwick Academy.”

Eruzione emerged from that year at Berwick four inches taller and 40 pounds heavier, and optimistic about his chances of landing a scholarship.  He’d stayed in touch with the coaches at his dream school, worked hard in the both the weight room and the classroom, and grown more confident after a year spent competing at a higher level of competition.  And then, just as he felt that his athletic career was back on track, Mike Eruzione got another dose of reality.

“Like I said, I wanted to go to the University of New Hampshire.  The football and baseball coaches both thought I was a pretty good athlete.  Unfortunately, the hockey coach didn’t think that I was a Division I player.   Well, I’d put all of my eggs in one basket – for me it was the University of New Hampshire or bust.  I thought it was a slam dunk.  How could they not want me?  I was a really good athlete, and two of the coaches liked me, so I just assumed that the hockey coach would like me also. As it turns out, none of the three coaches offered me a scholarship.  It was a major wakeup call.  The only school that had shown any genuine interest in me was Merrimack College.  They were a Division II hockey school at the time, and I didn’t have a lot of options.  So I swallowed my pride.  I decided that I wasn’t going to be able to play baseball and football.  I decided that I’d go to Merrimack and only play hockey.”

It was during the summer of 1973 that Eruzione’s life would change forever, even though there was no way to predict it at the time.

“I didn’t play much hockey during the summer because I played a lot of baseball, but a friend of mine called me and said, ‘A bunch of guys are going to Cape Cod for the weekend, would you be interested in playing some hockey with us?’  And I said, ‘If you’re looking for someone, sure, I’ll play.’  So I went to Cape Cod and played even though I hadn’t been on the ice since hockey season had ended.”

 

Mike Eruzione, Jack Parker, and Rick Meagher – ECAC Championship at the Boston Garden, March 12, 1977.

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“It turned out that the guy refereeing the game was a guy named Jack Parker.  Jack was the assistant coach at Boston University, and after the game he pulled me aside and wanted to know where I was going to school.  I told him that I was going to Merrimack, and he said, ‘I remember you from high school, where did you go last year?’  I told him that I went to Berwick Academy, and he goes, ‘We have a kid from Canada that decided not to come to BU, and now we have a scholarship available.  Would you like to come to Boston University?’  I went home that night and talked to my dad.  He asked me if it was a full scholarship.  I explained that it was for $3,500 bucks, which in 1973 was a lot of money, and I told father that I was going to BU.  He was happy for me, but he wanted to know if I thought I could play for a big-time program like that.  I didn’t hesitate.  I told him that I could do it.  The next day I went into Jack Parker’s office, sat down with him, and told him I was coming to Boston University.”

Parker, who would retire from Boston University following the 2013 season, capping a 40-season tenure that saw him amass more wins than any hockey coach at the same institution in the country, had just taken over the BU B-team and was scrambling for players.  He’d seen Eruzione play before and hadn’t been overly impressed, but came away from that summer league game intrigued.

“The head coach at the time was a guy named Leon Abbott.  It was early in the year, and I was playing on the fourth line – we were practicing but the season hadn’t started yet.  In those days the season started a lot later than it does now.  Well, Leon Abbott ended up getting fired right before Christmas and Jack Parker became the head coach.  I went from being the center on the fourth line to second line left-wing and ended up leading the team in goals scored that year.  I was very fortunate and blessed to have Jack Parker in my life.”

Eruzione arrived at BU two years ahead of Olympic teammate Jack O’Callahan and three years ahead of Dave Silk and Jim Craig.  He would go on to become BU’s all-time leading scorer, with 208 points – averaging more than 20 goals per season – a record that Eruzione is proud of, but one that he doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on.

“The school scoring record means that I played with some good players,” Eruzione says quickly.  “In team sports – especially in the sport of ice hockey – you don’t do things by yourself.  I had a great center, a kid by the name of Rick Meagher, who was a three-time All-American and just a great, great college hockey player.  He played in the National Hockey League for quite a while.  I was fortunate to have Rick as my center man, and we kind of hit it off right away, from the first time we stepped on the ice together.  He graduated as the all-time leading scorer by one point ahead of me, deservingly so, because he was a better college player than I was.  You think of how fortunate you are to play with great players like Rick, and then you can’t help but think about what a privilege it was to play on those teams.  When I was at BU we won four straight league championships. We went to the Frozen Four all four years.  Unfortunately, we didn’t win it while I was there – and then I graduate and they win the national championship the very next year [laughs].  That tells you something about timing, but again, I was fortunate to play with great players, and anytime anyone gets the distinction of leading a team in scoring, or whatever, it’s because of the people you play with.”

In addition to the scoring record, Eruzione played in 127 consecutive games for the Terriers, never missing a contest in his four years on the team.

“That means I was lucky,” Eruzione insists.  “I didn’t get hurt.  I’m not a real deep person when it comes to my career and what I did on the ice.  I just always did what I was told.  The coach wants you to go out and play so you go out and you play.  You don’t ask questions.  I played as hard as I could every single game.  And I guess I was somewhat lucky that I never got bruised up, or banged up, and that I was able to take a shift every time that I played for four straight years.  I had some stitches here and there, but hockey players usually tend to play through those.  Those types of things weren’t a big issue.  I never had any knee problems until after college, at which point I had a couple of games where I got banged up a little and missed a couple of games here and there.  But for the most part I was healthy.  I wanted to be in the lineup every night and I wanted to play in every game.”

Even though those Eruzione-led BU teams came up short of a national championship, the Frozen Four format back then allowed for a consolation game.  Today there’s a quaint nostalgia associated with a contest to essentially determine who finishes third, but talk to Eruzione and it’s easy to see why it has gone the way of the helmetless hockey player.

“I’d like to tell you that we were all excited about playing the game, but both teams were pretty frustrated and pretty depressed by the fact that they didn’t win,” Eruzione says.  “I’m not going to say that we went through the motions, but the intensity in the consolation game is nowhere near the intensity in the championship game.  I think that most of the players on both teams felt an intense disappointment that they weren’t in the championship game.  You still have some pride, and you want to go out there and play as hard as you can, but it was such a letdown to come up short and then go out to see who was going to come out on top in a consolation game.  They don’t even do consolation games anymore, and I think it’s because they realized that nobody’s really into playing for third place at that point in the season.”

As college rivalries go, the animosity that existed between the hockey programs at Boston University and the University of Minnesota during the 1970s was as intense as any rivalry in sports.  BU had beaten the Gophers for the title in 1971 and had repeated as champions the following year.  Minnesota – known simply as “The U” – would win the school’s first national championship in 1974, and grab its second title two years later, both with Herb Brooks as head coach.

“I think most of the intensity between the schools developed out of the tournament format in place at the time,” Eruzione says.  “There were regional bragging rights involved.  There was a tremendous amount of pride at stake, and to be able to say you were the Eastern champion was a pretty big thing.  And then to win a national championship over a Western rival was the ultimate prize.  The format has changed and you don’t have that same mentality today.  Today, you could have two Western teams meeting in the finals or two Eastern teams could meet.  Those teams want to win, sure, but those bitter rivalries don’t exist.  When I played, the winners from the East played the winners from the West, so you went into that championship game trying to prove that your league or conference was better than theirs.

The teams would meet in the Frozen Four a total of four times during the 1970s, with none more memorable than the 1976 National Semifinal.

“That game was famous – infamous – for a bench-clearing brawl,” Eruzione says.  “It was the frustrating one for us, because that was the year that we thought we were going to win the national championship.  We were the number one team in college hockey all year, and we went out to Denver and played against a Minnesota team coached by Herb Brooks, four years before I got to play under Herb on the Olympic Team.

“Three or four minutes into the game a fight erupts, and it went on for what seemed like a good half hour before both teams got settled. If a melee like that happened today, both teams would be thrown out of the tournament.  We ended up losing, 4-2, and Minnesota went on to win the national championship.  I still look back on it and wonder if that was their game plan all along, to start this big fight to try to get us off our game.  If that was Herb’s strategy it worked.  It was very frustrating, because it was one of the better teams that I ever played on.  That loss was one of the biggest disappointments of my hockey career.”

Despite the hard feelings, Eruzione would come to learn that Jack Parker and Herb Brooks were very much alike in many ways.

 

“I really didn’t know anything about Herb at that time, other than I knew that he was a very intense coach, similar to my college hockey coach, Jack Parker.  I think that Herb was maybe a little more creative offensively, while Jack was more of a stickler for defense and playing both ends of the ice.  Other than that, they were pretty much cut from the same cloth.” – Mike Eruzione

 

“I really didn’t know anything about Herb at that time, other than I knew that he was a very intense coach, similar to my college hockey coach, Jack Parker.  That’s how coaches coached in that era.  They were very intense.  You could see Herb’s mannerisms on the bench and could tell that he was very intense and very demanding.  I think they were both very similar. Herb was from Minnesota, and coached the University of Minnesota.  Jack was from Boston, and coached at Boston University.  Herb played hockey at the University of Minnesota, and Jack played at Boston University.  They both had a passion to coach and teach.  They were both strict disciplinarians.  They were both in-your-face type of coaches.  I think that Herb was maybe a little more creative offensively, while Jack was more of a stickler for defense and playing both ends of the ice.  Other than that, they were pretty much cut from the same cloth.”

That Eruzione was elected co-captain as a senior at BU again speaks volumes about his leadership.

“My teammates respected me, and my coaches respected me,” Eruzione says.  “As I’ve said, I don’t put a lot into things like that.  It was nice that I had the title of captain, but it didn’t change me or the way I played or the type of person that I was going to be, or the type of teammate that I was going to be.  I think that sometimes people become captains and they change, and they become different, and that’s the biggest mistake that you can make.  The reason you’re elected captain is because of who you are as a person.  Your teammates will know immediately if you’re not genuine and authentic.  It was nice to selected as caption, but again, it wasn’t a huge thing for me.”

~  ~  ~

Each February, Boston’s TD Garden is the site of the traditional showdown between four of the city’s college hockey programs.  When Eruzione played, the venue was the old Boston Garden.  The Beanpot, as it’s known, has been going strong for more than 65 years, and the tournament has emerged with a lore uniquely its own.

“Growing up in Boston and being able to play in the Beanpot – and being able to play in the Boston Garden, where the Bruins played – was pretty amazing,” Eruzione says.  “The building was a complete sellout and packed with hockey fans rooting for one of the four Boston-area schools:  Harvard, Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern.  The Beanpot is still going on today, and it’s still held the first two Mondays in February.  It’s an impossible ticket to get because of the rivalries of the schools and the bragging rights of the city.  It’s a big recruiting tool.  To be able to say that you’ve just won the Beanpot is a big selling point for your school.  Huge.  And for the players, it’s a memory that will last forever.  The big thing for me was to be able to play in front of my family and friends.  There were some years when I would get 50 or 60 tickets because we had so many people that wanted to come and watch.  You always got a little extra excited when those first two Mondays in February came around.”

The first Beanpot drew 5,105 fans.  By 1960, the tournament topped 10,000 in attendance.  A year later, the Beanpot filled Boston Garden.  Eruzione had graduated by the time the Blizzard of ’78 hit, dumping 27.1 inches of snow, postponing the final until March 1.

 

The Blizzard of 1978 paralyzed the City of Boston and postponed the ’78 Beanpot.

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“I was living in Toledo Ohio at the time, but and I heard stories about it from people that I knew back home.  The bus was supposed to drop the team off at the rink so they could get rid of the equipment, but the storm was so bad that the bus couldn’t make it to the BU campus.  They had to let them off halfway up Commonwealth Avenue.  All the guys got off the bus and went to the campus bar across the street, which is where most of them stayed the night.”

While at BU, Eruzione also played for Team USA at the 1975 and 1976 Ice Hockey World Championship tournaments, giving him his first taste of international competition.

“We were a bunch of college players, along with a couple of ex-NHL players and players who were playing in Europe, so we were in way over our heads.  I think the first year we were 0-and-10. The Soviets beat us 13 to 3.  We even lost to Poland that year.  The losing was difficult to deal with, but for me it was just a great opportunity to represent your country.  That was the first time that I had ever put on a jersey that had ‘USA’ across the front.  Regardless of the fact that we weren’t very successful on the ice, just to be there and to be able to travel and see the world a little was very exciting.  It was also great to meet a lot of guys from different parts of the country.  There were a bunch of Minnesota guys on that team, guys like Buzz Schneider.  Buzzy and I ended up teammates together later in the Olympics.”

Eruzione then spent two seasons with the Toledo Goaldiggers of the International Hockey League, being named the Rookie of the Year in 1978 while leading the team to the Turner Cup Championship.

“It was a great experience for me,” he says quickly.  “It helped me to see a different level of competition that what I’d played against in college.  I also learned a lot about how to prepare for an opponent, which really helped me in the Olympics.  And I met a lot of great people during my time in Toledo.”

One of those people was Jim McCabe, who centered a line with Eruzione.  McCabe led the Goaldiggers to two Turner Cup championships over six seasons, and connected instantly with the player everyone referred to as “Rizzo”.

“He was my winger for half a season,” McCabe says.  “We got to be real good friends. He helped paint my house.  He’s a great guy and he deserved everything he got.  He was very patriotic.  I remember him holding his hand on his heart during the National Anthem.  Some of us Canadians made fun of him, but we knew that he wasn’t putting on a show.  We knew that he loved his country.  So for him to be a part of that 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, it couldn’t have worked out any better.  I was very happy to see him win the gold medal.”

 

USA HOCKEY


Herb Brooks had a plan.

He applied for the Team USA coaching job in 1978, fresh off the third of three national championships he would win at The U, and he’d studied the Russian style of play for years.  He was obsessed with the beauty of their game, which was predicated on speed and passing, and he’d long admired the way they attacked at every opportunity, wearing down teams by sheer force of will.  The Soviets were fast, strong, and above all else, skilled.  Brooks knew that beating them would not only take perfection, it would take total commitment and outside-the-box thinking.  He also knew that, if given the opportunity, he was as qualified as anyone to flip the script on the Russians.

Brooks may have been supremely confident in his abilities, but there was a problem:  He wasn’t the first choice to lead the American men into an Olympic tournament that the Soviets were heavily favored to win.  That distinction went to Bill Cleary – ironically, the same Bill Cleary that had cost Brooks a roster spot on that 1960 gold medal-winning team in Squaw Valley.  Cleary would ultimately decline the offer, instead choosing to focus on a new coaching gig at Harvard.  The decision opened the door for Brooks, who arranged a meeting with Walter Bush, the GM of the 1964 Olympic team Brooks played on, and the head of the Team USA search committee.  Bush was keenly aware of Brooks’ résumé, and was impressed by the way he’d inherited a downtrodden program at The U and had quickly turned it into a national power.  But Bush was also aware of Brooks’ reputation as a lone wolf, whose my-way-or-the-highway attitude had alienated many.  Despite the trepidation, Bush decided to grant an interview.

 

Herb Brooks arrived in Colorado Springs with a plan; six months later, the U.S. would shock the world by beating the Russians and winning the gold medal.

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“Jack Parker also interviewed for the job,” Eruzione says.  “They were two of the best college hockey coaches at the time and both had done some amazing things, so I’m sure that it wasn’t an easy decision for the committee to make.”

Brooks arrived prepared.  Armed with binders stuffed with details, he presented a radical plan to turn USA Hockey on its head, challenging conventional wisdom on everything from player selection to staffing, conditioning and pre-Olympic scheduling.  Most dramatic of all, he wanted the United States to abandon the traditional, linear, dump-and-chase style of hockey that had been popular in North America for decades.  The Russians’ style, predicated on speed and weaving, took advantage of the Olympic ice sheet, which was fifteen feet wider than the rinks used in the NHL.  Brooks wanted to adopt the same style without sacrificing the physicality of the teams he’d coached.  He called this new model a hybrid style – taking the best aspects of the Soviet game and blending it with the best qualities of North American hockey.

Walter Bush and the selection committee walked away impressed not only by the level of detail, but also by the paradigm-changing approach that Brooks was proposing.  It was enough to sway the committee in his favor despite concerns that he might be difficult to work with.  Two days later, they offered the job to Brooks.

“I don’t think they realized how stubborn Herb was going to be,” Eruzione says with a chuckle.  “But once he got the job, he was a man of his word.  He said that he was going to do it his way, and that’s exactly what he did.”

Brooks next step was selecting a team.  He went to the Second Annual National Sports Festival in Colorado Springs in the summer of 1979, where a round robin tournament and championship playoff was being held, to do just that.  Sixty-eight of the nation’s best were invited, and it was here that Brooks would select the 26 men who would compete to represent the United States at Lake Placid.  While there was plenty of individual talent on the ice, Brooks wasn’t necessarily looking for the most talented players or the most prolific scorers.  He understood that all-star teams didn’t win games, especially against the Soviets – the NHL All-Stars found that out the hard way, losing 6-0 against them in a high-profile game at Madison Square Garden the year before.  He needed hockey players willing to reconstruct their games to fit his system.

Eruzione fit that mold to a T.

“I had an opportunity to try out,” Eruzione says.  “I wasn’t alone – there were a lot of people who had opportunities to make the team, because there were a lot of open tryouts.  I just think my past experience – my college career, and what I did when I played in Toledo, helped to get me noticed.  I think those were the things that led Herb Brooks to extend an invite to Colorado Springs.  There were no guarantees.  I got invited along with 68 other guys.  We went to Colorado Springs and competed against each other over two weeks, out of which Herb selected selected the players who would vie for a shot at the 1980 Olympic Games.  Twenty-six of us made up the team.  Unfortunately, only 20 could go to Lake Placid.  I was just happy to be one of the 26 who made that first cut.”

The festival ran for two weeks, with Brooks and a nine-man advisory panel assessing the talent assembled in Colorado Springs.  Nothing was left to chance.  Brooks ran them through grueling skating and stick-handling drills, and had them complete a 300-question test to assess their psychological makeup.  That he finalized the roster without consulting the advisory panel sat well with no one, but Brooks refused to budge.

“Herb knew exactly what he wanted,” Eruzione says.  “The selection committee didn’t understand what was going on in his head, but he had a very clear vision of what it was going to take to beat the Russians.”

Trimming the roster down to twenty was an early priority, but the more immediate problem facing Brooks was the intense rivalry between the players from Minnesota and Boston University.  That 1976 NCAA semifinal brawl was still fresh in the minds of most, and it wasn’t long before the players were trading punches in Colorado Springs.

 

“The ice was a dangerous place to be those first couple of weeks.  There wasn’t much trust, and there was plenty of hostility.  Guys were out there looking to even the score for what happened in ’76.” – Mike Eruzione

 

“The ice was a dangerous place to be those first couple of weeks,” Eruzione says.  “There wasn’t much trust, and there was plenty of hostility.  Guys were out there looking to even the score for what happened in ’76.”

Brooks responded by giving the players a common enemy:  Herb Brooks.

“He was so hard on us that we didn’t have time to worry about settling old scores.  He pushed us.  He played mind games with us.  He kept us wondering whether we were going to make the team.  I’m sure it was all part of his plan to bring us together.  We couldn’t hate each other if we were busy hating him.”

While Brooks refused to become even remotely connected to the team on a personal level, he did have the foresight to hire an assistant coach with great relational skills.  Craig Patrick, a former All-American and Brooks’ teammate on the 1967 U.S. national team, was a perfect counterpoint to the combative, fire and brimstone spewing coach from The U.  Easy-going and naturally likable, Patrick quickly forged close bonds with the players.  Brooks, on the other hand, kept his emotions behind an impenetrable fortress.  He cared about the young men on his roster.  He just didn’t show it.

“He absolutely did.  He didn’t show it outwardly, but we knew that he cared for us very much,” Eruzione says.  “Herb made a conscious decision from the very beginning that he wasn’t going to be close to this team.  He didn’t feel that he could get the very best out of us if he was busy trying to be our friend.  So Herb stayed away from us.  He let us develop a chemistry on the ice and away from it.  I think Herb would’ve loved to have been close to this hockey team, but he couldn’t do that and also demand our very best, so he chose to take the path where he was going to stay away.  Craig Patrick was our assistant coach, and he was a very, very important part of our success.  Herb played the part of the bad cop, and he let Craig Patrick be the good cop.”

Following an August training camp in Lake Placid, Brooks whisked the team away to Europe for three weeks of games that served two primary purposes:  Gauge the team’s progress in adopting his hybrid style of play, and steer clear of NHL scouts who might try to poach his roster.

“The NHL training camps were opening up, and Herb didn’t want his players tempted by contract offers.  He was paranoid about that.  By the time we returned from Europe the camps had opened.  Herb thought of everything.  He left nothing to chance.”

In the Disney movie Miracle, the turning point when the players drop regional bias and become a family occurs during that European trip.  Playing Norway, the Americans slog their way to a 3-3 tie in a game that shouldn’t have been close.  Brooks, disgusted with his team’s lack of effort, famously thunders:  “If you don’t want to skate during the game, then you’ll skate after it.”  He then orders them to the end line, where they skate suicides – Herbies, as they became known – end line to blue line and back, end line to red line and back, end line to opposite blue line and back, and end line to end line and back.  The crowd filed out and the Americans skated.  The custodians turned out the lights and the Americans skated.  On and on it went, Brooks commanding Patrick to blow the whistle time and again, ignoring team doctor George Nagobads’ pleas to stop.  In the pivotal scene, Brooks relents only after Mike Eruzione shouts his name and allegiance to country, an epiphany that had been eluding the players due to those bitter college grudges.  It galvanizes them.  From that moment forward, the Americans play hockey with a common purpose.

“I don’t know that that’s what galvanized the team, especially the way that it was portrayed in the movie.  In that scene I didn’t say, ‘Mike Eruzione, United States of America.’  And if I’d thought of it, I would have said it after the first suicide sprint, it wouldn’t have taken an hour and fifteen minutes to figure it out [laughs].  Still, it was probably one of the moments that helped galvanize the team, but I don’t think it was the key moment.  For one thing it happened so early – it was in September or maybe October when that took place – but it was definitely one of the teaching tools that Herb used throughout the year that helped to bond our team together.”

The next night, the teams played again.

The United States won, 9-0.

“Let’s just say that we were focused,” Eruzione says with a laugh.  “I don’t think any of us wanted to skate Herbies again.”

~  ~  ~

The Americans would grind through a total of sixty-one games between that August training camp and the start of the 1980 Olympics the following February.  They played amateur teams in Europe.  They played against professional teams in the Central Hockey League.  They played a series of exhibition games against NHL clubs – a first for a U.S. Olympic team.  Through it all, Brooks continued to refine his hybrid system, with varying degrees of success.  Victories over Sweden, Czechoslovakia and Canada provided encouraging signs.  The 3-3 tie with Norway ate at him like a cancer.

“The one thing that struck me right away was how innovative Herb was.  He changed the way we played the game.  He was determined to take a blend of old style hockey and a blend of the European game and combine it together.  It was fun.  It’s nice to try something completely different – change is good sometimes, and I think for us, as a team, Herb’s blend of the two styles fit our strengths. I loved the creativity that he gave us.  The game plan was completely different from anything that I’d been a part of before, and that was exciting and new for me.

In the midst of this, Eruzione was named captain.  The son of a sewage plant worker from Winthrop, the player who couldn’t convince a major college program to take a chance, the skater with what scouts considered average speed…was selected by Brooks to be captain.

“I didn’t expect to be named captain,” Eruzione says.  “I’ll go back to what I said about being named captain at Boston University – it was nice, but it wasn’t a big thing.  I played on an Olympic team in 1980 that had 15 college captains on it.  And I can guarantee you that the five who weren’t captains of their college teams were captains of their high school teams.  I’ve said over the years that I was a captain among captains. I was just fortunate to play on a team.  These guys weren’t just great players, they are great people.  It was an honor to be the captain of that team, but like I said, it really wasn’t that big of a deal.”

Eventually, Brooks cut the roster down to twenty, with Eruzione being spared at the eleventh hour, but not before taking the team to hell and back.

“There was also a familiarity to Herb that helped keep me centered, because he was no different than Jack in terms of his discipline and intensity,” he says.  “Practices were very intense and very demanding.  That’s just the way Herb handled it, and it was clear that that’s the way it was going to be all year.  The scenario was that you either dealt with it or you quit.  Well, we weren’t going to quit.  We were going to do whatever he wanted us to do.  We were going to fight through any type of adversity, perform well, and do anything that we could to keep him happy.”

That didn’t stop the players – including Eruzione – from trading horror stories over beers after practice.  To them, Brooks was as cold as the ice on which they skated.  The Eastern players thought he was being hard on them because they hadn’t played for him at The U.  The Minnesota players, who had long lived with his dark and demanding ways, had never seen this level of diabolicalness from their coach.  Despite Brooks’ heavy vibe, there were lighter moments; when the team exchanged gag gifts at Christmas before the Olympics, the players gave Patrick a plastic whistle and Brooks a whip.

 

GEARING UP


The prequel played out five days before the start of the 1980 Winter Olympics, on a wintry day in New York City, the Americans and Soviets squaring off in a hockey game at Madison Square Garden.  For some of the 11,243 who showed up, the game was about venting political feelings associated with the ongoing war in Afghanistan.  For Brooks, the game was about getting the jitters out.  He knew his players were in awe of the Russians, and for good reason:  Vladimir Petrov, Boris Mikhailov, and Valery Kharlamov constituted the team’s No. 1 line, the best unit in the world.  Petrov was 32, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a nine-time world champion, and one of the strongest players on the team.  His weapon of choice was the slap shot, uncommon among Russian players of the day, many of whom favored the wrist shot instead.  Mikhailov, the Soviet’s fabled captain, carried himself with a Cold War confidence that permeated every nook and cranny of country’s hockey program.  The speedy and smooth-skating Kharlamov, elite in his own right, completed a line that had been together for nine years and had attained unparalleled success.

 

Team photo of the 1980 Russian hockey team, widely considered the best hockey team in the world.

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“It was hard not to be in awe of them,” Eruzione says.  “They were almost mythical.  They’d skated circles around the NHL All-Stars.”

Behind them was Vladislav Tretiak, long considered the best goaltender on the planet.  He was protecting the net during the most dominant era of Soviet hockey, shutting down opponents on the way to gold medals at the 1970, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979 World Championships.  He was there when the Soviets won Olympic gold in 1972 and 1976.  His reputation was as ironclad as his goal tending.  You simply didn’t score on Tretiak.

On the bench was Viktor Tikhonov, Soviet Olympic coach.  Tikhonov, known for talking incessantly during games, was Brooks’ equal in terms of his dictatorial coaching style, exercising nearly absolute control over his players’ lives.  His teams practiced eleven months a year while being confined to barracks when not on the ice.

The Soviets built a 4-0 lead by the end of the first period.  Eruzione put the U.S. on board by scoring a goal on Tretiak’s stick side, but the game was 6-1 by the end of two.  After Phil Verchota scored just 3:25 into the third period, making it 6-2, the Soviets responded by scoring three goals in rapid-fire succession.  If felt as if they could put fifteen more in the net if they wanted.  The final score was is 10-3.

“I don’t mean to sound defeatist,” Brooks was quoted as saying afterwards, “but you’ve got to combine idealism with pragmatism, and practically speaking, we don’t have a chance to beat the Russians.  We’ve got 10 kids who could still be playing in college, and they’ve got a team that beat the NHL’s best players last year, a team with half-a-dozen guys from ‘72 still playing.”

After the annihilation, the reclusive Tikhonov surprised almost everyone by agreeing to meet with the press.  Hair still cemented in place, he used the time to arrogantly dismiss the Americans.

“We showed what we can do, and they didn’t,” Tikhonov said through an interpreter.

Asked what this game had revealed about his own team’s readiness for Lake Placid, Tikhonov replied:  “To know the real strengths of a team, you must play against strong opposition.”

When asked if his team approached the game as nothing more than a glorified scrimmage, and that the Soviet skaters hadn’t tried their hardest, Tikhonov smiled smugly and said, “You are quite correct.”

If the trash talk angered Brooks, he wasn’t showing it.  And when it came to his rationale for scheduling this game so close to the start of the Games, he treated it like any of the sixty other games he’d scheduled leading up to the opening ceremonies.

“I told them it doesn’t mean anything,” said Brooks at the time.  “It’s our last game of spring training.  We’ve played sixty games in this training time, and none of them means anything.  Tuesday, it means something.”

For Eruzione, playing the Soviets so close to the Olympics wasn’t about Cold War politics or thinly-veiled mind games, nor was it about overcoming nerves so that they’d be ready to face the Russians when it counted.

“I think it was maybe just Herb trying to get us another game against a real quality team.  We didn’t even know if we were going to play the Soviets in the Olympics, so it wasn’t like Herb said, ‘Let’s play them now, so that we can be ready for when we play them at Lake Placid.’  Maybe Herb thought that we needed a pretty good ass kicking, and said to himself, ‘Let’s play the Soviets and we’ll get it.’  I never really asked him about why that game was scheduled.  It was something that, when the game was over, it was never really talked about again.”

 

LAKE PLACID


The field of 12 teams were split into two divisions, with a round-robin format being played and the top two teams in each division advancing to the medal round.  The U.S. was placed in the Blue Division, which included Czechoslovakia, Sweden, West Germany, Romania and Norway; the Russians were opposite the U.S. in the Red Division, along with Canada, Finland, Holland, Poland and Japan.

Sweden was the first U.S. opponent, on February 12, the day before the opening ceremonies, and Brooks’ team immediately found itself in a dogfight.  Down 2-1 late in the third period, Brooks ordered Jim Craig to vacate the goal in favor of an extra skater.  Then, with the Olympic Fieldhouse scoreboard showing 27 seconds remaining, defenseman Bill Baker scored on an improbable slap shot, turning a damaging loss into a valuable tie and setting off a jubilant celebration in the middle of the rink, where it looked like a 19-man human pyramid had just collapsed.

Not everyone was happy.  Brooks lashed out at his team between the first and second periods, and was still upset when the game was over.

 

Bill Baker on the attack against Sweden.

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“I can’t tell you what I said between periods, there were too many bleeps in it,” he would say afterward.  “But the essence was, I said if you guys want to play this game effectively you better report out there with a hard hat and a lunch pail.  If you don’t you might as well go watch some old men ice fishing.”

Game 2 was played on Valentine’s Day, a day after the U.S. athletes marched in opening ceremonies in cowboy boots, sheepskin coats and blue jeans, competing against a Czechoslovakian team considered to be the second best in the world.  The Czechs, skilled and physical, found themselves ambushed by a pack of hungry American wolves.  The final score was 7-3.  A mostly American and highly energized crowd of 7,125 people fell in love with the U.S. hockey team on the spot, emotions that would play out in living rooms and bars across the country.

“Youthfulness breeds hungriness,” Brooks said in the post-game press conference.  “And in my opinion, the hungry will inherit the medals.”

Over in the Red Division, the Soviets were busy taking care of business.  They opened with games against Japan and Holland, winning by a combined score of 33-4.  Despite their brilliance, it was hard not to notice what the scrappy, feisty American had just done to the Czechs.  The kids didn’t just beat them. They trounced them.

“We were clicking on all cylinders,” Eruzione says.  “Everyone was playing together, every line was going out and doing its job.  Once we got on a roll it felt like we were skating downhill.”

And just like that, the story unfolding in Lake Placid transformed itself into something far bigger than hockey.

~  ~  ~

Heading into Lake Placid, the Russians had not lost an Olympic hockey game since 1968.  In the previous four Olympiads, their record was 27-1-1, their goal differential 175-44.  In the two decades that had passed since the U.S. team had upset them in Squaw Valley, the Russians had beaten the Americans by an aggregate score of 28-7.  Absolutely no one gave Herb Brooks’ team a chance to beat the Soviet Union, but the 7-3 demolition of the Czechs completely changed the narrative.  Maybe the Americans could compete with Tikhonov’s hockey machine after all.

Game 3 was against Norway, and the underdog Americans found themselves favored for the first time.  It was a role that didn’t sit well with Brooks, and after a sluggish first period in which Norway scored the only goal, it was easy to understand way.  Then, just 41 seconds into the second period, Eruzione scored to spark his team to a three-goal second period.  The U.S. never looked back, beating the Norwegians, 5-1.

 

Eric Strobel and Team USA beat Norway 5-1 in a game that scared coach Herb Brooks.

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“That was a funny game,” Eruzione recalls.  “We started off flat and fell behind 1-0, but in the second period we came out and played with a lot of energy and emotion.  That was the difference.  When we played without emotion, we were just an average hockey team.  It was something that Herb reminded us about all the time.”

Momentum was on the American side when it faced Romania in Game 4.  The resulting 7-2 romp put the team at 3-0-1 in the Blue Division, tied with Sweden for first place.  The tone was set by the “Coneheads” line of Buzz Schneider, Mark Pavelich and John Harrington, with Schneider getting two goals and an assist, Harrington two assists and Pavelich one.

A game later, the U.S. upended West Germany 4-2 to advance to the medal round.  The Americans fell behind 2-0 in the first period when Craig allowed a 70-foot slap shot goal 1:17 into the game, and a 60-foot power-play slap shot goal just 15 seconds from the end of the first period.  The U.S. was still down two goals as the game reached the halfway point, and then erupted for two goals in each of the final two periods.  Rob McClanahan started the scoring and then netted the game-winner, which came with 1:17 remaining in the final period.

 

Buzz Schneider falls over Romania goalie Valerian Netedu during Team USAs 7-2 romp.

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The game was not without a moment of high drama:  Eruzione shot hit Craig in the neck during warm-ups and knocked him out cold.  Brooks ordered the backup goalie, Steve Janaszak, to start warming up.  Craig recovered after a few minutes and went on to play, giving up those two early goals before slamming the door.

“It was a scary moment when Jim went down,” Eruzione says.  “Our first thoughts were about his health, obviously, and we were relieved when he came to, because he seemed okay.  We had faith in Janaszak to step in if Jim couldn’t play, but it worked out.  We gave up those two quick goals and that was it.”

Improbably, the undefeated Americans were 48 hours away from a date with the Russians in the medal round.

~  ~  ~

Players deal with pressure in different ways.  For Mike Eruzione did what any good Italian would do:  Spending time with family and friends.

“We all hung out at a camp site the night before the game against the Russians,” he says with a smile.  “It wasn’t a big deal, really.  It was just an opportunity to see my cousin, my high school football coach, my father, and some people who meant a lot to me.  I didn’t want to sit in that Lake Placid trailer waiting for the game to begin.  I thought it would be a good opportunity to spend some time with some of the people who meant the most to me.  It was great to relax, have a few beers, have a hot dog and a cheeseburger, and still make curfew – which I think I might have missed anyway [laughs].  Yeah, I may have been a little late, but I don’t think Herb had to worry too much about me staying out all night partying.  It was just a way for me to spend some time with friends and family.  It was a lot of fun.”

There was plenty of pressure on everyone by the time the Americans arrived at Olympic Fieldhouse, and Brooks could sense it as his players assembled in the home team’s locker room.  For six months he’d been a prick, the man demanded the best from his team at all costs.  He’d kept his players at arm’s length, refusing them even the faintest hint of love.  Now – if only for this moment – he knew he had to remove the wall long enough for his players to see past his own Iron Curtain.  They had to look in his eyes and know that he cared, that he’d been on this journey with them all along.  That he’d been so hard on them because of this moment right here.

Brooks walked into the deathly quiet locker room.  He wore brown plaid pants and a camel hair jacket, and the look of a man carrying the burden of a great secret.  He pulled out a yellow scrap of paper.

“Great moments are born from great opportunity,” Brooks began, and you could hear a pin drop.  He paced the room like a panther.  When he finally speaks, it’s in short, defiant bursts.  “That’s what you have here, tonight.  That’s what you’ve earned here tonight.

“One game.  If we played them ten times they might win nine.  But not this game.  Not tonight.  Tonight we skate with them.  Tonight, we stay with them.  And we shut them down because we can.  Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world.  You were born to be hockey players.  Each and every one of you.  You were meant to be here tonight.  This is your time.  Their time is done.  It’s over.  I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great team the Soviets have.  Screw ‘em.  This is your time.  Now go out there and take it.”

Brooks’ words soaked the nerves out of the room.

“Herb’s speech struck the right chord, because if you’re an athlete and you think you are going to lose, then you probably will,” Eruzione says.  “We knew how hard it was going to be, and we knew we had to play really well.  We knew we had to play pretty much the perfect hockey game, which I think we basically did.  Herb reminded us of that we need to play with maximum effort.”

 

MIRACLE ON ICE


The Olympic Fieldhouse was jammed to the rafters, easily over its 8,500 seat capacity, the crowd mostly raucous Americans hoping for a miracle.  Petrov won the opening draw from Johnson, and the Soviets controlled the puck from the outset.  An early shot on goal by forward Viktor Zhluktov tested Craig early, a wrist shot that he blocked and covered up.

The Russians kept up the pressure.  When the U.S. didn’t have the puck – which was often in the early going – Brooks had all five skaters collapse into the U.S. zone on defense.  Even then, the Americans had trouble keeping the puck away from the net.

 

The Russians dictated tempo early, but the Americans proved themselves up to the challenge.

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“I think we were nervous and excited,” Eruzione says of weathering the early storm.  “I think we had every kind of feeling that you can have before a big game, and then there were the butterflies that come at the very start.  But we were in the game the whole time, thankfully that’s the way it played out for us, so we never got into a panic situation.  We never had the thought of, ‘Oh my God, we’re getting killed out here, what are we going to do?’  So, I think we were very confident.  And as the game played on, we were gaining more confidence.  Remember that old adage, the one where they put their pants on the same way that we do, one leg at a time?  As good as they were, that night we felt that we were just as good, and it turned out that we were maybe just a little better.”

The first U.S. scoring chance came when defenseman Bill Baker and winger Phil Verchota hooked up on the right side, but Tretiak made a sprawling stop to shut down the threat.  Back on offense, Petrov surged into open space and ripped a shot wide right.  A hooking penalty by Mikhailov gave the U.S. its first power play and a chance to take an early lead, but the Soviets emerged unscathed.

The game was still scoreless, but Tikhonov’s hockey machine was very much in control.  Both teams exchanged shots, one by Russian defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov, and one by left wing Buzz Schneider.  And then, with just over ten minutes remaining in the opening period, Schneider found himself behind his own net with the puck.  As he began to make his move, forward Vladimir Krutov knocked the puck loose.  It skidded ahead to defenseman Alexei Kasatonov, who immediately fired a shot in Craig’s direction.  Krutov alertly extended his stick and deflected it into the net.  There was no celebration when Krutov scored.  Krutov simply headed to the bench, a Terminator on skates.

 

“Krutov’s goal was textbook Soviet hockey.  We knew we couldn’t let them get away from us, because that’s what they did to teams.  They would score that first goal, and then you’d look up and there would be five more on the scoreboard.” – Mike Eruzione

 

“Krutov’s goal was textbook Soviet hockey,” Eruzione says.  “We knew we couldn’t let them get away from us, because that’s what they did to teams.  They would score that first goal, and then you’d look up and there would be five more on the scoreboard.”

The tension in the crowd, already palpable, grew heavier after Krutov’s deflection.  A shot by Valery Vasiliev went wide seconds after play resumed, and then a rebound shot by Aleksandr Golikov was blocked by Craig.  The Russians were dictating tempo.

“We needed something to change the momentum,” Eruzione says.  “That first goal by Buzz really helped to take some of the pressure off of us.”

The goal – a missile off of a pass from Mark Pavelich in open space – caught Tretiak guessing, a rare mistake from the best goaltender on the planet.  Schneider’s goal wasn’t the result of Soviet-style artistry – intricate passes, deft skating and quick wrist shots.  It was old-fashioned pond hockey, a booming slap shot from far beyond the blue line.  The opening was tight, and at a sharp angle.  Schneider let it fly.  Tie game.  The crowd erupted.

The Soviets shrugged off the goal and quickly went back to work.  Forward Aleksandr Skvortsov retaliated, getting away with a slash on Schneider.  The separation allowed Skvortsov to take a pass from Helmut Balderis, elude Dave Christian and fire a shot at Craig, who kicked the puck away with his skate.  Balderis was there to snatch up the rebound, but his shot went wide of the net.  Zhluktov recovered the puck and rifled another shot.  Baker flung himself to the ice in an effort to break it up.  Kharlamov fired a wrist shot not long after, but Craig was up to the task, making a spearing, sprawling stab with his glove.

The game was being played almost exclusively on the U.S. side of the ice, with relentless pressure applied by the Soviets.  A twenty-foot Neal Broten wrist shot sent a jolt through the crowd, but Tretiak was up to the task, blocking it away.

With three minutes to play in the opening period, Sergei Makarov found himself with the puck and a shot at the net.  Craig kicked it away with his skate, but Makarov wasn’t finished.  He attacked hard on the next trip down, slicing between Ken Morrow and Mark Johnson to free himself for a drop pass from Vladimir Golikov.  Makarov attempted to pass it back to Golikov, but the puck ricocheted off Morrow’s skate and back to Makarov, who ripped a shot over Craig’s glove in the upper right corner.

And just like that, the Soviets were back on top.

“We knew that they would keep coming at us,” Eruzione says, “and we knew we needed to skate with them.  Herb kept reminding us to not let up.”

With less than thirty seconds remaining in the first period, Eruzione shot the puck toward the goal, but the Soviets cleared it into the U.S. zone.  Morrow recovered the puck with seven seconds left and dropped it back to Christian, who skated across the U.S. blue line.  Morrow screamed for him to shoot.  Mikhailov relaxed, if only for an instant, possibly convinced that the Americans didn’t have enough time to score.  Christian launched a desperation shot from a hundred feet out, a shot that Tretiak blocked away easily, but also carelessly, the puck rebounding in front of the net instead of into a corner.

 

Mike Eruzione in action during a short shift against the Russians.

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Mark Johnson, who had just hopped onto the ice after a late line change, skated as hard as he could to get into position.  He was in the right place at the right time when Tretiak’s rebound slid into open space in front of the net.  He went after Tretiak, who had skated away from the net, juking instead of shooting, and catching Tretiak guessing, flicking the puck into the net as time expired in the period.

Tikhonov was incredulous.  The referees huddled with the timekeeper while Tikhonov argued that time had run out.  After several tense moments, it was ruled that the goal had been scored with one second remaining on the clock.

“That was a game changer,” Eruzione says with a smile.  “Instead of going into the second period down a goal, we were tied, 2-2.  That was huge.”

~  ~  ~

Outplayed by the Russians but tied with them nonetheless, the Americans hurried to their locker room, carried there by the raucous chants from the crowd.  They were euphoric.  The blowout at Madison Square Garden was but a distant memory, the Soviet intimidation no longer a factor, their air of invincibility punctured.  Maybe Brooks had been right all along.  Maybe they could skate with the greatest hockey team on earth.

In the other locker room a different story was unfolding.  Tikhonov was busy ripping his star goaltender and preparing to bench him in favor of his backup, Vladimir Myshkin.  Myshkin didn’t have the same renown as Tretiak, but he had shut out the NHL All-Stars the year before, and he certainly had the game to slam the door on the net.  Still, the decision shocked Tretiak’s teammates, who had won at every level behind Tretiak’s otherworldly goal tending.  Never mind that Tretiak had a track record of playing better after giving up a goal; Tikhonov had just benched his star player.  It was as if Tom Brady had been yanked in a tie game with the Super Bowl on the line.

“We were very surprised when Tikhonov pulled Tretiak,” Eruzione says, “so I can only imagine what it was like for Tretiak’s teammates.  Herb pointed it out to us immediately.  It gave our confidence another boost.”

With Tretiak parked forlornly at the end of the bench, the second period began with the Valery Kharlamov and John Harrington getting tangled up, Harrington hooking Kharlamov and both of them spilling to the ice.  The Russian hockey juggernaut had its first power play.  Brooks, well aware that surviving the next two minutes was crucial, countered with speed by sending out Mark Johnson, Ken Morrow, Mike Ramsey and Rob McClanahan.  Craig, dialed in, snuffed out Vladimir Golikov’s high shot on the left side.  Then McClanahan got in on the action, blocking a shot by Zinetula Bilyaletdinov and trapping it along the boards.

The Americans’ attempt to control the puck was short-lived.  Dave Christian passed to Bill Baker, who in turn attempted a dangerous pass to Neal Broten in the middle.  The puck was deflected to Krutov, who flipped over to a speeding Aleksandr Maltsev.  Maltsev blew past Christian and Baker, closed in on Craig and drilled a shot off the post and into the net.  The collision between Maltsev and Craig left Craig sprawled on the ice, woozy, the score off of the power play putting the Americans in the hole yet again.

Three to two, Soviet Union.

“Things were going their way,” Eruzione says.  “They were skating fast and scoring goals, but we were hanging with them.  We knew we had work to do.”

Craig got up and shook away the cobwebs.  He’d play magnificently to that point, but he’d still given up three goals and the second period was barely underway.  If the Americans were somehow going to salvage a tie – an outright win still seemed unthinkable – then Craig would have to play perfect hockey the rest of the way.

The first test would come when Aleksandr Skvortsov deflected the puck away from right-winger Eric Strobel, who was trying to clear it from behind Craig’s net.  Balderis swooped in with a punch shot.  Craig blocked it away with his stick.  Zhluktov attempted to put the rebound into the net, but Phil Verchota and Mark Wells were there to stymie the effort.

Rob McClanahan took a perfect pass from Dave Christian, who was streaking up the middle, and drew a bead on Myshkin.  The crowd roared.  Valery Vasiliev skated back on the play and delivered a check and disrupt the shot, and Myshkin was able to direct it to a teammate.

Several minutes of tense hockey followed.  The U.S. controlled the puck out of a face-off in the neutral zone, before it ended up on Krutov’s stick.  Krutov made his move, sprinting into the U.S. zone, but Morrow was there to meet him.  The violent collision dislodged the puck and stopped Krutov cold, sending Morrow to the ice.

“We wanted them to know we weren’t backing down, that we were going to punch back,” says Eruzione.

Trailing by a goal and being out-shot 3-1, the Americans passed crisply on a sustained possession that came up empty.  To this point, Eruzione hadn’t been much of a factor on offense.  He crossed the red line with the puck and passed it to Christian, who in turn swept it over to Broten.  The crowd, jolted by the rare scoring opportunity, sprang to its feet.  Broten’s slap shot missed to the right.

 

“We weren’t getting a lot of clean looks at the net.  Broten’s shot just missed, but we knew we had to put it out of our minds and keep skating.” – Mike Eruzione

 

“We weren’t getting a lot of clean looks at the net,” Eruzione continues.  “Broten’s shot just missed, but we knew we had to put it out of our minds and keep skating.”

The Russians responded by dialing up their own pressure.  They were skating at a sprinter’s pace, attempting to wear down an American team that looked vastly different than the young, intimidated squad that provided little resistance at Madison Square Garden.  The U.S. skaters hadn’t shown up on that night.  At the Olympic Fieldhouse they hadn’t just shown up, they’d brought plenty of pluck and grit and determination with them.

Grit was one thing.  Shots on goal was another.  The Russians were the best in the world for a reason, and rare was the game where an opponent got off more shots than them.  With so few scoring opportunities, continuing to match the Soviet’s energy was critical.

Through all of this, Myshkin remained The Great Unknown.  He’d been on the ice for nearly ten minutes, yet he hadn’t been tested.  If the Americans could somehow get a clean look at the net, would he be up to the task?

The answer would have to wait.  Craig, whistled for delay of game, put the Americans in survival mode for the next two minutes.  The power play could have been disastrous, but Mark Johnson was everywhere – blocking Fetisov’s slap shot, getting a stick on Petrov’s close range blast, going down to the ice to disrupt another shot by Petrov.

Five minutes remained in the period.

Four.

The two teams continued to go at each other, Craig turning away shots and his teammates doing their part to help him out.  Strobel received a pass from Ramsey, speeding past Yuri Lebedev and into open ice.  The crowd reacted wildly, but the Russians quickly recovered, forcing a face-off.  Broten, Christoff and Eruzione returned, only to see Kasatonov fire a shot that Craig was somehow able to smother.  Krutov went after the puck, but Morrow was having none of it; he cross-checked Krutov from behind, a body shot that sent Krutov crashing into Craig, and Craig crashing to the ice.  A scrum erupted in front of the net.  Morrow and Lebedev went after each other behind it.  Craig, meanwhile, lay flat on his back.  Steve Janaszak, who hadn’t played a single minute in these Olympics, suddenly faced the very real possibility of having his number called.

 

Down but not out: Jim Craig would recover from a violent collision to turn in one of the greatest performances in the history of Olympic hockey.

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“Jim was red hot, and seeing him go down like that was a scary moment,” Eruzione says.

All eyes were on Brooks’ star goaltender.  Craig finally pulled himself up to a seated position, flipped the puck to the referee, and then slowly made his way to his feet.  After a quick check, he signaled that he was ready to go.

~  ~  ~

Order restored and Craig upright, both Morrow and Lebedev were sent to the penalty box for their roles in the melee and the teams skated four-on-four.  Three minutes remained in the period.  Brooks elected to go with speed, sending Mark Johnson to take the face-off.  He was joined on the ice by McClanahan, Christian, and Baker.  Tikhonov countered with Petrov, Mikhailov, Vasiliev, and defenseman Sergei Starikov.  Neither team could score.  There were under two minutes remaining.  Brooks, who had been keeping the shifts short in order to keep fresh legs on the ice, continued shuttling players in and out.  The Americans weren’t finding the net, or even getting a clean look, but neither were the Russians.  The constant pressure was beginning to take its toll.

~  ~  ~

The teams were back at full strength, and less than sixty seconds remained in the second period.  Krutov and Lebedev attacked, the puck on Krutov’s stick, the pass on its way.  O’Callahan dove at Krutov to break up the pass.  Ramsey dove to disrupt Lebedev’s shot.  At the beginning of training camp, Brooks had famously said that the legs feed the wolf.

“I can’t promise you that we’ll be the best team at Lake Placid,” Brooks had told them at the time, “but we will be the best-conditioned team, that I will promise you.”

Both teams were skating hard, the way teams skate during the final, frenzied moments at the end of regulation.  Craig absorbed a slap shot by defenseman Vasili Pervukhin.  The horn sounded.  The chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” reverberated throughout Olympic Fieldhouse as Craig skated slowly out of goal, removing his mask as he went.

~  ~  ~

In the locker room, the Americans prepared for the final period knowing that Craig was playing the game of his life.  In the first period he had faced 18 shots and had stopped 16; in the second he’d turned away 11 of twelve.  Twenty minutes remained.  Brooks sensed that the Russians were beginning to wear down.  This was the opening he’d preached about since that first day in Colorado Springs.  He called Nagobads into his office and handed him a stopwatch.

“We need short shifts,” Brooks told him during that second intermission.  “No shift can go more than thirty-five seconds.”

The players in the other locker room were convinced that the Americans had expended too much energy to keep up in the third, and for good reason:  The Soviets had owned the third period for more than a decade.  Wills were broken in that final period.  Box scores were littered with teams that had tried to keep up and had failed, teams that had entered the third with hope and had exited on the butt end of a blowout.

With Nagobads running the watch, the Americans skated full throttle for the 35 seconds and then hopped off the ice, fresh legs replacing spent ones.  With just over thirteen minutes remaining, a sense of urgency was beginning to take hold.  Myshkin had been in the net for 27 minutes, and yet he’d only faced two shots on goal, and none in the third period.

Krutov fired the puck diagonally across the ice.  Neal Broten chased it down along the boards, navigating his way behind the U.S. net, gathering speed, looking for an opening.  Krutov gave chase, bumping Morrow before slapping Broten with his stick.  The Americans had their first power play since the opening minutes of the game.

“It came at the right time for us,” Eruzione says.  “We were tired, but the short shifts helped keep us a little fresher than the Russians. We were out-skating them in that third period.”

In control of the puck, Broten passed to Ramsey who in turn fired a shot at Myshkin.  Eruzione tried to knock the rebound into the net, but it bounced wide.  Bilyaletdinov slapped it along the boards, where Vladimir Golikov chased it down and raced across the U.S. blue line.  Ramsey dropped to the ice to thwart the Soviet’s shot.

The hectic pace of the power play favored the Americans, but there was no organization to their effort.  They were running out of time.  Baker, behind his own net, passed to Silk, who worked his way along the left side and into the Soviet zone.  Vasiliev met him there, going low to the body and dislodging the puck from Silk’s stick and sending him down to the ice.  Somehow, Silk managed to get a stick on the puck and pushed it toward Mark Johnson, who was waiting in front of the Soviet net.  Starikov tried to control it, but the puck bounced off his skates and into Johnson’s wheelhouse.  Johnson wasted no time.  He fired the shot at Myshkin, who was late to react.  He dropped down, legs split, the puck sliding through and into the net.

Goal.

Three to three.

Olympic Fieldhouse was deafening.  Brooks thrust both arms overhead, fists clenched, exalting in his team’s effort.  Tikhonov barked orders and wore a look of shock on his face.  With just over ten minutes in the game, Harrington dug for control of the puck along the boards.  It trickled over to Pavelich, who flicked the puck to the middle of the ice as he was falling down.  Eruzione, who had just come on, skated over and caught up to it, wasting no time going on the attack.  From twenty-five feet away, he rifled a wrist shot at the net, his line mates, Broten and Christoff, still making their way onto the ice.  Vasili Pervukhin went down to block it.  Myshkin hunched low and tried to pick up its flight.  The puck was on him before he could react, whizzing between his right arm and his body, landing safely in the net.

Goal.

Eruzione threw up his arms and ran along the boards, dancing joyfully, the crowd erupting.  Al Michaels leaned into the microphone and shouted:  “Now we have bedlam!”

 

Mike Eruzione celebrates after scoring the goal that gives the US a 4-3 lead with 10 minutes to play.

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The entire team raced onto the ice to celebrate.  Brooks again thrust his arms overhead.  A tight-lipped smile began to form until his suppressed it.  He hitched up his pants and savored the moment.  Tikhonov stood in silence, trying to process what had just happened.

On the clock, exactly ten minutes remained.

~  ~  ~

Behind for the first time, the Soviets began to play with a sense of urgency that they hadn’t shown all night.  A shot from Maltsev hit the outside of the right post and ricocheted away from the net.  Another Maltsev shot went wide.  Vladimir Golikov flew in on the left and backhanded a shot at the net, but Craig blocked it.  Aleksandr Golikov fought hard for the rebound, checking Schneider into the boards.  The Soviet attack was suddenly blast furnace hot.  Jim Craig was under siege.

 

Jim Craig would be fiercely tested by the Soviets, but he would play the game of his life and help lead the U.S. to the greatest upset in sports history.

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“As a team, we just continued to do the things that we were doing throughout the game,” Eruzione says.  “Herb kept saying the same thing to us many times:  ‘Play your game.’  ‘Play your game.’  And that’s what we did.  It was just a case not getting too high or too low, but rather consistently doing the things that we were doing throughout the game that put us in the position to have the lead.”

Eight minutes remained.  Ramsey hurtled toward Kharlamov on the boards and leveled him.  Kasatonov got his stick on the puck and fired.  Craig gloved it.  Petrov let loose with a shot from sixty feet.  Craig kicked it away.

“Play your game.  Play your game,” Brooks kept repeating, this over the din of the crowd.

“You didn’t hear anything when you were on the ice,” Eruzione says.  “The only thing you heard out there was a teammate looking for a pass, or Herb yelling for us to change up.  The only time you heard the chants of ‘USA!  USA!’ , was when you were on the bench, maybe, and sometimes you weren’t even listening to it then because you were so focused on what was going on in front of you.  It’s amazing how you can block things out – not so much intentionally, but because you’re so into the moment.  I remember being dialed in and prepared for when Herb Brooks screaming out ‘You’re up for the next line change.’  So, other than the odd occasion, I don’t remember the chants so much as I remember Herb screaming out instructions and keeping us focused on the task at hand.”

Five minutes remained.

The chants continued as Nagobads continued to track time on his stopwatch, players shuttling on and off the ice, the Russians desperately trying to manufacture a goal.  Lebedev shot a pass across the ice but Pavelich beat everyone else to it, dictating tempo.  Harrington pulled the trigger on a shot.  Myshkin gloved it.

The Americans were swarming.  The Russians were panicking.

Two minutes.

One minute.

Tikhonov froze.  The situation called for an extra skater, but Tikhonov didn’t pull Myshkin.  Mikhailov moved the puck to Bilyaletdinov, who shot it along the boards.  Petrov managed to blast another slap shot, but Craig kicked it away.

Thirty seconds.

Kharlamov flipped the puck, but Johnson got to it first.  He passed it in the direction of Ramsey, who slammed into Bilyaletdinov.  McClanahan raced to the corner, beating Kharlamov to the puck, and backhanded it along the boards to Johnson.  With nine seconds remaining, Morrow cleared the puck, hitting Silk in the arm.

Five seconds.  Four.  Three.

Silk swiped at the puck.  Johnson pushed it out of the U.S. zone.  In the ABC booth, Al Michaels immortalized the moment:  “Do you believe in miracles?  Yes!”

The horn sounded.

The celebration that followed was one for the ages, a joyful release of emotion eight months in the making.  Players raced over to Jim Craig, swallowing him whole.  Assistant coach Craig Patrick joined them on the ice.  Nagobads, too.  In the stands, rapturous jubilation.  Brooks?  Nowhere to be found.  He rushed past a pair of tearful state troopers and disappeared into the locker room.  Once there, he locked himself inside a dilapidated toilet stall and cried.

 

It was nothing short of a miracle – the US hockey team pounces on goalie Jim Craig after a 4-3 victory against the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics.

 

~  ~  ~

There was still another game to be played.

The Americans would beat Finland, completing the miracle and winning the most improbable gold medal in Olympic history.

“Two things stand out for me after all of these years,” Eruzione says.  “First, we didn’t go to the Olympics to win one game.  We had to win a lot of games even before that game against the Russians just to get to the medal round.  We played Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and West Germany.  Those were huge hockey games for us to win.  If we don’t win any of those we’re not even thinking about the Soviet Union.  Second, the practice that we had after the Soviet game was one of the hardest practices that we had all year.  I think Herb was just making us aware that we had another game to play.  And I think as a team, we realized that.  We had no problem getting ready to play against Finland on Sunday.”

Eruzione cherished the moment back then, and he still cherishes it today.

“I think we take great pride in that, because it’s the Olympic Games and you are representing your country.  This is not Boston or Chicago or Los Angeles, and I think that’s what separated our moment from other great sports moments in other sporting events.  It wasn’t about a city or a town, it was about our country, and I think that’s what makes the Olympic Games so special.  When we put that jersey on we’re representing our country, and the people who support us feel as if they’re competing with us, too.”

Time marches on.  Eruzione keeps in touch with his teammates, some more than others.  Regardless of how often they see each other, their bond remains unbreakable.

 

LAKE PLACID, NY – FEBRUARY 24: The United States celebrates winning the gold medal against Finland on February 24, 1980 in Lake Placid, New York. The United States won 4-2. (Photo by: Steve Powell/Getty Images)

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“I don’t see Jim that often – he’s down in Tampa now – but I played one year with Jim at Boston University and he was a solid goaltender and a good teammate.  But that’s what makes this team so special.  We had a team of great teammates.  It wasn’t me, or Jim, or Mark Johnson.  It was about 20 guys, and everybody had to do something for us to win, whether it was Mark Johnson scoring every possible big goal that we needed, or Kenny Morrow and our defense making great plays, or Jimmy making big saves at the net.  Teams win championships, and that’s what we were.”

The weeks and months that followed were a blur.  The Sports Illustrated cover shot, the instant celebrity…Eruzione enjoyed the doors that opened but didn’t let it change him.  He was still the same Italian kid from Winthrop, blue collar and hardworking, humble to a fault.

“It was crazy.  I traveled around quite a bit.  I did a lot of speaking engagements, some golf tournaments, got to do a bunch of TV shows.  It was a whirlwind tour, but it was pretty exciting.  It’s been a great adventure over the years, and still is today – I’ve gotten to go to places that I had never been to before, and I’ve met a lot of incredible people along the way.  I’m very blessed to have been a part of that team.”

Not a day goes by that Eruzione isn’t asked about what happened in Lake Placid all those years ago.  Not that he minds.  He’s long since grown comfortable with the fact that he’ll always be remembered for one thing.

“Beating the Russians and winning gold means that we accomplished everything that we’d worked so hard for all year long.  We had six months of grueling training and countless hours of practice, and to have everything come to fruition at the end is a very proud of feeling.  I look back on it and know that it’s such a special part of my life.  It’s something that I’m very fortunate to have been part of.”

 

PARTING SHOTS


On August 11, 2003, Herb Brooks died in a single-car accident near Forest Lake, Minnesota, on Interstate 35.  He was returning home from a golf tournament and fundraiser for the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.  It’s believed that he fell asleep behind the wheel.  An estimated 2,500 people visited the Cathedral of St. Paul six days later to pay their respects, among them the twenty men that he coached to glory in 1980.  This was only the second time the entire team had been together since February 25, 1980, when they left Lake Placid for the White House, their worlds forever changed.  They came to honor the complicated man who’d pushed them to be the very best.  Eruzione stood in the pulpit and delivered a eulogy.  It was unscripted, plainspoken, from the heart.  He spoke on behalf of all the players when he said that Brooks was like a father whom you love deeply but don’t necessarily like all of the time because of how hard he was on you.

“I was on a plane coming back from New York when I learned what had happened,” Eruzione says.  “The plane landed, and when I turned my phone on I had fifty-something messages.  My heart jumped into my throat, and my first thought was, ‘Oh my God, something’s happened to my wife or kids or something’s happened at home.’  I saw the first message and called the guy back, and he said, ‘I’m so sorry about your loss.’  And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’  And he said, ‘You don’t know?’  That’s when he told me that Herb had been involved in a terrible car accident and had died.  I was in shock.  Our team had experienced nothing but great moments up until that point.  It was very hard.  Herb was a young man.  He had grandkids, and he was still coaching with the Pittsburgh Penguins at the time.  He had a lot of good years ahead of him.  It was very sad.”

~  ~  ~

Much has changed for Mike Eruzione – “Rizzo” to those who know him best.  He’s older now, thicker, but in many ways he hasn’t changed a bit.  The world’s become a more complicated place, and the people in it connected in ways that he couldn’t have even fathomed in 1980.  Fax machines have given way to cloud computing, telegrams to email, word-of-mouth to social media.  For Eruzione, times may change, but some things never go out of style.

“Work hard for your dreams.  I’ve never met a person who is successful because they were lucky.  People are successful because they have a work ethic – what I like to call old-fashioned values.  If you want something you have to work for it.  I think those are things that my dad taught me at a young age. My dad worked three jobs, and he always said to me, ‘If you understand the value of hard work, you are going to be successful.’  So when I travel and do speaking engagements, I talk about that a lot.  To me hard work is the most important key to success.”

 

Mission Accomplished: The 1980 U.S. hockey team won as a team and celebrated as a team, crowding onto the podium during the medal ceremony.

 

Dan Jansen – Unbreakable

By:  Michael D. McClellan

It’s two hours before the biggest race of  your life and you’ve just seen death.

How do you compete when it goes down like this?

You’ve sacrificed large swaths of your childhood and even larger chunks of your adolescence in exchange for a place at the top of your sport’s elite, and now, with the whole world watching, with the payoff for all that hard work a mere 500 meters away, you’ve got to somehow cope with the grimmest news of your young life.  You toe the line and try to convince yourself that you can do this, that you can hold it together long enough to win this race for your sister.  Thirty-six seconds and change is all that separates you from making good on that promise.  Thirty-six seconds and change and you can finally let go.

But how do you skate with a broken heart?

The news comes on the morning of your big moment and it rattles you to the core.  As a 16-year-old high school sophomore, you’d set a junior world record in the 500 in your first international competition.  Two years later, you’d made U.S. Olympic team.  Competing in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, you surprised everyone by finishing fourth in the 500, just missing out on a medal.  By the time Calgary rolls around you’re setting world sprint records and dominating World Cup events the way Carl Lewis dominates the 100 meter dash.  Calgary was supposed to be a coronation.  A celebration.  Instead, your mind is a mess and your stomach is in knots.  You learn the hard way how fragile life can be, and it buckles you.  You’re twenty-two, as fast as a bullet on the ice and bulletproof off of it.  You’ve never had to deal with death.  Now you’ve gotten the worst news possible, and you’ve had all of two hours to pull yourself together, and just when you think you’ve built a mental flood wall strong enough to keep the sorrow at bay – at least long enough to skate those thirty-six seconds and change – the thought of Jane breaches the barrier and the pain seeps back in.

How can she be gone?

You’re here in Calgary, on this Olympic stage, because of her – because she’d taken you outside on a cold Wisconsin winter day all those years ago and introduced you to skating.  You were only four years old at the time, and in your universe Jane was the sun.  Skating transformed your life.  Jane did that for you.  The past year you’ve had to watch helplessly as the leukemia aggressively transformed Jane’s life in its own insidious ways – from a life with endless possibility to one pockmarked with painful bone marrow transplants and increasingly grim test results.  You’ve trained and competed and donated platelets.  You’ve prayed for your sister, laughed with her, supported her, cried with her…and through it all you’ve stayed focused on the task at hand, because that’s what Jane has wanted you to do.  It’s the only reason you’re in Calgary today and not back home in Wisconsin with her.

And then, on the morning of the race of your life, the news of Jane’s death levels you.

Thirty-six seconds and change.

You toe the line and wait for the start of the second heat.

A lifetime of hard work boils down to this.  A year ago the thought of sprinting for an Olympic medal made you smile.  Now it’s caked with dread.

Thirty-six seconds and change.

Your body might be here in Calgary, but your mind is back home in West Allis, 2,500 kilometers away.

~  ~  ~

You false start.

You never false start.

Yasushi Kuroiwa of Japan is in the lane next to you, but he’s not in your league.  Not even close.  You regroup.  The bell rings.  You get off cleanly but your massive thighs are sluggish, your trademark explosiveness MIA.  Maybe you don’t have it today.  Who would blame you?  You’re on the inside lane, Kuroiwa to your right, and as you reach the first turn you start to find your groove.  That split second of doubt evaporates.  You enter that first turn like you’ve entered dozens of turns on the World Cup circuit, a mix of speed and power and technical perfection that Kuroiwa will be unable to match over the full 500 meters.

And then, five strides into that first turn, the unthinkable happens.

You slip.

Your instinct is to steady yourself with your left hand, but it’s too late – you momentum drives you to the ice and whips your legs around in a centrifugal blur.  The roar of the crowd is instantly transformed into an elongated OOOOOOHHH, the sound gathering force when you clip Kuroiwa’s skate and reaching crescendo when you careen hard off the wall’s protective foam padding.

And just like that, it’s over.

You pop up off the ice in disbelief, your arms raised skyward for an instant, your eyes fixed on the Olympic Oval’s drab gray ceiling.  You remove your racing cap and bury your head in your hands.  Four years ago, in Sarajevo, you’d been an 18-year-old unknown.  No one expected you to medal.  You missed out on the bronze by 16-hundredths of a second, a tough break but hardly the end of the world.  You’d skated your best and come up just short, and you’d gone home without a shred of doubt or disappointment.

But this…

Calgary was supposed to be a fairy tale.  Instead, you can only watch as East Germany’s Uwe-Jens Mey wins the gold medal and 36 other skaters finish ahead of your DNF.  Jane’s death turns you into a household name.  Your teammates offer their support.  Complete strangers break down and cry.  You’re numb inside but you can’t mourn; you’ve got to hold it together long enough to skate the 1,000 meters four days later, and when you blister the first 600 meters in world record time, it looks as if this race – a race you dedicate to Jane – is going to be the one that honors her memory with Olympic gold.

And then, with one lap remaining, you slip again.

The expression on your face says it all.  You spin to a stop and sit there on the ice, legs extended, head in the palms of your hands, the weight of the world crashing down on you.  A thousand what-ifs run through your mind by the time you finally gather the strength to stand, but there’s only one thing you know with absolute certainty.

It’s time to go home.

~  ~  ~

Dan Jansen was a rocket ship on skates, his World Cup brilliance long overshadowed by those heartbreaking slips on the Olympic stage.  He was Scott Norwood before Scott Norwood, the kicker whose field goal attempt sailed wide right and sealed the first of four consecutive Super Bowl defeats for the Buffalo Bills.  The Olympics were Jansen’s Super Bowl.  His own personal wide right.  Failure begetting failure begetting failure, the pain and disappointment amplified by the fact that he was the best speed skater on the planet until the Olympics rolled around.  Sarajevo.  Calgary.  Albertville.  Lillehammer.  Close calls, heartbreaking falls and a reputation for choking with the stakes the highest, Jansen’s repeated Olympic failures were the lone blemish on an otherwise sterling résumé, one that included eight world records, 46 World Cup wins, 7 overall World Cup titles and two World Sprint Championships.

Six years to the day that Jansen’s slip cost him the 500 in Calgary, Jansen was on a world record pace in the same event at Lillehammer when he slipped again, dropping him to eighth place and out of medal contention.  He had one more opportunity in the 1,000, but he would now have to race it with another mistake gnawing at his confidence – and with the pressure of knowing that this would be his final Olympic race.  Sure, we hoped and we prayed that Jansen’s story would end happily ever after,  but deep down we knew how this Shakespearean tragedy would play out.  Dan Jansen was going to slip again, and he was going to go down as the guy who, try as he might, simply couldn’t get it done.

The best that never was.

~  ~  ~

The genesis of Jansen’s story can be traced to West Allis, where he was the youngest of nine children born to Harry and Geraldine, hardworking Midwesterners who had first dropped him off at the rink outside Milwaukee as a four-year-old rather than hiring a sitter to take care of him.  His connection to the ice was instantaneous.

“That’s all it took,” Jansen begins.  “From then on, it was me going along to the rink with my brother and sisters whenever they skated.  That’s really how I started out, just me tagging along and wanting to be a part of it.  I literally started on double runners.  I was four years old and racing by the time I finished that first year on ice.”

Harry Jansen was a police officer, and Gerry Jansen, a nurse.  Money was tight with a family that large, especially with all of the sports and extracurricular activities going on at the time.  Everyone, it seemed, was into skating, but it was Dan who showed the most promise.

“I was the baby of the family – number nine overall.  All of my siblings skated at one point in their life – some didn’t stay with it for very long, and others were quite good and skated for a long time.  My brother also competed on the international level.  They were all very supportive of me when I took it further, because they understood the ups and downs that went along with it, and all of the sacrifices that had to be made.  They were a big part of my team.”

Jansen’s childhood revolved around the rink, regardless of the season.

“Now it’s called long track and short track, but back then it was just indoor and outdoor,” he explains.  “We would skate indoors until the middle of November, and then we would move outdoors until the cold went away, and then we would move back indoors for the indoor season.  I loved it all, but the biggest memories for me  were of skating outside in the cold weather.  We loved it, but it was cold, and it was windy.  I remember traveling on the weekends to the meets and competitions, and those were held on frozen lakes and ponds.  Just great memories.  If you compare it to nowadays, many of the skaters have never even skated outdoors. But that’s how we grew up doing it, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

The Jansens were clean-cut and close-knit, with Harry and Gerry doing their best to juggle evening and weekend schedules to make sure that all of their children were athletically and socially active.  Their sacrifices allowed the Jansen clan to dream, and their ability to stretch a dollar in pursuit of those dreams played a big part in Dan’s rise through the junior speed skating ranks.

 

“It wouldn’t have been a career without my parents.  They were extremely supportive and made incredible sacrifices in order for me to pursue my dream.  My success was made possible through them – the opportunity to grow as a skater was because of them, and certainly the opportunity to continue competing in speed skating was because of them. – Dan Jansen

 

“It wouldn’t have been a career without my parents,” Jansen says plainly.  “They were extremely supportive and made incredible sacrifices in order for me to pursue my dream.  My success was made possible through them – the opportunity to grow as a skater was because of them, and certainly the opportunity to continue competing in speed skating was because of them.

“The financial impact on the family budget was huge, especially with all of the travel and time away from home and everything else that goes along with trying to become an elite athlete.  Believe me, it was a burden.  I honestly don’t know how, looking back, with nine kids…I don’t know where they came up with the money to support me doing what I did.  We had to get creative – we held fundraisers and did other things to make money, anything to help take some of that burden off of them.  They made it work somehow. It’s really pretty remarkable.”

Wisconsin is known as America’s Dairyland, but it’s also a place where winters are long and frozen lakes are plentiful, making it the perfect breeding ground for hockey players.  But in the little corner of suburban Milwaukee that is West Allis, kids who are more inclined to forgo clunky hockey skates in favor of the longer blades of speed skates.  The Jansens were no exception; Jansen’s three brothers and five sisters all skated competitively.

 

Still a star: Dan Jansen shares a light moment with Stephen Colbert during a segment of The Colbert Report.

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“Skating is big in West Allis, and our parents supported our decisions to skate,” Jansen says.  “With that said, we were fortunate in that they never pushed any of us with the sports that we played.  If there was a certain direction that I wanted to go in, they were fine with it even if they might not have agreed.  If I wanted to quit skating and play football – I played football in high school – they weren’t going to stand in my way or try to influence my decision.  So I made my own decision on which sport to choose, and when I chose speed skating over football they never questioned it.  They always supported my passion for skating.”

Jansen was good at football, but he was exceptional at skating.  He progressed quickly, and within four years was winning national meets in his age group.  He was in contention for the 1977 national championship, when he was just eleven years old, but slipped on a lane marker, lost by one point and cried all the way home.  It was during this teachable moment that his father helped put the loss in perspective, explaining that there was more to life than skating around in circles.  It was a life lesson that would later provide strength with Jane at her sickest.

By the age of sixteen he was fully focused on skating, and was competing overseas against the world’s best junior skaters.  He set a junior world record in a 500-meter event, and finished ninth overall 1983.  His success in the shorter-distance events encouraged Jansen to concentrate on sprinting.

“To become elite – at least for me – took a total commitment to training, practice, and nutrition,” Jansen says.  “Becoming the one of the best at something also takes dedication and determination.  There’s a lot of hard work involved, a lot of sacrifices.  It goes all the way back to the early days, back to when I was four, or five, or six years old.  Certainly, I didn’t have any aspirations of becoming an elite skater at that point, but when I look back, all of the time that I spent on the ice at a very young age provided a great foundation for what I was to become.  As I grew stronger and my body matured, I benefited from all of those lessons that I learned along the way.

“And like I said before, you need a support system.  It means everything.  My dad worked two and three jobs just to support us all.  He was a police officer, and I remember that he would come home after the night shift, and then he would go downstairs and sharpen all of our skates for our competitions every weekend.  My parents would drive us all over the Midwest – up to Minnesota, down to Chicago, over into Michigan, and to all those little towns in Wisconsin. That’s how my parents would spend their weekends, driving us around and watching us race.  My father really had no other life as far as I know – he worked and worked, and then he made sure that he was with us while we were doing our thing on the weekend.  My mom made the same sacrifices as well.  She was a nurse who worked hard during the week and then traveled with us on the weekend.  It was that way all the time, especially during the winter months.”

~  ~  ~

So much has changed since the Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo.  Back in 1984, the winner’s podium celebrated the best of the best.  Years later it would be used by the Bosnian army to execute prisoners during the war.  Today, the Olympic facilities are crumbling reminders of both:  Up in the hills above the Bosnian capital is the bobsled and luge track, which was later used as a Bosnian-Serb artillery stronghold during the war.  The graffiti-stained track is overgrown with weeds, and a catchall for everything from natural sediment to man-made debris, with the spectator area below it now nothing but a bombed out, crumbling hull.  Broken bottles litter the ground around the ruins.  There’s a graveyard at the Igman Ski Center, honoring the Bosnian soldiers who lost their lives during the 1992–1995 war.  Behind it, red warning signs dot the hills where Bosnian-Serbs planted thousands of mines, many of which were left unexploded in the now off-limit areas.

 

The luge track haunts the hills near Sarajevo, a sobering reminder of the Bosnian War.

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Sarajevo was a far different place in 1984.  The first Winter Games held in a communist country, Sarajevo also marked the first Olympic confrontation of Soviet and American athletes since the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Games.  The competitions themselves were both spectacular and memorable – this was the Olympics of British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, American skiers “Wild Bill” Johnson and Debbie Armstrong, and East German skaters Katarina Witt and Karin Enke – and into this theatre stepped Jansen, wide-eyed and eager, and the youngest speed skater to make the Olympic team.

 

“It was such a weird feeling seeing people in person that I’d watched on television, and then it was even stranger interacting with them in the village or in the cafeteria.  One minute you’re turning on the TV and watching their highlights like everyone else, and the next you’re marching with them during the opening ceremonies.”  – Dan Jansen

 

“I guess the way that I would describe that experience is like this:  Take any 18-year-old and have them imagine what it would be like to compete in the Olympics,” Jansen says.  “It’s awe-inspiring.  It’s thrilling.  It’s a dream come true.  And that’s what it was for me, but it was even better than that.  It was such a weird feeling seeing people in person that I’d watched on television, and then it was even stranger interacting with them in the village or in the cafeteria.  One minute you’re turning on the TV and watching their highlights like everyone else, and the next you’re marching with them during the opening ceremonies.  It was surreal.  And then, just the whole Olympic experience – taking part in the opening ceremony, walking into the stadium behind the American flag…I would say that you’re kind of in awe, and maybe even a little overwhelmed by the spectacle of the whole thing, and even slightly intimidated with all that went along with representing the United States in the Olympics.  But the funny thing is, it wasn’t like that on the ice.  I was focused, and I wasn’t nervous at all.  I managed to compete very well.”

It helped having a support system with him – Team Jansen.

“My mom and dad both came to Sarajevo in 1984,” Jansen says proudly.  “It was important having family close, because they really helped me to enjoy the moment.  My brother Mike was there, too.  He showed up the day before my race and surprised me, so that was pretty special.  Like I said, he was a really good skater in his own right, and he competed at a very high level.  He just missed out on qualifying for the Olympic team.”

 

Dan Jansen (USA) skates in the Men’s Speed Skating competition of the 1984 Winter Olympics held in February 1984 at the Zetra Ice Rink in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. Jansen placed fourth in the 500m and sixteenth in the 1000m events in this Olympics.

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Going into his first Olympic Games, Jansen knew the margin for error was razor thin.

“It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t competed in speed skating, because it’s such a technical sport,” Jansen says.  “And even then when you put together the perfect technical race, there’s always the chance that one little slip can happen that changes everything.  It’s ice.  And if it’s outdoors, it could be a gust of wind or who knows what.  But that’s okay, because that’s part of the sport.  Speed skaters are used to that.”

Missing out on the bronze medal, Jansen wasted little time regrouping.  His speed skating career was just lifting off, The Fall a story for another Olympics, his Ali-Frazier rivalry with Uwe-Jens Mey still somewhere off in the distance.

 

“For me at that point, it wasn’t so much that I missed a medal from something technical.  I skated great for what I had at that time in my life.  That was a really good outcome for me, because nobody really expected me to do that well in my first Olympic Games. ”  – Dan Jansen

 

“For me at that point, it wasn’t so much that I missed a medal from something technical.  I skated great for what I had at that time in my life.  That was a really good outcome for me, because nobody really expected me to do that well in my first Olympic Games.  As a result I almost won a medal, so it wasn’t a disappointment for me at all.  You always have those thoughts that cross your mind, the what-ifs.  What if I had done this differently?  What if I had done that instead of the other?  But at the end of the day, it is what it is.  I couldn’t have done anything differently, or better.  It was a good, solid race, and that was all I had to give at that point in my career.”

Back home in West Allis, Jansen received a hero’s welcome.

“I guess it became kind of a big deal locally, because the community had this kid who went to the Olympics, so it was noticeable from that standpoint.  But it never got to the level where there was any real amount of fame.  It was more a case of people recognizing that this Dan Jansen kid is good and he went to the Olympics.  I had a few people tell me that it was too bad that I didn’t win a medal, and that was a little confusing to me because being in Sarajevo and representing the United States was major accomplishment in itself.  But that’s when you learn that people really don’t understand what goes into it all.  They don’t see the hours of sacrifice on the ice, and they don’t get what an honor it is just to be a part of the U.S. Olympic Team and representing your country.”

Unfazed by coming up short, Jansen threw himself into preparing for the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.  He recovered from hamstring injuries in both of his legs to win the silver medal in the 500 at the 1985 world sprints.  In 1986, he won a medal in every event he raced and became the first American to skate the 500 in under thirty-seven seconds.  A year away from Calgary, a bout with mononucleosis zapped his strength and stamina, casting the first hint of doubt about the upcoming Games, and then Jane’s diagnosis hits like a ton of bricks.

 

“It was a hard year all the way around.  The twelve months leading up to Calgary was when Jane was diagnosed with cancer…I went through a whole summer of trying to train while also trying to support Jane.  It was a difficult period.  She was going through her bone marrow transplants, so I was donating platelets and traveling to Seattle to be with her, and at the same time I’m training for the upcoming Olympics.” – Dan Jansen

 

“It was a hard year all the way around,” Jansen concedes.  “The twelve months leading up to Calgary was when Jane was diagnosed with cancer…she was diagnosed in January, 1987.  I was ill as well – I had mono – and because of that I was never really at full strength, which at times translated into sub-par performances on the ice.  I just didn’t have a good season.  I went through a whole summer of trying to train while also trying to support Jane.  It was a difficult period.  She was going through her bone marrow transplants, so I was donating platelets and traveling to Seattle to be with her, and at the same time I’m training for the upcoming Olympics.

“I was healthy when the next season started, and suddenly I’m winning all of the World Cups.  I also won the Speed Skating World Championship the week before the Olympic Games – thank God they were held in Milwaukee, because that meant I didn’t have to travel and I could spend all of my free time with Jane.  But then I had to leave her when I went to Calgary with the Olympic Team.  I was the clear favorite in Calgary.  I was expected to win.  That was my mindset, too.  Off the ice, I expected to see Jane in March when the season was over.  One week later she was gone, passing away on the day of my race.”

Jane’s passing, on Valentine’s Day, was the hardest blow of Jansen’s life.

“It was impossible to focus,” he says.  “That’s not an excuse, but it didn’t go very well for me.  I tried.  But nobody in Calgary had ever been in that position before, so there was nobody that I could lean on for advice.  I just did what I thought I should do – which we decided as a family – and that was to go out and try my best, because that’s what Jane would have wanted.  And I did.  With having said that, I didn’t have any of that physical or mental preparation that you would normally have on race day.  I just figured that I would go out there and do what I always did, but my level of focus wasn’t where it needed to be.  And with speed skating, when your mind isn’t all there it really shows.”

With four days to prepare for the 1,000 meters, Jansen appeared ready to compete.  Looks, however, can be deceiving.  He was an emotional train wreck.  His fall at the 600 meter mark sealed the most miserable week of his life.

 

Calgary washout – Jansen falls at the 600 meter mark, ending his Olympic bid with two falls in two events.

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“It was very disappointing, but I was empty inside and skating was really the furthest thing from my mind,” he says.  “After that second fall, it was just time.  I needed to go home.  I felt like I’d kept my brothers and sisters that were in Calgary with me long enough, and we all needed to get back and say goodbye to Jane.  We left almost immediately after that race; there was a local company in Wisconsin that donated the use of its airplane to us, so we flew home that night and prepared for the funeral, which was held a couple of days later.  It was just time to try and say our goodbyes.  It was very hard.  Anybody who has lost a family member knows what that’s like.”

Jansen’s heart and resolve not only earned him the admiration of millions – he received more than seven thousand letters in the weeks immediately after the Games – it also resulted in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Spirit Award, an award that goes to the U.S. Olympian who exhibits the Olympic ideal, overcomes adversity and exhibits extraordinary persistence and determination.  Jansen accepted the award in memory of his sister.

“It meant a lot to me then, and it still means a lot today,” he says.  “It was an unbelievably nice gesture to know that the other members of the team – and not just the speed skating team, but the whole U.S. Olympic Team and U.S. Olympic Committee – recognized what I was going through.  It was special to receive their support in the form of that award.  Like I said, it meant a lot to me and still does to this day.  It wasn’t like all was suddenly good in the world, but it certainly helped ease the pain a little bit.  It let me know that there were a lot of people supporting our family during this difficult time.  It was very moving to get that kind of support and recognition from my Olympic teammates.”

Just three weeks after the Olympics, Jansen bounced back to win a World Cup 500-meter race in Savalen, Norway, and placed second in the 1,000.

“I took half of the next year off,” Jansen says.  “I returned to Calgary and went to school.  I didn’t compete because my focus was on taking classes and getting my education.  It was difficult because everything was still so fresh and the emotions were still very raw.  I tried to block a lot of it out.  To a degree I was able to do that, but going back to Calgary was a very difficult time for me.”

When Jansen finally returned to the ice later that year, he was in a healthier place, both physically and mentally.  In December 1991, he skated the fastest 500 meters of the season, winning the U.S. Olympic Trials at 36.59 seconds in Milwaukee. The following month in Davos, Switzerland, he set the 500-meter world record at 36.41, beating the record set a week earlier by Uwe-Jens Mey, now Jansen’s top rival for the title of world’s best sprinter.

 

“Everything on the ice kept going well.  Each year got a little bit better, and I continued to win medals on the World Cup circuit.  I was also having success at the World Championships, so everything was coming together leading up to Albertville Olympics in 1992.  I had also set a world record two weeks before the Games began, so I felt like I was peaking at just the right time.”

 

“Everything on the ice kept going well.  Each year got a little bit better and I continued to win medals on the World Cup circuit.  I was also having success at the World Championships, so everything was coming together leading up to Albertville Olympics in 1992.  I had also set a world record two weeks before the Games began, so I felt like I was peaking at just the right time.  That’s when I decided to shut it down and rest my body before the start of the Games, but in retrospect I feel like I kind of rushed into rest mode.”

To most experts, Albertville seemed the perfect place for Jansen to finally exorcise his Olympic demons, and even Jansen himself felt poised to do big things.  He said he felt good when he woke up Saturday on morning of the 500.  He said Calgary was the farthest thing from his mind. He said he was convinced silver would be the lowest value metal he could win.  But when he got to the Olympic ice rink, an outdoor oval that would be turned into a running track after the Games, it was raining – the first sign that the skating gods weren’t sitting with the fans waving the homemade “Go Dan,” signs clustered among a sea of U.S. umbrellas in the stands.

“Let’s just say that it wasn’t a favorable turn of events,” he says, smiling wryly.

It turns out that rain is not a sprinter’s ideal weather.  Rain creates small bumps – “pebbles,” the skaters call them – that don’t allow for the best grip on the ice, especially with the skates used back then.  Courses with pebbles favor lighter, finesse-type skaters – skaters more the size of the Japanese.  Jansen, at six feet and just under 200 pounds, was a thickly muscled sprinter who’d been dominating the finesse skaters on the World Cup circuit.  But not on this day.  Used to digging his skates into the ice to generate thrust, Jansen wasn’t able to execute that technique as effectively in the rain.  Instead, it was the Japanese who excelled in the unfavorable conditions, with Toshiyuki Kuroiwa and Junichi Inoue winning the silver and bronze medals, placing just behind the winner, Uwe-Jens Mey.

 

Speed skater Dan Jansen of the United States finishing fourth during the Men’s 500 metres Speed skating event on 15 February 1992 at the Olympic Oval in Albertville, France.

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“He certainly should have won a medal,” Mey said at the time.  “I feel sorry for him. The Olympics don’t obey regular rules.”

Jansen followed up that fourth place finish by finishing 26th in the 1,000, completing the washout.

“I regret making the decision to rest,” he says.  “I came in a little flat, and I just wasn’t in top form for those Olympic Games.  I thought I was ready – I was at the top of my game just two weeks before and had that world record to prove it, but I wasn’t the same skater in Albertville.  To finished fourth again and out of medal contention was very disappointing.

“Looking back, I also think I under-trained.  We were fully prepared just two weeks before Albertville.  At that point I can safely say that we hadn’t over-trained or under-trained.  We were right on track.  When I set that world record we’d trained really hard so I decided to cut back.  The plan was to be as fresh as possible at the start of the Games, and I felt like I’d be flying on the ice if I gave my body some time to recover.  Looking back now, we cut it back a little too much.”

 

“Looking back, I also think I under-trained.  We were fully prepared just two weeks before Albertville.  At that point I can safely say that we hadn’t over-trained or under-trained.  We were right on track.  When I set that world record we’d trained really hard so I decided to cut back.  The plan was to be as fresh as possible at the start of the Games, and I felt like I’d be flying on the ice if I gave my body some time to recover.  Looking back now, we cut it back a little too much.” – Dan Jansen

 

For Jansen, Albertville was as disorienting as it was fruitless.

“The whole experience was surreal and kept me off-balance in a lot of ways,” he says.  “We practiced on a track in Italy, which wasn’t familiar to us at all.  We usually went to Germany when we were in Europe, but we weren’t able to go there and practice like we normally did.  When we arrived in Albertville, we quickly learned that the track was not a good track – it wasn’t even a permanent track.  It was thrown together for the Games and torn down immediately afterwards.  And overall, it just didn’t feel like an Olympics – we had strange weather, and we felt like the people really didn’t want us there.  We never felt welcome in Albertville.  So it turned out to be a not-so-good experience for me.  Don’t get me wrong; it was still the Olympics and I was still very thankful to be, and extremely honored to represent my country.  From a competition standpoint, you just want that to be at your peak physically, emotionally, and mentally.  I just feel any of that in ‘92.”

Albertville marked the last time the Winter Olympics was held in the same calendar year as the Summer Olympics.  Beginning with Lillehammer in ’94, the events were spaced two years apart.  Jansen, who’d exited France with a growing reputation as a choke artist, attacked the World Cup circuit with a different attitude and determination.  Between the 1992 and 1994 Olympics, he was the only skater to break 36 seconds in the 500 meters, doing so four times.  In 1994, he won his second World Sprint Championship title, and arrived at the 1994 Winter Olympics for one final attempt at an Olympic medal.  Many speculated that the compressed timeframe between Olympics would help Jansen, both physically and mentally, given his advancing age as a speed skater and the heartbreak he’d endured on the big stage.

“The quick turnaround between Olympics was nice, because I didn’t have as long to dwell on the disappointment in Albertville.  I feel like I would have been in top form even if Lillehammer had been held four years later.  I still was improving, even when I retired.  But it was great to have another Games in two years, because after the disappointment of coming up short I was ready to go again.  I had improved so much during the two seasons between Albertville and Lillehammer, and I was skating better than I had ever skated.  I went into the Lillehammer Olympics with tons of confidence.”

A major part of that confidence was directly related to training.  Peter Mueller, the 1976 gold medalist at Innsbruck, was pushing Jansen harder than ever before.  Gone were the days of focusing on the 500 and treating the 1,000 as an afterthought.

“We worked really hard on the 1000-meter event,” Jansen says, “and we trusted that it would be enough, and that it wouldn’t hurt our chances in the 500.  We actually trained as if we were competing in the 1,500, so that the 1000-meter result would be better.  We were able to keep the speed in the 500, so I think we trained smart.  Mentally, we worked for two solid years to just get into a better state of mind when I stepped to the line in the 1000-meter.  I hadn’t always had the most confidence at that distance, but all of that preparation had me believing in myself for that race.  It’s a good thing that I did work so hard on that event, because it turns out that I needed to. That was my last chance to win a medal after what happened in the 500.”

 

Dan Jansen arrived in Lillehammer at the top of his game. This would be his final chance at Olympic glory.

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Improbably – or as his critics would say, predictably – Jansen slipped on the final turn in the 500, touching the ice with his hand and finishing eighth.  That the 500 in Lillehammer took place exactly six years to the day that Jane had died, on Valentine’s Day, only added to the disappointment.  Suddenly, a snake bit Jansen had one last opportunity for an Olympic medal.

“I don’t know that I felt snake bit,” Jansen counters.  “I certainly wondered if it was meant to be, but nobody did anything to me to cost me a medal in any of those Olympic Games.  It was just tough luck.  That’s speed skating.  One little slip can cost you, and it did in the 500 at Lillehammer.  But I think the way that I prepared for the 1000-meter made up for all of the bad luck leading up to that event.  It all came together because I was so prepared physically, mentally, and emotionally.  That hadn’t always been the case in the 1000, but this time I believed that I was good enough to win.  My confidence was at an all-time high because I had shown good results leading up to the 1000, especially in December, so I had a lot of good things going on in the back of my mind.  I may not have been known for the 1000, but I knew that I could win a medal.  I knew that I could go to these Olympic Games and win that race.”

If the world expected Jansen to crumble from the pressure of another high stakes slip in the 500, he certainly wasn’t showing it.  In anything, it looked as if a giant invisible weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

 

“Ultimately, I just had to go out there and skate my best, and let the results be what they may.  At some point you have to accept whatever happens, good or bad, and I was prepared to deal with it either way.  I think that helped to diffuse any pressure that may have been building.” – Dan Jansen

 

“Ultimately, I just had to go out there and skate my best, and let the results be what they may.  At some point you have to accept whatever happens, good or bad, and I was prepared to deal with it either way.  I think that helped to diffuse any pressure that may have been building.”

It certainly helped having Mueller in his camp, especially during those long, agonizing hours between events.  He understood the complex calculus running around in Jansen’s head – the feelings of letting down the people who mattered to him most, the falls and out-of-the-money finishes, the energy drain that comes from answering the same questions thousands of times.

“Pete is a great motivator,” Jansen says.  “He just sort of let me overcome the disappointment on my own in terms, which really helped me get past the 500.  He understood that it hurt.  I could tell that it hurt him as well, but he also understood that I was skating extremely well, and he didn’t let me forget that.  He kept reminding me that it was just a slip, but that I’d been flying on the ice up to that point.  It just clicked.  I’d been flying on ice for the past two weeks.  I just won the World Championships again.  I’d lowered the world record.  So nobody was skating better than I was at that point.  But the mind is a funny thing, and sometimes you need to be reminded of things like that, and Pete did that every day.  That’s why he’s such a great motivator, but more than that, that’s why he became a great friend as well.”

Jansen’s Olympic history in the 1,000 was abysmal: a 16th, a fall, a 26th.  He could open up to 600 meters, but the rocket fuel that made him such a talented sprinter would quickly burn out.  To those closest to Jansen, however, something about racing the 1,000 in Lillehammer felt different.  That Mueller had placed a premium on conditioning certainly played a part, as had Jansen’s decision to consult with a sports psychologist in the run-up to the Games, but the biggest difference-maker was having his wife and eight-month-old daughter Jane in Norway to help Jansen keep it all in perspective.

 

“Fatherhood changed everything.  It was my last Olympic race, but I was prepared for whatever happened.  Another slip, another fall, or finishing out of medal contention didn’t matter.  When you become a parent, it changes how you look at everything.” – Dan Jansen

 

“Fatherhood changed everything.  It was my last Olympic race, but I was prepared for whatever happened.  Another slip, another fall, or finishing out of medal contention didn’t matter.  When you become a parent, it changes how you look at everything.”

Paired with Junichi Inoue of Japan, there was a certain looseness to his start that hadn’t been present in previous races.  Instead of pushing too hard from the bell, he held back, covering the first 200 meters in 16.71, not world record pace but fast enough to push him to the top of the leader board.  Where losing his sister in 1988 had proved debilitating, he suddenly seemed liberated from all of the expectations that had been placed on him.  He didn’t press.  Instead, Jansen let the race come to him.  At the 400-meter mark, where the skaters cross over from one lane to the other, Jansen was able to ride briefly in Inoue’s slipstream and slingshot into the next turn.  It was enough to cause those in the Jansen camp to believe, if only for a moment, that this was really happening, that Dan Jansen, the hard luck king, was suddenly on the verge of an historic breakthrough.

“It was all finally coming together for me,” Jansen says quickly.  “It was the strongest that I’d ever raced at that distance.  It was the smartest, too.”

In control but now skating on the inside lane where the turns are tighter and the G forces are heavier, Jansen’s family knew that he’d just entered speed skating’s danger zone, the place that posed the most risk to the final race of his Olympic career.  Then, on the next-to-last turn, it happened again, another Jansen slip, his left hand barely grazing the ice, a mistake that cost him two, perhaps three hundredths of a second.

Groans went up in the crowd.

The old Dan Jansen would have panicked and tried to recover too quickly, but the new Dan Jansen, the father with nothing to lose and everything to gain?  He simply took the misstep in stride and skated through it.

“The 1000 is a little bit longer race, so there’s a little bit more that you can get away with,” Jansen says.  “The chance of something happening did creep into my mind, especially with it being my last race and because of my slip in the 500.  But I was able to keep my composure and recover.  When I slipped in the 500 I panicked.  I tried to get the time back right away because you have to in that race, but I just kept slipping.  My skates didn’t grip the ice in that last turn.  When I slipped in the 1000, that moment instantaneously went through my head, but I thought, ‘Just don’t panic.  Don’t try to get this back too fast, just carry your speed to the end of this turn and then accelerate.’  It worked.  Strangely enough, I think I learned a little bit from my slip in the 500.”

The raucous crowd cheered wildly as Jansen opened it up on the straightaway.  Mueller was as animated as he’d ever been, nearly clapping his protégé on the back as Jansen whizzed by.  And when Jansen crossed the finish line with a time of 1:12.43, not only had he beaten out heavy favorite Igor Zhelezovsky of Belarus and Russia’s Sergei Klevchenya to capture gold in his final race, he’d broken the world record in an event that seemed ill-suited to his strengths.

 

“Overwhelming, that’s all I can say about that moment.  I just said a little prayer of thanks and thought about Jane.  I know she would have been proud of me.  And I knew that she was there somewhere.” – Dan Jansen

 

“Overwhelming, that’s all I can say about that moment.”  He pauses, and then:  “I just said a little prayer of thanks and thought about Jane.  I know she would have been proud of me.  And I knew that she was there somewhere.”

The win also overwhelmed his wife Robin, who hyperventilated and had to be rushed for treatment.  Hamar Olympic Hall was an intoxicating brew of wild celebration and unrestrained tears, as Americans, Norwegians and fans from many other countries showered Jansen with love.  People back home in West Allis and neighboring Milwaukee took to the streets to cheer their favorite son.  Living rooms across the U.S. – scratch that, around the globe – were buzzing over the fact that, in his final Olympic race, Dan Jansen had finally struck gold.

 

Golden Moment – After years of Olympic heartbreak, Dan Jansen finally breaks through.

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“It’s hard to describe that feeling,” Jansen confesses.  “Anyone who’s ever won an Olympic medal can try to describe what it feels like – getting up there on that podium, hearing the national anthem – but words can’t do justice to the emotions that are going through you at that time.  I never felt more patriotic than I did that day.  I never appreciated our national anthem is much as I did that day.  I’d been up there dozens of times at part of the World Cup, but never at the Olympics, so this had so much more meaning.  As I’ve said, other medalists can try to tell you what it feels like, but I’d guess that there are very few, probably, that have had the emotions that I did after going through everything that I went through with my sister and all of the disappointment in the Olympics leading up to that moment.”

Jansen, visibly moved in the moments after the win, waved to the sky in memory of his sister as he took that now iconic victory lap in Lillehammer with eight-month-old daughter Jane in his arms.

“One of the biggest moments in my life,” Jansen says.  “To be able to take that lap with Jane meant everything.”

His mind was still spinning when he stepped up on that podium.

 

“I just remember feeling so much pride.  The national anthem is a short song, and a lot goes through your mind in that short period of time – a lot of things that we’ve talked about tonight.  You remember moments from your childhood.  You remember racing outside on the lake.  You remember everyone who’s ever helped out in any capacity, when you’re up there in that moment you realize that it’s not really about you, it’s about all of those people who’ve sacrificed to help you live your dream.” – Dan Jansen

 

“I just remember feeling so much pride,” Jansen says.  “The national anthem is a short song, and a lot goes through your mind in that short period of time – a lot of things that we’ve talked about tonight.  You remember moments from your childhood.  You remember racing outside on the lake.  You remember everyone who’s ever helped out in any capacity, when you’re up there in that moment you realize that it’s not really about you, it’s about all of those people who’ve sacrificed to help you live your dream.”

 

A promise fulfilled: Dan Jansen celebrates with daughter Jane, six years after his sister Jane passed away.

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If there were any doubts about the significance of Jansen’s victory, those were erased by the congratulatory phone call that he received from President Clinton shortly after the medal ceremony.

“It was cool!” Jansen says proudly.  “It happened during a press conference.  Somebody handed me a cell phone and said, ‘Hold for the president.’  So I had to tell the reporters that I had to hold off on answering their questions because I’ve got to talk to the president.  That got a big laugh out of everyone.  It was pretty special moment.  It was something I’d never even considered happening.  You can dream about the Olympics and winning medals and all of that, but having a conversation with the President of the United States is something that never entered my mind.  It was an amazing moment, and it just added to how special it was to win a gold medal.”

~  ~  ~

The victory meant that the low-key Jansen could no longer fade into the background.  His story of tragedy, perseverance, and triumph created worldwide buzz.  His clean cut image and handsome good looks made him a hit from Main Street to Madison Avenue.

“The attention was different for me,” Jansen concedes.  “I’m not one who loves the spotlight, so it was bizarre and it was intimidating.  After the closing ceremony I went straight to New York and did the talk show circuit – The David Letterman Show, all of the morning shows like The Today Show and Good Morning America.  It was surreal – even just walking around New York people knew who I was.  It was a huge adjustment for me to be someone recognized in that way on a national scale.  It was certainly that way when I came home to Wisconsin.  It was big time. I didn’t even think about going out for dinner or doing anything in public for awhile.”

 

After winning gold, good friends Dan Jansen and Bonnie share the cover of Sports Illustrated.

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Jansen’s newfound celebrity landed him on the February 28, 1994 cover of Sports Illustrated, along with good friend and fellow speed skating legend Bonnie Blair.  His autobiography Full Circle:  An Olympic Champion Shares His Breakthrough Story, hit bookstores later that fall.  In between, Jansen was also very much in demand as an endorser and motivational speaker.  Two years later, on February 14, 1996 – the eight year anniversary of Jane’s passing – A Brother’s Promise: The Dan Jansen Story premiered on national TV, as well as in such far-flung places as Germany, Spain, Finland and Hungary.

 

“It was a phenomena for a while, but eventually the buzzed died down, which suited me just fine because I’m a private person.  People had great intentions, and I’m super appreciative that they were happy for me, but the newfound celebrity was unsettling to say the least.  Even today, after all of these years, it’s still requires an adjustment on my part.” – Dan Jansen

 

“It was a phenomena for a while, but eventually the buzzed died down, which suited me just fine because I’m a private person,” Jansen says.  “People had great intentions, and I’m super appreciative that they were happy for me, but the newfound celebrity was unsettling to say the least.  Even today, after all of these years, it’s still requires an adjustment on my part.  I can appreciate how real celebrities have to deal with that type of lifestyle every day, and how tough it can become on them, but for me I knew fame was fleeting. It was great to celebrate with my hometown people, and I still to this day I get nothing but good things spoken to me.  I’m thankful for that, because I didn’t become famous for something negative or notorious.  I’m just glad to be famous for something that makes people feel good.  That’s always positive.”

Surely, after all these years, Jansen’s fame has led to many good-natured ribbings from his brothers and sisters.

“I can’t say that there’s ever been any ribbing, but occasionally the subject will come up.  My brother was there with me, so there are a lot of good memories that we talk about.  I’ve heard my siblings talk about it among themselves, about how great it was for them immediately afterwards – walking around Lillehammer without me and the people coming up to congratulate them.  There were times when people didn’t know that they were my siblings, they just knew that they were Americans.  That was really special, and to me, that really said a lot about the people of Norway and how much they knew about my story.”

 

Retired and enjoying life:  Dan Jansen at The Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational golf tournament.

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A movie, and autobiography, and a place on People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People list…it would be easy to get caught up in the trappings of fame, or for Dan Jansen to get drunk on his own mythology.  But Jansen was no Icarus – he was raised humble and stayed humble – so there was no danger of him flying to close to the sun, his wax wings melting away, the subsequent fall chronicled on Dateline or 20/20.

“Winning the gold and the fame that came with it didn’t change me,” he says flatly.  “I was still the ninth child in a large family from Wisconsin.  What really changed for me were the opportunities that came my way, in terms of the people that I was able to meet, and still meet today, the friends that I’ve made, things like that.  I am invited to celebrity golf tournaments, or other events that you wouldn’t ordinarily wouldn’t get invited to, so those are perks that I enjoy.  That’s really the biggest way it changed my life.  It’s allowed me to meet some great people.  The negative part, as I’ve mentioned, is the lack of privacy.  That was the biggest negative adjustment to becoming a celebrity, but celebrity is what you make of it.  If you want to make a big deal of it then you will, you will find an entourage to walk around with, or whatever the case may be.  But that’s not really me.  It never has been, and it never will be.”

~  ~  ~

Jansen retired a few months after winning the gold medal in Lillehammer.  In 1995, he won the prestigious AAU James E. Sullivan Award, presented annually to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States.  The list of winners is long and impressive:  Bobby Jones.  Dick Button.  Wilma Rudolph.  Mark Spitz.  Carl Lewis.  Tim Tebow.  Jansen’s year was so big that he nudged out golfing phenom Tiger Woods to win the award.

“You know, I think it’s one of the lesser-known things about me, and even one of the lesser-known awards, so I’m glad that you’ve brought that up,” Jansen says.  “For me, the Sullivan Award is one of the most special awards out there.  It’s recognition as the top amateur athlete in the United States, and it covers all sports.  I remember winning it – I was sitting next to Tiger Woods, he was nominated that year.  Tiger was still in college and competing as an amateur golfer.  It was right before he turned pro.  Charlie Ward was also there, as well as several others.  It’s just a great award to look back on, and again, it’s rarely pointed out.  Whenever I’m introduced, the lead-in is always about the gold medal, and the Sullivan Award is rarely mentioned.  But for me, winning that award was very cool.  When somebody wins the Heisman Trophy, they are part of that pantheon forever.  People know all about the Heisman and who the winners are, but most don’t know about the Sullivan Award winner.  Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair are both Sullivan Award winners.  Having three speed skaters win the award is pretty cool.”

The gold medal allowed Jansen to walk away on top.  While Lillehammer is by far the biggest line item on his résumé, the two-time world champion dominated his sport in a way that often gets overlooked.

 

Forever Golden: Forget the slips and the fourth place finishes. Dan Jansen, Olympic champion.

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“The Olympics are huge, but the World Championships and the World Cup are as big as you can get,” Jansen says.  “I won 46 World Cup races and seven overall titles.  If you’re a skier and you had those numbers it would be a pretty big deal, but our sport, at least in this country, isn’t recognized as much. But that’s not really why we do what we do.  We do it because we love the sport.  We want to keep getting better, and trying to go faster.  When you win it’s great.  When you come up short you’re looking forward to the next race.  I loved every minute of it, and I would do it all over again.”

Jansen also knows that speed skating doesn’t carry the same cachet as other Winter Olympic sports, such as figure skating, ice hockey and alpine skiing.

“Speed skaters go into it knowing that they may never become rich or famous.  I’m not saying that we don’t dream and we don’t have these grand illusions when we’re starting out, but we understand the realities of the sport that we’ve chosen.  There are plenty of famous figure skaters, people like Michelle Kwan, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano.  The sport is much more high profile.  Speed skaters fly under the radar, but that was fine with me.  I was happy to compete, and I didn’t go into it looking for fame or celebrity.  I think those things found me because of the way my story played out.”

Even after all of these years, people still remember what Jansen went through, how he persevered, and how he came out whole on the other side.  What’s clear is that he didn’t need that gold medal to validate his career, at least not to the person who matters most.  Yet Dan Jansen understands its significance.

“I guess the reason my story is still known has a lot to do with the tough parts that I went through.  Had I won in the first Olympics, or the second Olympics, who knows?  Who knows if I would still be asked to speak and share my story?  Had my story been different, had the results been different, you may not have even wanted to interview me.  Would I have been considered a failure if I’d slipped in that last 1000 at Lillehammer and finished my career without an Olympic medal?  Fortunately, I was able to win gold and get that monkey off of my back, so to speak.  Life is strange in those ways and I don’t really have the answers for why, but it’s not something that I take for granted.  I’m very thankful for being remembered, so when I speak I try to convey good, positive messages about the lessons that I’ve learned.  I try my best to share those things and speak from the heart.  I feel like a lot of good came from my career, and I’ve tried to enjoy all of the moments along the way.  So as cliché as it sounds, for me it has truly been about the journey and not the end result.”

~  ~  ~

Dan Jansen continues to love his sport.  Today, he is a speed skating commentator for NBC.  In 2014, he was in Sochi, Russia, to take part in his ninth Winter Olympics – four as a competitor, five as a TV analyst – and it’s clear that he still has a passion for the Games.

 

Golden duo Dan Jansen & Apolo Ohno working the Olympic Trials for NBC.

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“I love working as a commentator for the Olympic Games,” he says.  “It’s one of my favorite things to do now.  It’s not as easy as people think, I will be the first to tell you that.  There is a lot of research that goes into it, and a lot of getting to know and understand television and how all of that works, but I love doing it.  I love staying involved in the sport and following along with who’s doing what, so I look forward to covering speed skating at the Olympics.  I’ve also been working all of the World Cup and World Championship events in between Olympics, so that helps keep me on top of things.  It’s a great time and a huge learning experience.  Like I’ve said, it’s not quite as easy as everybody might think.”

Staying connected to his sport means that Jansen has seen the changes since he became the first skater to break the 36-second barrier in the 500.

“You really can’t compare the speed skaters of today with the athletes who competed when I skated,” Jansen says.  “The single biggest reason is because of the skates.  The skates are so much different today, and they’ve dramatically changed the sport.  The skates in use today now have hinged blades, so that when you push off, you’re getting to the end of your push with your toe, which is a significant advantage over the technology that we used.  My skates were all one piece, which meant that the heel had to come up off the ice, but the skates of today work like a cross country ski.  There’s a hinge, so when you push off with the toe the blade stays on the ice.  It’s a dramatic advantage.  Modern skaters are getting much more push with each stride, so much so that it’s making a second-and-a-half per lap difference compared to the skates that we used.  It’s really outrageous to think about.

“When I retired, my world record in the 500-meters was 35.76.  And now there’s a guy named Pavel Kulizhnikov, who just broke 34 seconds for the first time – 34 flat in November, 2015, which is more than a second-and-a-half faster than my fastest time, and then 33.98 in Salt Lake City five days later.  He later tested positive for having meldonium in  his system, but his ban was lifted after the International Skating Union lifted when they determined the concentration of meldonium was below the threshold.  Coincidentally, meldonium is the same drug that Maria Sharapova was tested positive for, and she was banned from tennis for more than a year.  I believe there’s something like 60 athletes that have now tested positive for that drug.”

~  ~  ~

Time flies nearly as fast as Dan Jansen once did around the track.  It seems like yesterday when Jansen skated that memorable victory lap around the track in Hamar Olympic Hall that day.  Jane is a young woman now.  In the blink of an eye she went from the baby in all those victory lap photos to a student at Clemson University, majoring in education, her future as bright and as filled with potential as her famous father.  Jansen’s youngest daughter, Olivia, has also grown into a young woman with hopes and dreams of her own.  Watching his daughters grow up, and being there for them, is Jansen’s priority now.  He lives a quiet life in Mooresville, North Carolina, where he works in real estate, plays golf with his wife (well-known golf pro Karen Palacios-Jensen), and takes his boat out on Lake Norman.  He’s also started working with a NASCAR team to provide its drivers with mental and physical training, offering them a competitive advantage in a sport every bit as competitive as speed skating.

“I don’t want to mention any names at this point,” he says, “but working with NASCAR drivers is a lot of fun.  Hopefully it will continue to grow.”

All this, and he never forgets.

Jansen’s charity is involved in myriad of causes – helping individuals and families affected by leukemia and related cancers, supporting youth sports programs, and assisting high school seniors in the pursuit of higher education – all in memory of his sister.

 

Dan Jansen speaking to the American golfers traveling to Rio for the 2016 Summer Games.

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“We started the foundation in 1995, the year after I won the gold medal,” Jansen says.  “I just wanted to do something to give back, and to do it in Jane’s memory.  We started helping the families of the victims, because when Jane was sick we had to travel back and forth as a family, and the expenses can pile up quickly.  My mom and dad basically lived in Seattle for a year when Jane was sick, and it was a great financial burden on the family, so we try to help families to be able to travel, to be able to be with their siblings and their children during those difficult times.  The foundation helps to pay for their travel and for their room and board.

“We recently helped a family by paying their mortgage for a couple of months.  Their child was very sick and going through expensive treatments, and they had no other way to do meet their monthly mortgage obligation.  It’s the little things like that, that people don’t always think about.  Most people think in terms of finding a cure, and that’s where they think they should put their money, but that’s not what the focus of my foundation is all about.  Were not a huge charity.  A cure for cancer hasn’t been found yet, so we’re going to help the people who are still in the unfortunate position of fighting it.  It’s a very rewarding and fulfilling cause, so to be able to help with those sorts of things has been great.”

It turns out Jansen was right all along.  He didn’t need a gold medal to make a difference in the lives of others.  Had he slipped during his last race in Lillehammer, the only difference would have been the way people chose to view his legacy.  For Dan Jansen, his life would have been no less fulfilling.

“First and foremost, always do good things for people,” he says.  “Make a positive difference in the lives of others.  Those are the things that have true meaning.  Stardom and celebrity have a short shelf life, and those things don’t really matter in the big scheme of things.  If you can help someone who is going through tough times, then you’ve done something far more meaningful with your life.  Those are the things that matter most.”

Jim Kelly – Kelly Tough

By:  Michael D. McClellan  |  The story ends a world apart from where it begins, so let’s address the Super Bowl-sized elephant in the room:  Jim Kelly wants no part of Buffalo.  Too damn cold.  Too damn small.  The Bills are a fringe franchise based in economically-depressed Western New York, a region that hardly seems a premiere destination for a marquee quarterback with a linebacker’s mentality and trace amounts of Hollywood coursing through his veins.  The team produces exactly one true superstar since its inaugural AFL season in 1960, and  those O.J. Simpson-led Bills, which played its games in crumbling War Memorial Stadium before escaping to Rich Stadium in 1973, range from plain awful to barely relevant.  Buffalo makes the playoffs one time before injuries rob The Juice of his speed and prompt a trade to San Francisco, where Simpson plays one last season on bad knees and retires.  There is a brief uptick in the early 80s with a pair of playoff appearances under head coach Chuck Knox, but the team sags again, and rumors of franchise relocation begin to swirl.  So, ahead of the 1983 NFL Draft, the University of Miami star makes it clear through his agent that Buffalo, which possesses two first round picks, can do everyone a favor by choosing someone else.

The Bills select Notre Dame tight end Tony Hunter with its first pick, Number 12 overall, and then ignore Kelly’s warnings and call his name two picks later.  Publicly, Kelly says all of the right things.  Privately, he’s devastated.  He watches John Elway go Number 1 and then threaten to play pro baseball for the New York Yankees rather than sign with the Baltimore Colts, who blink and trade him to the Denver Broncos a week later.  Kelly is no dummy.  He knows that playing in Buffalo is even worse than playing in Baltimore, but he doesn’t have a potential baseball career to wield as leverage.  And because the Bills own his draft rights, it’s Buffalo or bust if he wants to become an NFL star.

 

Jim Kelly was the first in a string of great quarterbacks to play at the University of Miami. Here he hands off to Chris Hobbs (33) during the Peach Bowl on Jan. 3, 1981. Kelly was voted Most Valuable Player on offense for his play in Miami's 20-10 victory over Virginia Tech. (Photo: AP Photo)

Jim Kelly was the first in a string of great quarterbacks to play at the University of Miami. Here he hands off to Chris Hobbs (33) during the Peach Bowl on Jan. 3, 1981. Kelly was voted Most Valuable Player on offense for his play in Miami’s 20-10 victory over Virginia Tech. (Photo: AP Photo)

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Just as he’s coming to grips with the reality of suiting up for a dreadful team in a dreadful city, the Bills gift-wrap an escape plan that even Kelly himself has a hard time believing.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” Kelly says today of the embarrassing gaffe that allows him to bolt to the USFL, an upstart league competing directly with the NFL for unsigned talent.  “I didn’t want to play in Buffalo, so when I was drafted by the Bills I had tears in my eyes.  The next thing you know, I’m on the phone with Bruce, talking about the possibility of playing in the USFL.”

 

“I didn’t want to play in Buffalo, so when I was drafted by the Bills I had tears in my eyes.  The next thing you know, I’m on the phone with Bruce, talking about the possibility of playing in the USFL.” – Jim Kelly

 

That Kelly would flee Buffalo is a gut punch to the city, the team, and its fans; that the Bills would drive the getaway car is almost too much to bear.  The story goes like this:  Kelly is visiting the Bills’ headquarters to take part in contract negotiations when a team secretary fields a call from Bruce Allen, the general manager of the rival United States Football League’s Chicago Blitz.  Allen explains that he desperately needs to speak to Kelly’s agent.  It’s urgent.  Can’t wait.  The secretary unwittingly puts him through, and Allen wastes little time making his pitch:  Tell your client to play QB in the USFL, and not only will he make more money than he can in the NFL, he can play for any team you like.  The choice of cities is his.

That’s all it takes for Kelly to break off negotiations with the Bills and sign with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers, where he can play in the comfort of the climate-controlled Houston Astrodome.  Facing reporters following the signing, an upbeat Kelly is cruelly blunt in assessing his decision:  “Would you rather be in Houston or Buffalo?”

 

University of Miami quarterback Jim Kelly is all smiles at his press conference June 10, 1983 after signing a multi-year contract with the new USFL franchise, the Houston Gamblers. (Photo: AP photo / F. Carter Smith)

University of Miami quarterback Jim Kelly is all smiles at his press conference June 10, 1983 after signing a multi-year contract with the new USFL franchise, the Houston Gamblers. (Photo: AP photo / F. Carter Smith)

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There are plenty of pissed off people in Western New York, but the backlash is relatively tame by today’s standards.  There isn’t the hate and vitriol associated with the modern day decisions made by title-hungry NBA stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant, but there are no smartphones to propagate Kelly’s decision in real time, and no social media to fan the flames of discontent.

Little does anyone realize that this is only a detour, a temporary separation that will only serve to galvanize the bond between star and city.

Turns out Jim Kelly and Buffalo are meant for each other after all.

It just takes a while for Kelly to fall in love.

~  ~  ~

Fast forward.

It’s easy to get hung up on those four Super Bowl losses, to fixate on all of the pain and torment that goes with failing in front of billions.  Wide right.  Thurman Thomas losing his helmet moments before Buffalo’s first possession of Super Bowl XVI.  Getting blown out one year, and then getting rolled in the second half a year later by the same team, road kill on the way to fulfilling an inglorious destiny.  Anybody can poke fun at this Shakespearian run of futility and tell you how bad you suck.  It’s easy to sit there and critique the losses when your legacy isn’t on the line, when the only skin in the game is the twenty bucks you’ve forked over for the pizza, when you have neither the talent nor the smarts to play one of the most complex, physically demanding sports in the world.  Instead of appreciating the immense achievement of your team reaching the Super Bowl, you sit on your couch and curse the TV, the profanity-laced tirade fueled by all the beer you’ve consumed on this Super Bowl Sunday, an average of three cans per hour since the moment you opened your eyes and pulled your favorite Bills jersey over your sizeable gut, the very act of which leaves you struggling to catch your breath.  Insults flow like water pouring over Niagara Falls:  Choke artists.  Laughingstocks.  Bums.  Losers.  It all comes spewing out in disgust, as you disavow the very team that had just come through so dramatically for you in the AFC Championship Game.

It’s easy to discount the Herculean feat achieved by those Jim Kelly-led Buffalo Bills.  We ridicule them for climbing the mountain four consecutive years only to come up one game short, and yet we say nothing about the one-and-done Super Bowl teams that get beaten and then disappear, never to be heard from again.  Who remembers the 2002 Oakland Raiders, the team pole-axed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII?  That Raiders team quickly lost its mojo, going 4-12 the next season before spending a decade wallowing in the muck.  Ask anyone who has played in the National Football League how hard it is to grind through a 16 game season and then win in the playoffs, where the intensity goes up exponentially and the pressure is amplified by some unquantifiable factor.  The lucky ones will tell you how difficult it is to pull off once, but for some reason we diss the Bills, even though those Buffalo teams were 58-19 over that four year span.  They won big with home field during the playoffs, and they manufactured narrow escapes as wildcard underdogs, grinding out postseason games in hostile, ear-splitting environments like Pittsburgh and Denver.  In 1990, they dismantled the Oakland Raiders, 51-3, to reach their first Super Bowl; two years later, trailing the Houston Oilers 35-3, they completed the biggest comeback in NFL playoff history, winning 41-38 in overtime to keep its championship hopes alive.

 

Andre Reed celebrates a touchdown against the Houston Oilers in a wildcard game played on January 3, 1993. It featured the Bills recovering from a 32-point deficit to win in overtime, 41–38, and it remains the largest comeback in NFL history.

Andre Reed celebrates a touchdown against the Houston Oilers in a wildcard game played on January 3, 1993. It featured the Bills recovering from a 32-point deficit to win in overtime, 41–38, and it remains the largest comeback in NFL history.

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It’s easy to forget that no other team has ever gone to four consecutive Super Bowls.  Miami went to three in a row in the early 1970s, winning two, but that’s before the league adds two more games to the regular season schedule, and before it expands from 26 to 28 teams.  Pittsburgh would go to four Super Bowls in six seasons, winning all four, and San Francisco would later win five Lombardi Trophies over a thirteen season span.  No one argues this greatness, nor should they; but in terms of sheer grit and resilience, these Buffalo Bills teams bounced back from crushing defeat not once, not twice, but three times.

“We never gave up,” Kelly says proudly.  “When we lost that first Super Bowl to the Giants, we could have gone into the next season in a funk.  But we came back and played even better.  Resilience is the hallmark of those teams.  We kept battling.”

 

“We never gave up.  When we lost that first Super Bowl to the Giants, we could have gone into the next season in a funk.  But we came back and played even better.  Resilience is the hallmark of those teams.  We kept battling.”- Jim Kelly

 

It’s easy to forget how beautifully crafted these Bills teams were, constructed by General Manager Bill Polian to win on all three sides of the ball, its roster dotted with future hall of fame players like Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, James Lofton, and Bruce Smith.  And perhaps therein lies the rub; the Bills defense, while good, will never be confused with Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain or Dallas’ Doomsday Defense.  It features Smith alongside a solid group of defenders, but it can’t stand up to the Cowboys’ mammoth offensive line and Emmitt Smith’s relentless pounding in Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII.  Nor can it keep Bill Parcells’ ground game from chewing up huge swaths of clock in that first Super Bowl appearance, relegating Kelly and that vaunted K-Gun offense to spectators for much of the game.

Kelly, for his part, will have none of it.  He’ll tell you that those Buffalo Bills teams were as close as any NFL team ever assembled, and that they won and lost as a unit.  No excuses.  He’ll point to the bond that has endured far longer than the disappointment and humiliation of failing famously, and he’ll proudly tell you about a brotherhood that has helped him overcome the death of his young son and two bouts with cancer.

Turns out that those losses, however big they seem to us at the time, are never going to define these Buffalo Bills, especially Jim Kelly.  The moments that matter aren’t the ones with billions watching, but the ones when you’re wiped out from the 35 grueling radiation treatments for squamous cell carcinoma, along with three ravenous chemotherapy treatments to fight the cancer that has taken hold of your upper jaw, cheekbone and nasal cavity.

 

Jim Kelly's positive attitude has played a big part in beating cancer not once, but twice.

Jim Kelly’s positive attitude has played a big part in beating cancer not once, but twice.

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Kelly knows.

Arguably the toughest quarterback to ever play football, he has been to hell and back and understands what’s really important, things he refers to as the four Fs – faith, family, friends, and fans.  Losing four Super Bowls is a bitter pill to swallow, and Kelly is the first person to tell you how much it hurts, but it’s nothing compared to undergoing surgery to remove your jaw and most of your teeth.  It’s in those moments when true character is revealed, when something called ‘Kelly Tough’ becomes more than a corny catchphrase uttered at corporate speaking engagements and charity golf events.

Turns out those bitter defeats are more footnote than focal point, more detour than destination, more line item than legacy.

Turns out Jim Kelly’s story is far bigger than the game of football.

~  ~  ~

Fast forward.

Kelly’s 11-year NFL career is in the rearview mirror, and his future stretches out in front of him like a sheet of ice on Lake Erie in January.  He has a beautiful wife, and the first of two beautiful daughters.  Canton and its Pro Football Hall of Fame beckon in the near future.  There is no shortage of business opportunities, there’s plenty of money in the bank, and he’ll never again have to pay for dinner in Western New York.  Even better, Jill is pregnant with their second child, and on Valentine’s Day 1997 she gives birth to Hunter James Kelly, the baby boy that Jim’s been dreaming about.

Pause.

If those Super Bowl losses prove anything, it’s that storybook endings are often just that – works of fiction, unicorns nestled snugly in the pages of a children’s fantasy.  Kelly yearns for a son.  And while God blesses him with the birth of that son on his 37th birthday, Hunter is born with something called Krabbe disease, a genetic disorder that affects the central and peripheral nervous systems.  Cruelly, those affected by Krabbe typically appear healthy until onset, and Hunter seemingly enters the world as healthy as any other baby born on this day.

 

Jim Kelly shares a moment with his son, Hunter, during Kelly's Wall of Fame Induction Ceremony on November 18, 2001.

Jim Kelly shares a moment with his son, Hunter, during Kelly’s Wall of Fame Induction Ceremony on November 18, 2001.

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“Four months into his life, we had no idea that there was anything wrong with our son,” Kelly says.  “But by then we could tell.  That began the battle.  We never knew what it was, not until Hunter was tested.  So that’s the focus of our foundation, Hunter’s Hope.  We want to make sure that states test for the maximum amount of treatable diseases possible.  When Hunter was born, the State of New York was only testing for 11 treatable diseases – today, we are closing in on fifty.  But there is still so much work to do.  So many states are still testing for 20 or fewer diseases, while others are testing for sixty.  The goal of Hunter’s Hope Foundation is for all states to test for as many treatable diseases as possible.”

Hunter’s diagnosis changes everything.

“I dreamed about coaching my son in football,” Kelly says. “Hunter would wear No. 12, and his cousin Chad [Kelly] would wear 83 [Andre Reed’s number].  That’s the way it was supposed to play out.  The script was written.”

Krabbe disease flips the script.  Exceedingly rare, Krabbe is so obscure that, until recently, many medical journals failed to even list it among childhood disorders.  Most victims never see their first birthday; at one point, only one child had ever reached the age of four.  For Jim and Jill, the news is devastating.  But in truly Kelly fashion, they pour their energy into caring for their son, who, in turn, shows plenty of the fighting spirit that his father makes famous.

“I can’t think of a tougher person, or a more determined fighter, than Hunter,” Kelly says.  “The doctors were very open about his illness.  They said the probability of him living past that first year was extremely low.  But Hunter, more than any of us, was ‘Kelly Tough’.  He was going to defy the odds, and that’s exactly what he did.  One year became two.  Two became three.  Soon he was eight, nearly twice as old as the oldest child to live through this disease.  He kept fighting.  He kept proving everyone wrong.”

 

“The doctors were very open about his illness.  They said the probability of him living past that first year was extremely low.  But Hunter, more than any of us, was ‘Kelly Tough’.  He was going to defy the odds, and that’s exactly what he did.  One year became two.  Two became three.  Soon he was eight, nearly twice as old as the oldest child to live through this disease.  He kept fighting.  He kept proving everyone wrong.” – Jim Kelly

 

That the Kellys are able to provide round-the-clock care and constant nurturing helps, but Hunter more than does his part, fighting through the setbacks, the life-threatening complications from pneumonia, and the deteriorating neurological condition that ultimately claims his life.

“Hunter defied the odds, about 10-fold,” Kelly says proudly.  “He was my little soldier, my million-to-one lottery ticket.  He put so many big smiles on my face, there’s not enough paper to write about it.

“I’ve been asked about my battle with cancer, and it pales in comparison to what my son went through.  He was much tougher than I could ever imagine.  I believe we’ll be together again, that what he went through wasn’t the end, but the beginning.  I want to live many years more, but if that’s not God’s plan, it means I’ll get to see Hunter sooner than expected.”

~  ~  ~

Fast forward.

On August 5, 2005, Hunter Kelly dies of complications from Krabbe disease.  His death is a shattering blow, one that affects Jim Kelly deeply, the first – and biggest – in a series of personal setbacks:  There’s the plane crash in the Bering Sea.  There’s a hernia to deal with.  There are scattered operations to offset years of NFL punishment.  There is the cancer that nearly claims his life.

Today, Kelly can’t feel the skin on the left half of his face.  He says his lip feels like it’s constantly on fire.  The pain is always there in varying degrees, omnipotent, impossible to escape.

“There have been times when I’ve wondered, ‘Why me?’” he says, “but that goes away quickly.  Who wants to hear about your problems?  I’d rather focus on trying to make someone else’s day brighter.”

Kelly is originally diagnosed with oral cancer in June, 2013.  He immediately undergoes surgery at Erie County Medical Center to remove his jaw.  Three weeks later he is fitted with the prosthetic jaw and false teeth.  His doctors tell him the procedure has eradicated the cancer.  Turns out they’re wrong; several short months later, Kelly begins to suffer from horrible headaches, and the pain is unlike anything he’s ever experienced.

“Pain has been part of my life,” he says. “I don’t complain about it much, but I should have known something was wrong because the headaches were so bad.  When you grow up in a house with six boys you can’t show your pain, because if you do, they’ll just dish out more of the same.”

~  ~  ~

Rewind.

East Brady is a quiet river town, 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.  Jim Kelly’s father works in the steel mills as a machinist.  He comes home for lunch around the same time Jim comes home from school, and the two of them throw the football in the backyard.  When he isn’t passing with his father, a young Jim Kelly is throwing footballs through a tire, or working on his punting and kicking.  The passion pays off; Kelly becomes a schoolboy legend long before he is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and 44 touchdowns during his career at East Brady High School.  He also stars on the basketball team, leading his team to the state semifinals with an average of 23 points and 20 rebounds per game.  The three-sport standout later joins Johnny Unitas, George Blanda, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Dan Marino as part of the area’s legendary NFL quarterbacks.

“I am so proud to be from East Brady,” says Kelly of the town situated on the Allegheny River.  “For a small-town country boy to make it, and to be able to share all I’ve accomplished with my hometown buds and my high school coach, it’s been a dream come true.”

The Kelly boys are a close knit group, rambunctious, and always trying to out-do the other.

“What stands out the most is growing up in a family with six boys,” he says with a laugh.  “All six of us played football, but we pretty much played all of the sports – football, basketball, baseball.  And in our small community of about 800, we were always competing with everyone.  It didn’t matter if it was a game of Wiffle ball at the park, or pitching nickels against the curb, or playing tackle football in the backyard.  We were blessed to have a lot of kids in my hometown that liked to compete.  It was a competitive environment, and we all wanted to win.”

Kelly wears No. 12 on his football uniform at East Brady.  He doesn’t wear it for Namath, who led the New York Jets to an upset of the Baltimore Colts during Super Bowl III when Jim Kelly is only 8 years old.  Instead, he wears it in honor of four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“When I was young, I wanted to be Terry Bradshaw,” Kelly says quickly.  “I came from a small school.  I had 25 guys on my football team, and there were only sixty kids in my graduating class.  Terry Bradshaw was my idol – in our town, we were all Steelers fans.  I really wasn’t aware of Western Pennsylvania’s quarterback legacy at that point.  I don’t think Dan Marino was aware, either – we were in the same draft class – and I’m not even sure that Joe Namath would’ve thought anything about it.  As I got older, and I was able to look back at all of the great quarterbacks that came from Western Pennsylvania, I certainly became aware.  It’s great to be part of that legacy.”

Kelly is named all-state as a senior.  East Brady, which consolidated with another school more than twenty years ago, retires his number.

“I considered myself a football player,” Kelly says of his time at East Brady.  “I played quarterback, but I was also the punter and the kicker.  I played linebacker, too.  My senior year I ended up playing safety because my coach knew how much I loved to hit.  He didn’t want me in the middle of everything, so I think he tried to protect me by switching me to safety.  I didn’t understand it at the time, but looking back now I can see that he had my future in mind, and he saw the potential that I had to play quarterback.”

 

“I considered myself a football player.  I played quarterback, but I was also the punter and the kicker.  I played linebacker, too.  My senior year I ended up playing safety because my coach knew how much I loved to hit.  He didn’t want me in the middle of everything, so I think he tried to protect me by switching me to safety.  I didn’t understand it at the time, but looking back now I can see that he had my future in mind, and he saw the potential that I had to play quarterback.” – Jim Kelly

 

Kelly remains close to his high school coach, Terry Henry.

“Being able to surround myself with good, quality people was so important to my success,” Kelly says.  “Terry Henry is still my best friend today.  I’ve taken him to 28 of the last thirty Super Bowls with my five brothers, which is pretty cool.  East Brady was just a great place to grow up and play football.  Everybody in that town, I’d say 85 percent of the people in the town were at our games, so it was exciting.  When we played some of our rivals, it was three deep on the sidelines at times.”

East Brady will always be home.  Kelly makes it back once a year, and the town serves as a constant reminder of his roots – and the source of ‘Kelly Tough’.

 

East Brady will always be home to Jim Kelly. A sign on the edge of town honors its favorite son.

East Brady will always be home to Jim Kelly. A sign on the edge of town honors its favorite son.

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“I think it’s the work ethic that our parents instilled in us,” says Kelly of what made the difference in reaching the NFL.  “The mentality was I wanted to be the best, not just in football or basketball, but I wanted to make my mom and dad proud, and make my brothers proud.  Back then, dealing with pain and injury was a big part of that.  ‘Kelly Tough’ at that point in my life meant being physically strong, being able to bounce back from injury, being able to bounce back from something that someone else might not.  But later, when I developed cancer, I realized that ‘Kelly Tough’ is more than just the physical part.  There’s the mental part.  Being mentally tough is probably just as important, if not more important.”

Kelly, like a lot of high school players in Western Pennsylvania, dreams of playing his college football for legendary coach Joe Paterno.  He wants to be a Nittany Lion.  But, like hoisting a Super Bowl trophy, a future in Happy Valley isn’t in the cards.

“I went to Coach Paterno’s football camp during the summers before my junior and senior years of high school,” Kelly says.  “I had my heart set on playing at Penn State.  But then Coach Paterno called me, and he told me that he’d already signed two all-state quarterbacks, and that he didn’t have a spot for me on the team as a quarterback.  He did offer me a full ride as a linebacker.  I appreciated the scholarship offer, but I wanted to go somewhere and play quarterback. That’s how I ended up going to the University of Miami.”

Lou Saban – ironically, the former head coach of the Buffalo Bills – is the Hurricanes’ head coach, and he’s in need of quarterback.  He convinces Kelly that UM is the program for him, and Kelly finds himself attracted not only by the coach’s pitch, but by the warm weather and big city life.

 

Howard Schnellenberger promised a national championship, and delivered; unfortunately, the title arrived the year after Jim Kelly's graduation.

Howard Schnellenberger promised a national championship, and delivered; unfortunately, the title arrived the year after Jim Kelly’s graduation.

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Kelly:  “It started out great.  Coach Saban said that they were incorporating a pro-style offense, which would play to my strengths and help to prepare me for the NFL, but, unfortunately, Saban changed his mind and decided to run the veer.  They had Ottis Anderson in the backfield, who would later end up being named MVP of Super Bowl XXV, which was our loss to the New York Giants.  The veer suited his strengths.  I wasn’t an option quarterback, as everybody knows, so my college career got off to a rocky start.  I began to doubt whether I’d made the right choice.  I was blessed when Howard Schnellenberger became the head coach during my redshirt freshman year, and former NFL quarterback Earl Morrall volunteered to be the team’s quarterback coach.  They installed the pro-style offense that Saban had promised, and that changed everything for me.  So, all of those great things that could have happened, ended up happening after all.”

Kelly’s arrival begins a run of quarterback greats at Miami, where he passes for a career 5,228 yards from 1979-’82.  Bernie Kosar follows him a year later, winning Miami’s first national championship in 1983, fulfilling Schnellenberger’s ambitious 5-year plan.

“It was a great ride with Coach Schnellenberger,” Kelly says.  “That first season I was mostly on the bench, until we played Penn State in the eighth game.  It was on the road, Penn State was nationally ranked, and they were huge favorites.  Coach Schnellenberger approaches me right after pregame warm-ups and tells me that he needs to talk to me.  He pulls me aside and says, ‘I feel that you deserve this opportunity to start, so you’re starting today.’  I was stunned.  All I could do was look at him and go, ‘What?’  And then I immediately went into the bathroom and threw up [laughs].  I was in there for 15-to-20 minutes, because I was so nervous.  Coach still jokes about it today.  Whenever he’s asked about it, he’ll tell you exactly what was running through his mind:  ‘What in the hell is wrong with this kid?’  That was how I got my first college start.  We wind up beating them 26-10, which was considered a big upset.  And it didn’t get any easier from three – I went on to start against Alabama, Notre Dame, and Florida.  Welcome to big time NCAA football!”

For the record, Kelly completes 18 of his 31 attempts for 278 yards and three touchdowns in that 26-10 victory, a game in which the Nittany Lions are 40-point favorites.  It puts the Hurricanes and its hot young quarterback on the map.

And just when it looks like Kelly is about to take the college game by storm, adversity strikes.

“I entered my senior season on a high,” Kelly says.  “I’m a preseason nominee for the Heisman Trophy, along with guys like John Elway, Dan Marino, and Herschel Walker.  But then, in the third game of the season, I blow out my shoulder.  It was a severe separation, and the doctors told me that I would never play football again.  I remember coming out of surgery, and the doctor saying that he hoped I’d been studying in school.  When I asked why, he told me that my shoulder was so bad that they had to insert three metal rods in my right arm, and that it was unlikely that I’d ever get my range of motion back.  It was devastating news, but I didn’t dwell on the negative for long.  I relied on the ‘Kelly Tough’ that I learned from my father and my brothers, and I was determined to never give up, no matter what.  I knew the doctor was looking out for my best interest, and he didn’t want me to get my hopes up, but I didn’t want anybody telling me that I couldn’t do something, not if I was determined to put my heart, my soul, and my willpower into the rehabilitation.  I knew that if I trusted it, anything was possible.  And that’s what I did.  I worked extremely hard to rehab my shoulder and prove to everybody that I could still throw.  That’s how I ended up being drafted by the Buffalo Bills with the fourteenth pick in the first round of the ’83 NFL Draft.”

~  ~  ~

Fast forward.

Buffalo’s starting quarterback, Joe Ferguson, is at the tail end of his career, and the struggling Bills desperately need a quarterback for the future.  The ’83 NFL Draft is loaded with them, headlined by guys named Elway and Marino.  With an offer of $2.1 million over four years on the table – a substantial offer for that era, even for a small market team like the Bills – a reluctant Jim Kelly finds himself in Buffalo, finalizing contract language with his inner circle.

And then, The Call.

“I was absolutely blown away by what Bruce had to say,” Kelly recalls.  “The Bills were offering me very good money, and I’d resigned myself to playing on a bad team in a bad weather city.  But he is telling me all of this stuff, and it was impossible not to change direction.”

The fledgling USFL is so desperate to sign stars like Kelly that Allen – the son of former NFL head coach George Allen – agrees to give up his rights to Kelly, allowing him to choose his team.

“At the time, it really wasn’t a hard decision to make,” he says, then adding, “but thankfully it was a temporary detour and not a final destination.  I eventually ended up in Buffalo, at the right time, and I think that it worked out for everyone involved.  My heart and soul is right here in this city.  With this team.  It just took some time for things to work out.  Thankfully, it did.”

It doesn’t seem that way at the time.  Kelly, in team president Patrick McGroder’s office when the call comes, is ready to sign the most lucrative rookie contract in franchise history to that point.

The Call changed all of that.

“I would have been foolish not to listen,” Kelly says with a smile. “To be honest, I was very, very, very close to signing with the Buffalo Bills.  Then the call comes in, and Bruce says to my agent, ‘Tell Jim, do not sign anything; we’ve got a deal he cannot refuse.’  I’m often asked who the secretary was that put Bruce through to us, but I don’t know who it was, to be honest with you.  To this day it’s a mystery to me.  I do know that there were a lot of people who were really ticked off.”

 

“I was very, very, very close to signing with the Buffalo Bills.  Then the call comes in, and Bruce says to my agent, ‘Tell Jim, do not sign anything; we’ve got a deal he cannot refuse.’  I’m often asked who the secretary was that put Bruce through to us, but I don’t know who it was, to be honest with you.  To this day it’s a mystery to me.  I do know that there were a lot of people who were really ticked off.” – Jim Kelly

 

The choice of cities alone is enough to get Kelly’s attention:  Warm weather Florida cities like Tampa Bay and Jacksonville look especially inviting, given Kelly’s time spent at the University of Miami.  Houston is another intriguing destination, even though that franchise won’t start playing until the 1984 season – which means sitting out the 1983 campaign.  Kelly has his answer after meeting with Gamblers owner Jerry Argovitz – in the form of a deal for $3.5 million over five years, with $1 million in guaranteed money up front.

Contract negotiations with the Bills, on hold since The Call, are suddenly a mute point.

Jim Kelly is taking his talents to Space City.

~  ~  ~

Decades before his mud-slinging, accusation-flinging, insult-bringing presidential campaign, a young Donald Trump is trying to shake the high holy shit out of professional football.  He’s just 37 years old – a wildly successful businessman with a prickly personality, flyaway sandy hair, and a trophy first wife named Ivana.  He’s just built a 68-story glass tower in the middle of Manhattan and, to make sure people notice, he puts his name on it.  In bronze.  He soon opens his first Atlantic City casino, slapping his name on that, too.  He’s all ego all the time, even back then, with an insatiable appetite for winning, regardless the cost.

 

A young Donald Trump, with USFL superstar Herschel Walker. Trump would gamble on moving the USFL regular season schedule from spring to fall. The league would fold before a fall game is played.

A young Donald Trump, with USFL superstar Herschel Walker. Trump would gamble on moving the USFL regular season schedule from spring to fall. The league would fold before a fall game is played.

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So, in 1983 he buys a professional football team, joining a confederacy of other rich rogues who’ve just completed their first season of something called the United States Football League.  Their audacious business plan:  Compete with the NFL – the sport’s one true, grim superpower, whom USFL owners mock as the No Fun League – but not directly against it.  The twelve-team USFL plays its games in the spring, encourages excessive end zone celebrations (the NFL penalizes them), and allows both replay challenges and two-point conversions after touchdowns (the NFL doesn’t permit either at this point).  Games are televised on ABC, and also on an upstart cable channel called ESPN.

Trump’s new team, the New Jersey Generals (purchased from J. Walter Duncan, an Oklahoma oil tycoon), has the league’s biggest and most bankable player on its roster – Heisman Trophy-winning running back Herschel Walker – but it largely underperforms in its first season under Duncan’s watch.  In Trump’s first year, the Generals’ record jumps from 6-12 to 14-4, before New Jersey is knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.  Walker, in the midst of a three-year, $5 million contract, is soon joined by Trump signees Brian Sipe (the 1980 NFL MVP) and Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie.  Trump even goes after New York Giants All-pro linebacker Lawrence Taylor, signing him to a futures contract and forcing the Giants to up the ante to retain his services.

Meanwhile, second year quarterback Dan Marino is busy tearing up the National Football League.  In 1984 Marino puts together a season for the ages, leading the Miami Dolphins to the AFC championship and becoming the first passer to top 5,000 yards in one season, a feat not equaled for nearly a quarter century.  Marino also throws a record 48 touchdown passes season, setting a record that will stand for twenty years, until a guy named Peyton Manning breaks it.

Kelly is doing big things, too.  In his first professional season, he guides the expansion Houston Gamblers to first place in their division with a 13-5 record, capturing both the USFL’s Rookie of the Year and MVP awards.  He also completes 370 passes for 5,219 yards, the highest yardage total in pro football history until 2011, while also throwing 44 touchdowns.  Both are USFL records that are never broken.

“Going to the USFL for two years was a decision that didn’t sit well with people in Buffalo,” Kelly concedes, “but I think it ended up better preparing me to play in the NFL.  Playing for the Houston Gamblers is probably where I learned to really throw the football, as far as reading defenses is concerned.  I didn’t really have a long career in college because I didn’t start until so late in my freshman year, and then blowing out my shoulder early in my senior year.  So, I really only played about two-and-a-half in college.  Those two years in the USFL, throwing the ball 40 to 50 times a game, that definitely prepared me for Buffalo.”

While Kelly is busy slinging the ball around in Houston, the Bills are busy being…well…horrible.  The team posts back-to-back 2-14 seasons following The Call, while trotting out a forgettable procession of passers, including the aging Ferguson, followed by guys like Joe Dufek, Matt Kofler, Vince Ferragamo and Bruce Mathison.  As fun as Kelly and the Gamblers are to watch, Buffalo’s collection of QBs are equally hard on the eyes; together they combined for 6,583 yards passing yards, to go along with 27 touchdowns and 61 interceptions over that forgettable two-year span.

“I kept up with the Bills during this period,” Kelly says.  “They were bad, no question about it.  I rooted for them to turn it around and become a championship-caliber team, but I just didn’t think that I’d be able to play a part in it.”

Kelly might never have been involved at all, had it not been for a series of fortunate events that deliver the Bills from its nuclear winter.  First, the Bills own the top pick in the 1985 NFL Draft.  They used it on Virginia Tech defensive end Bruce Smith, who, during his career with the Bills, is elected to 11 Pro Bowls, nine NFL All-Pro Teams, and two NFL All-Decade Teams (1980s and 1990s).  In Smith, the team has its defensive anchor.  Wide receiver Andre Reed, who becomes Kelly’s favorite target and joins him in the hall of fame, is added in the fourth round.

 

The Bills draft Virginia Tech DE Bruce Smith with the first pick in the 1985 NFL Draft. Smith goes on to become the league's all-time sack leader, and the greatest defensive player in Bills history.

The Bills draft Virginia Tech DE Bruce Smith with the first pick in the 1985 NFL Draft. Smith goes on to become the league’s all-time sack leader, and the greatest defensive player in Bills history.

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Then, in the fall of ’85, Trump happens.

“Donald wanted the USFL to compete directly against the NFL,” Kelly says with a laugh.  “So he started making a lot of noise about how our league should play its games in the fall, at the same time the NFL was playing its games.  There were a lot of opinions about that, but Donald kept pushing the other owners to go for it.  He had a clear vision for how the league would topple the NFL.  It turned out to be the other way around.”

 

“Donald wanted the USFL to compete directly against the NFL.  So he started making a lot of noise about how our league should play its games in the fall, at the same time the NFL was playing its games.  There were a lot of opinions about that, but Donald kept pushing the other owners to go for it.  He had a clear vision for how the league would topple the NFL.  It turned out to be the other way around.” – Jim Kelly

 

The USFL, already on shaky ground and bleeding red ink to the tune of $200 million, finds itself going all in when Trump out-debates and out-maneuvers the other owners, who vote 12-2 to move to a fall schedule.  They also proceed with a $1.7 billion anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL, claiming that it has monopolistic a chokehold on national TV rights.  It’s high risk, with huge upside potential; the owners hope the suit voids the NFL’s rich TV contracts, or forces a merger, or provides a game-changing payday that puts the league on equal footing with the NFL.

So instead of playing football in the spring of 1986, the USFL lands in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.  When a judge rules in favor of the USFL at trial, but awards the league just $1 in damages – a figure that is immediately increased to $3, because damages in anti-trust cases are tripled – the league has no other choice but to fold.  And just like that, the players under contract with USFL teams – including Jim Kelly – are suddenly looking for work.

“We all saw it coming, but there wasn’t anything we could do about it,” he says.  “The whole league went down the drain when that ruling came out.”

Per NFL rules, the Bills retain Kelly’s negotiating rights.  He still isn’t thrilled with the idea of playing in a cold weather city, but at this point he knows that it’s Buffalo or bust.  He isn’t exactly sure what kind of reception awaits him in Western New York, but he knows that the Bills organization is eager to start talking contract.

 

Jim Kelly plays his first game as a Buffalo Bill on Sept. 7, 1986, against the New York Jets.

Jim Kelly plays his first game as a Buffalo Bill on Sept. 7, 1986, against the New York Jets.

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“It was amazing,” Kelly says.  “Here I am, coming back to the team that I’d left standing at the altar, not really knowing how people were going to accept me, and unsure as to how this whole thing was going to work out.  They had Bruce Smith, they had Andre Reed – both thanks to Bill Polian, who is one of the greatest general managers ever, but the team was still a long way from competing for a championship.  There was an energy here, that much I did know.  They were excited because they did need a winner here, and they needed to start somewhere.”

Polian, who has already spent two seasons with the Bills’ organization, is promoted to GM in ’86.  He immediately goes to work on a deal for Kelly’s services, which, at $8 million over five years, is then the richest contract in NFL history.  If Kelly has any trepidation over his return to the city he’d spurned, all of that is put to rest on August 18, 1986, when Kelly is shuttled into Buffalo on owner Ralph Wilson’s private jet.  Hordes of fans and reporters greet him at the airport.  His limo ride to the downtown Hilton is an event unto itself, as fans line the overpasses to cheer and wave homemade banners.  Cars pull over and honk their horns as the escorted motorcade drove past.

“It was a day I’ll never forget,” Kelly says, smiling.  “I didn’t know what to expect – I’d made those comments publicly about not wanting to play here, about not wanting to be a Buffalo Bill, and I’d walked out on the team and headed off to the USFL.  But it was incredible.  I never thought I’d get that kind of reception – the crowd at the airport, coming down the thruway with all of the banners, and the people lined up on the overpasses waving at me as we drove by…it was very clear that the fans here loved their team, and that they were starving for a winner.”

With Smith, Reed and Kelly onboard, the pieces are slowly starting to coalesce.  Linebacker Darryl Talley, an ’83 pick out of West Virginia, is starting to blossom.  Center Kent Hull joins Kelly from the USFL, and the pair will play 11 seasons together, a span in which Hull starts 169 of 170 games and becomes a three-time Pro Bowl selection.  Tackle Will Wolford, a 1986 first-round pick, becomes a key contributor.  Then, nine games into the 1986 season, Polian fires head coach Hank Bullough and replaces him with Marv Levy.

“That first season was rough, because we didn’t win a lot of games,” Kelly recalls.  “We were 2-7 when Hank was fired, and we finished the season 4-12.  But one of the brightest moments in Buffalo Bills history is when Bill Polian named Marv Levy head coach.  Bill was putting the pieces together on the field, and doing a masterful job in bringing in the players that we needed to build that championship-caliber, and then hiring Marv was the icing on the cake.  Marv was the perfect coach to lead us.”

Polian continues bringing in talent.  Linebacker Shane Conlan and cornerback Nate Odomes are drafted in 1987.  Steve Tasker – who is signed the same week that Levy is hired – begins to carve out an All-Pro identity on special teams.  Linebacker Cornelius Bennett is obtained from the Colts in a blockbuster trade that also includes Los Angeles Rams running back Eric Dickerson, and Bills running back Greg Bell.

“We were getting better,” says Kelly.  “We won seven games, and we were in the playoff hunt until late in the season.  Everyone could feel it, from ownership at the top, to right on down to the field.  We knew were going to make some noise in ’88.”

The biggest noise comes on draft day.  The Bills don’t have a first round pick in the 1988 NFL Draft, but Polian is able to nab future hall of fame running back Thurman Thomas midway through the second round.

 

When Bill Polian nabs Thurman Thomas with the 40th pick in the 1988 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills have their workhorse. Thomas would go on to become the 1991 NFL Most Valuable Player.

When Bill Polian nabs Thurman Thomas with the 40th pick in the 1988 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills have their workhorse. Thomas would go on to become the 1991 NFL Most Valuable Player.

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“Thurman was a home run,” Kelly says quickly.  “The knee injury he suffered in college is what caused his draft stock to drop, and teams were afraid to pull the trigger on him in the first round.  Otherwise, he would have been a sure-fire first round pick.  So when he fell to us, Bill Polian didn’t let him get away.”

Polian selects Thomas for a very good reason; the Bills need a feature running back, a ball carrier who can grind out tough yards and keep the chains moving.  When Polian drafts Ronnie Harmon in ’86, it’s with the intention of him taking on that role.  But Harmon’s talent doesn’t translate into that of an every down back, and Polian’s search continues.

“Thurman Thomas was our go-to guy, someone who could get those tough yards between the tackles, who could bounce outside, who could catch the ball out of the backfield.  He was Mr. Versatility.  He’s also someone I consider one of my closest friends, someone who has been there for me through a lot of rough times, including my battle with cancer.  That’s what made those Bills teams so special.  We were professionals but we were like family in so many ways, and we developed friendships that will last a lifetime.”

 

“Thurman Thomas was our go-to guy, someone who could get those tough yards between the tackles, who could bounce outside, who could catch the ball out of the backfield.  He was Mr. Versatility.  I consider him one of my closest friends, someone who has been there for me through a lot of rough times, including my battle with cancer.  That’s what made those Bills teams so special.  We were professionals but we were like family in so many ways, and we developed friendships that will last a lifetime.” – Jim Kelly

 

Thomas lands in Polian’s lap because of that knee injury, which scares off teams until the Bills can select him with the 40th pick overall.  With Kelly under center and Thomas in the backfield, Buffalo finishes 12-4, winning the first of the six AFC East titles and advancing to the AFC Championship Game, where they lose in Cincinnati, 21-10.

“We were disappointed to lose that game, obviously,” he says, “but we knew we had something special going on with this team.”

Buffalo’s momentum and team chemistry nearly unravel the following season, when offensive lineman Howard Ballard whiffs on a defender and Kelly is knocked out of a Week 5 game in Indianapolis.  The next day, Kelly publicly rips Ballard, creating a storm of controversy that dogs the Bills for the rest of the season.

The press has a field day.  Both the New York Times and the LA Times seize on the turmoil, and just like that, the Bickering Bills are born.  Kelly & Co. are good enough to win the AFC East despite the public infighting, although the distractions play a big part in their 9-7 regular season record.  They are then knocked out of the playoffs by the Cleveland Browns.  The game is a 34-30  shootout, and it sets the tone for the next season.

“Ted had the plan that day,” Kelly says with a smile.

 

The Bills arrive in full form in a 34-30 playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns. Offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda unveils the K-Gun offense, which propels the Bills to the next four Super Bowls.

The Bills arrive in full form in a 34-30 playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns. Offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda unveils the K-Gun offense, which propels the Bills to the next four Super Bowls.

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Ted is offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda, who unveils a dangerous no-huddle offense against the Browns.  Kelly thrives in it, throwing for 404 yards while largely calling his own plays, and Cleveland struggles to keep up with the tempo.  If Ronnie Harmon doesn’t drop an easy, go-ahead touchdown pass in the waning seconds, the Bills win that game.  Instead, they return to Buffalo convinced that they’ve found their identity.

Buffalo wins nine of its first 11 games to start the 1990 regular season, finishing with a 13-3 record and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.  The offense racks up 44 points in a first round win over bitter rival Miami, and then goes off for 51 points against Oakland in the AFC Championship Game.  Kelly’s stat line in those two playoff games:  A crisp 639 yards and five touchdown passes.  And just like that, the Buffalo Bills are Super Bowl bound.

“There were only sixty kids in my graduating class at East Brady,” Kelly says.  “There were 28 players on my football team.  To be able to make it to the NFL, and to be able to perform like that in the playoffs, it was an incredible experience.  I couldn’t believe it.  We were going to play in Super Bowl XXV.  I was the quarterback of the Buffalo Bills, going up against the New York Giants, and all of those dreams that I had as a little boy in my backyard were coming true.”

~  ~  ~

Fast forward.

Jim Kelly’s career is over.  It’s August 3, 2002, and the crowning moment in a storybook football career has arrived.  He’s in Canton, and he’s about to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Marv Levy is right there beside him, his presenter on this day, and it’s easy to see that Kelly’s love for his former coach is as strong as the water raging over Niagara Falls.  It’s also easy to understand why; Levy was as much a father figure to his players as coach, an even-keeled, thoughtful man with a degree in English history from Harvard University and a down home, folksy manner that endeared him to his players.  He was firm but fair, loving in many ways, humble in victory and gracious in defeat – never more so than in the moments following those four bitter Super Bowl defeats.

 

Jim Kelly and Marv Levy pose with Kelly's hall of fame bust.

Jim Kelly and Marv Levy pose with Kelly’s hall of fame bust on August 3, 2002.

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“Marv is the greatest teacher I’ve ever been around,” Bill Polian says in the days leading up to his own induction ceremony, of which Levy will also be the presenter. “And I dare say he’s on par with [former UCLA basketball coach] John Wooden in terms of how he gets his message across and how he does it.  I don’t think there’s ever been a better one that I’ve ever met or heard of.  His grasp of the game and how he wants the team to play is communicated clearly, concisely and inspirationally.”

Kelly could have chosen anyone to present him, and there are plenty of options – his father, his high school coach, Howard Schnellenberger – but Levy is the only person he truly considers.  When Levy steps to the podium, the sea of Bills fans who’ve made the trek to Canton roar.

“You know, in order to win in the NFL you’ve got to have ability and sometimes you gotta have some luck, too,” Levy says, addressing the sun-drenched crowd. “Well, Jim Kelly had ability and much more.  I was the one who had the luck because from the very first day I became coach of the Buffalo Bills I was keenly aware of what a special player, and what a special person Jim Kelly was. How lucky can a guy get?”

Kelly’s acceptance speech is from the heart, and filled with the appreciation of a man who has never forgotten where he came from.  He thanks his family, his childhood friends, his coaches, Bills owner Ralph Wilson, Bill Polian, and his Bills teammates.  It’s then that he turns his attention to those sitting in the front row – his wife, Jill, their young daughters Erin and Camryn, and their five year-old son, Hunter.

 

Bills fans go crazy for Jim Kelly during his hall of fame induction on August 3, 2002.

Bills fans go crazy for Jim Kelly during his hall of fame induction on August 3, 2002.

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“Since the day I was selected, I prayed to God that my son would be here with me today,” Kelly says. “God has granted me that blessing.  It has been written throughout my career that toughness is my trademark.  Well, the toughest person I’ve ever met in my life is my hero, my soldier, my son, Hunter.  I love you, buddy.  Thank you, Canton, thank you Buffalo and God bless.”

~  ~  ~

Rewind.

It’s 1991, and Buffalo’s most eligible bachelor is not only one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet, he’s also a major playboy, his huge house in the affluent Hillsboro neighborhood of Orchard Park often filled with loud music, inebriated partiers, and an assortment of beautiful women.  Jill Waggoner is one of those beauties on this night, and barely 21 when a friend scores an invite to Kelly’s crib.  She catches the quarterback’s eyes immediately.  There’s clearly a spark between them, and while they spend plenty of time talking on this night, Jill cautiously rejects his advances.  She also leaves without giving him a phone number, forcing Kelly to start chasing leads.  Kelly is undeterred; eventually, he finds out where she works, and soon they start dating.

 

im Kelly and his new bride, the former Jill Waggoner, share a toast in the back of a limousine after their wedding May 18, 1996, at St. Christopher's Roman Catholic Church in the Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda. (Photo: AP photo / Bill Sikes)

im Kelly and his new bride, the former Jill Waggoner, share a toast in the back of a limousine after their wedding May 18, 1996, at St. Christopher’s Roman Catholic Church in the Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda. (Photo: AP photo / Bill Sikes)

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If it seems like something straight out of a fairy tale – the handsome prince marries the beautiful maiden, and they live happily ever after – then you’ve come to the wrong place.  Jim and Jill do marry after a long courtship, with Jill giving birth to Erin Marie Kelly in early ’95.  The marriage takes place a year later.  They are young and on top of the world, but struggling in ways that gave Jill pause.  She later recounts their problems in a book, Without a Word, with Jim’s lack of attention being one warning sign, and the discovery of some disturbing mementos from his wild, bachelor days being another.  He is hardly home that first year, between the football, fishing, hunting, golf, and speaking engagements, which only ratchets up the tension.

With this as a backdrop, Jill becomes pregnant again.  Hunter is born on Jim’s 37th birthday – February 14, 1997.  Four months later, the words ‘Krabbe disease’ are soon etched in both of their minds.

 

Jim and Jill Kelly pose with son Hunter on February 10, 2004.

Jim and Jill Kelly pose with son Hunter on February 10, 2004.

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Despite the devastating news, the Kellys do what the Kellys do best – they turn ‘Kelly Tough’ into a way of caring for their young son.

Hunter’s illness is draining on many levels, and the strain of always having to be there for him chips away at the marriage.  It doesn’t get any easier when Camryn is born two years later, but it’s during this time that Jill gives her life to Christ.  It prove to be a pivotal decision, one that not only rescues their relationship, but sustains them through the tough times ahead – none darker than Friday, August 5th, 2005, when Hunter dies from respiratory failure.

“It was the worst day of my life.  I was met by a couple doctors at the hospital who said ‘We’re sorry, your son is gone,’” Kelly recalls.  “It was devastating.  And although I didn’t have the opportunity to say ‘bye’ to him, but I got to spend many minutes with him, after, by myself, talking to him.  Jill and I didn’t say much to each other on the way home, and that’s when our relationship really hit rock bottom.  Jill sought God.  I went further away.”

In 2009, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, Jim Kelly finally comes clean.  He confesses to his wife that he’s not been faithful to her during their marriage, and he also turns over his life to Christ.

“I was empty.  I was living a lie.  I wanted to be the father I always should have been, one who could walk through my front door and my girls could look at their daddy with respect,” he says.  “I knew I was losing a lot of that and as a father, you need to accept that responsibility for your kids.  And I wanted to make sure that I will see Hunter again, hopefully later than sooner; I was losing all that.  I was losing a woman who took care of my son, raising two kids, and I knew I needed to change my life, and thank God I did.”

~  ~  ~

Rewind.

The Bills enter Super Bowl XXV red hot, and yeah, history shows that the unstoppable, no-huddle, K-Gun offense – named after Kelly, no less – was stopped cold, bottled up by a New York Giants defense and its bold, young defensive coordinator, a guy named Bill Belichick.  It won’t be the last time we hear from Belichick, or the last time he tastes Super Bowl glory – just ask a guy named Tom Brady.  The Persian Gulf War is about to go full effect, Whitney Houston kills it with her goose bump rendition of the National Anthem, and Jim Kelly’s lifelong dream is suddenly, improbably coming true.

“I was the quarterback with two minutes to go, leading my team down the field in the Super Bowl,” Kelly says with a smile.  His voice trails off, and then:  “As we all know, we did not win.  But I played in the biggest game on the biggest stage.  I got to battle with my teammates.  I got to play for a coach I love.  I  got to put it all on the line for the people of Buffalo.  It was special to be able to compete, to struggle, to try to put your team in a position to win.  Those are the things that take me all the way back to East Brady, and I wouldn’t have been in that game if I hadn’t been from there.  That’s what made it all possible – the work ethic that my father instilled in me, and the impact made on me by my high school football coach.”

Kelly and the Buffalo offense, which romps over Oakland in the AFC Championship Game, finds itself throttled at every turn, unable to sustain drives, unable to control the tempo – and yet, improbably, they somehow find themselves in position to win the game.

Trailing 20-19 late in the fourth quarter, the Bills force a Giants punt, and take possession of the football at their own 10 with 2:16 left to play.  Thurman Thomas breaks off a big 22-yard run on third-and-1, and Kelly, not known as a runner, scrambles three times for 18 yards.  With no timeouts left, Thomas rips off an 11-yard run to the Giants 29.  The Bills hustle to the line of scrimmage, where Kelly spikes the ball, stopping the clock with eight seconds remaining.

We all know what happens next.

Scott Norwood.

Wide right.

 

Scott Norwood misses the 47-yard field goal attempt that would have won Super Bowl XXV. The Bills would appear in - and lose - the next three Super Bowls.

Scott Norwood misses the 47-yard field goal attempt that would have won Super Bowl XXV. The Bills would appear in – and lose – the next three Super Bowls.

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People rag on Norwood for missing that kick, but they have no idea what it’s like to kick a football 47 yards and hope it splits the uprights, much less trying to do so with a Super Bowl championship on the line and the whole goddamn world watching.  How many times do professional golfers – the best in the world at their chosen profession – stand over those dreaded four foot putts, only to watch their balls rim out?  This isn’t a four foot putt.  This is a 47-yard field goal attempt with a Lombardi Trophy on the line.  Today, people forget that Norwood was an excellent kicker.  But Norwood isn’t a robot, and, with Kelly and his Bills teammates holding hands on the sidelines, he tries his level best to win the game and make the dreams of everyone in Western New York come true.

“We lost as a team, it wasn’t on Scott.  It hurt to lose that game, just as it did to lose the next three Super Bowls, but I choose to think about my 11 years in a Buffalo Bills uniform,” Kelly says, reflecting on his hall of fame career.  “I don’t think about four games.  If you want to sit in your rocking chair when you get old and spend all of your time thinking about what could have been, then you’re crazy.  I think about the great things that happened, the friends I had and the fun times I had.  I was just happy to do what we did.”

~  ~  ~

Fast forward.

Marv Levy addresses his team, knowing that his words will have far-reaching implications.  The world does not stop with the loss.  There will be another season to be played, and they are too talented and to resilient to give up.

Levy’s words – mourn the loss, and then pick yourselves up and compete – resonate.  The Bills go 13-3 for the second season in a row, crushing the Chiefs 34-17 in the Divisional Playoffs, and then winning a 10-7 gut check over John Elway and the Denver Broncos.  And just like that, the Bills are heading back to the Super Bowl.

Unfortunately, Joe Gibbs’ Washington Redskins come to play, and it looks as if the Bills do not.  Thomas, who had been so scintillating during the regular season, winning both the Offensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards, misses the first series because he can’t find his helmet.  It sets the tone.  Kelly throws four interceptions, and the Bills lose 37-24, in a game that isn’t nearly as close as the final score indicates.

 

Kelly remembers very little from Super Bowl XXVI, a game in which he suffered a concussion and committed four turnovers.

Kelly remembers very little from Super Bowl XXVI, a game in which he suffered a concussion and committed four turnovers.

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For Kelly, the loss is painful in more ways than one.  Concussed, he finishes the game 28-of-58 passing for 275 yards, with two touchdowns (both of which come in the fourth quarter) and those four picks.  He still has no recollection of that entire fourth quarter, and, in a scary admission, says that he even went to the wrong hotel after the game.

“Maybe I should have gotten smacked upside the head earlier in the game,” he says with a laugh.  “I probably would have played better, because I think I threw two touchdowns with the concussion.  I’m like almost every other player who reaches the NFL.  If a concussion takes 10, 15 years off my life, it is what it is.  I played the game because I loved it.  I knew that there were consequences, probably at the end, probably not as much as I know about it now, but I tell you what, I wouldn’t change one thing.  I loved the game of football.  It’s brought me what I have today.”

~  ~  ~

Repeat.

Another trip to the postseason, another Super Bowl loss – this time to Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, et. al., in a 52-17 blowout most notable for Don Beebe’s rundown of Leon Lett, preventing a fumble return for a touchdown.  The Cowboy offensive line is massive, and Dallas can’t be stopped.

Cruelly, the game starts on a positive note for the Bills, until Kelly throws an interception and loses a fumble, both of which lead to Dallas touchdowns.  Then, in the second quarter, Kelly is knocked from the game with a knee injury, and the game goes downhill from there.  The nine Buffalo turnovers are a Super Bowl record.  Time, it seems, has caught up with these resilient Bills.

 

~  ~  ~

Repeat.

The Bills are back.

Improbably.  Unprecedentedly.

Yes, the Bills are back in the Super Bowl.  But so is Dallas.

The fourth and final trip is a rematch with the Cowboys, and the Bills play a courageous and gritty first half before the wheels fall off, with Thomas fumbling twice and Kelly throwing a costly interception.  The 30-13 loss is the last stand for these Bills on the big stage, but a battered and bruised Kelly refuses concede defeat.

“It’s frustrating, it really is,” he says during the post-game interview.  “The Cowboys have a hell of a defense.  Take your hats off to them.  I have a few years left. Don’t count me out yet.  We weren’t the better team today.  Our goal is the same.  We’ll do it until we get it right.”

~  ~  ~

Fast forward.

Ralph Wilson, the Buffalo Bills’ beloved owner, passes away on March 25, 2014.  He’s 95 at the time of his death, and the loss is felt throughout Western New York.  Players and coaches from all eras of Bills football are filled with sadness.  The loss is especially tough on Kelly, who had grown close to the Wilson family through the years.

“Ralph Wilson was an owner that we all loved,” Kelly says.  “He would talk to us; he would come down to the sidelines during practice and talk to us like he was our father.  He would question us on different things not related to football, things about our lives and things that were going one in our lives.  He really cared about the players that played for him.  He was a very smart, bright individual.  He was so loyal to the people around him – his coaches, his players, and teams’ fans.  He had one of those open-door policies.  If you ever needed to talk to him, or if you ever felt you needed to say something, he was right there.  I loved the man dearly.  I love the whole family.  As a matter of fact, I was just with Mrs. Wilson two days ago – we were in Cancun, Mexico, celebrating Thurman Thomas’s fiftieth birthday.  Ralph was special.  He was like a father to be honest with you, and I will always think of him like that.  My dad always received a Christmas card from him, and he always received a big chocolate football at Christmas time.  Ralph was one of those guys that was just like us, and we just loved him to death.”

It’s ironic that these Bickering Bills grow close through all of the heartache on the field, forging relationships to last a lifetime.

“There’s no doubt that during our playing days we were as close to family as you could possibly get,” Kelly says without hesitation.  “There was nobody out there that had guys that won and lost and took it hard, but also partied hard.  We had fun.  We enjoyed ourselves.  People always say, ‘Oh, you had too much fun,’ but when you win, you have fun.  Yeah, we didn’t win at the end, but we knew when we hit the field, whether it was practice or a game, that we were 100% mentally prepared and we were ready to play.  You win some, you lose some, and unfortunately we didn’t win any at the end of the year, but with those guys, I always had confidence that they were going to come to the game ready to play – and not one time did they ever surprise me and not show up ready to play.

 

Kelly and the Bills would lose to the Dallas Cowboys in consecutive Super Bowl (shown here in Super Bowl XXVII), ending a record run of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.

Kelly and the Bills would lose to the Dallas Cowboys in consecutive Super Bowl (shown here in Super Bowl XXVII), ending a record run of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.

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“We have the type of guys that, away from the football field, have remained very close.  As a matter of fact, several of us ex-players and our wives went to Napa Valley before the Super Bowl, and we had a great time together.  My golf tournament is coming up in June, and I’d say about 15 or 20 of them are going to be there.  No matter what the situation is, we are very, very close – guys like Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Darrell Talley, Cornelius Bennett, Steve Tasker, Will Woolford, Chris Moore.  I could go on and on, because we are like one, big, happy family.  And when we get together it’s not all serious – and in that way it feels like times have never changed.  I will put it this way; if you cannot take a joke, if you cannot get picked on every once in a while, you don’t need to get around us, because we love to mess with each other.”

~  ~  ~

Rewind.

Kelly is on a 2000 bear hunting trip in Alaska – he loves to hunt almost as much as he loves playing football – when the single-prop plane he is flying in goes down in the Bering Sea.  The plane loses engine power shortly after departing the beach at Cold Bay, where Kelly and his brother Pat are hunting bears. Upside down, he kicks out the window out and swims for shore in 39-degree water, and then thaws himself with a Bunsen burner.

“We lost total power of the plane, and that’s when the pilot turned to me and said, ‘Jim, brace yourself, we’re going down,’” Kelly says, describing how the pilot, Jerry Jacques, put the plane down in the tidal zone, damaging the propeller.  “I pretty much saw everything flash in front of me…I thought I was a goner.”

Kelly survives, but comes back from the ordeal 23 pounds lighter.

~  ~  ~

Pause.

Kelly, on his relationship with God:  “I know that I’m ten times the man I ever was before – a lot better husband, a lot better father, and a lot better person,” he says.  “When I decided to become a Christian and decided to change my life and quit screwing up, it was like, ‘Wow, why didn’t I do this before?’  There was no hiding anything from that point on.  I just felt so much better, not only about myself, but my future, and my family.  It was an awesome transformation, and it didn’t take me long to realize that God had been the answer all along.  I just needed to give myself over to him.”

~  ~  ~

Fast forward.

Four agonizing months have passed since that day when Kelly received the last of those 35 radiation treatments.  The cancer on this day – thank God – is nowhere to be found.  Only the light remains.

“I’ve been through a lot in my life,” he concedes, “and it’s been a rollercoaster ride.  People think that just because you’re famous athlete, or that because you’re a hall of famer, that you’re immune to what life throws at ordinary people.  They put you on a pedestal, but the thing is, we are just like everybody else.  We all go through tough times.  It’s what you do about it that’s what counts.  It’s the attitude that you have that counts.  When I was in the hospital, I learned a valuable lesson that I like to share with others, and that is to always surround yourself with good, quality people.  For me, that is my family – my beautiful wife, my two daughters, my five brothers, my friends.  Not one time did they ever walk into my hospital room with a frown on their faces.  They walked in with an attitude that changed my life – by their presence, by what they said and how they acted when they were around me.  For everyone out there that has problems – whether it’s the elderly, or whether it’s your own kids, or whether it’s your parents or grandparents – my advice is to ask a simple question:  ‘What can I do to make someone’s day better?’  It doesn’t have to be a big thing.  What you say to them, the attitude that you have around them, those little things make all of the difference in the world.”

 

im Kelly, center, looks after his son Hunter, while waiting with his daughter Camryn, right, and wife Jill, left, before having his number retired at Ralph Wilson stadium in Orchard Park on Nov. 18, 2001. (Photo: AP photo / Mike Groll)

im Kelly, center, looks after his son Hunter, while waiting with his daughter Camryn, right, and wife Jill, left, before having his number retired at Ralph Wilson stadium in Orchard Park on Nov. 18, 2001. (Photo: AP photo / Mike Groll)

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Kelly pauses, as if changing the play at the line of scrimmage.

“A positive mental attitude is such a strong weapon when battling your problems.  A couple of things along those lines:  People approach me daily and tell me what an inspiration I have been to them, but in all honesty, it’s the other way around.  When I was at my absolute worst, it was the thoughts and prayers of those I didn’t even know that made a difference – all of the cards, the well wishes, the phone calls, the emails…it all motivated me to continue to fight.  It also changed the way I think, and I came up with a phrase so that I can share it with others:  ‘Make a difference today for someone who is fighting for their tomorrow.

“People also ask me for my philosophy on life, and I tell them that I live by the four Fs:  My faith is number one.  Family is number two.  My friends are number three, and my fans are number four.  Those are the things that I always hold close to my heart.  I became a different person when I gave my life to Christ, and my faith has carried me through some of the darkest days of my life.  The camaraderie that I have with my friends, the ability to keep everything light, just to laugh and joke with them, you can’t overstate how much of a difference that makes.  And the fans, I can’t put into words what they mean – all of the letters, complete strangers offering me their love and support, it just blows me away.

“Looking back now, it all just makes sense and I understand why the good Lord put me in this position.  I struggled through those four Super Bowl losses.  I went through neck surgery, and then back surgery.  I lost my son to a horrible illness.  I survived cancer twice.  But God has a plan, and I realized that through my son, Hunter, I can make a difference.

 

“Looking back now, it all just makes sense and I understand why the good Lord put me in this position.  I struggled through those four Super Bowl losses.  I went through neck surgery, and then back surgery.  I lost my son to a horrible illness.  I survived cancer twice.  But God has a plan, and I realized that through my son, Hunter, I can make a difference.” – Jim Kelly

 

“With Hunter’s Hope, we’re focusing on making sure that the states test for the maximum amount of treatable diseases.  Thousands of babies die every single year in this country because they are born in the wrong state.  Don’t take this the wrong way; I totally understand why we send billions of dollars overseas to other countries, but why don’t we save some of that money for something that’s such a no brainer right here in our own country?  Let’s give our own kids a chance right here, in the United States of America, to be able to dream, and set goals, and be able to raise families like I was able to do.”

~  ~  ~

Replay.

August 2, 2014.

Jim Kelly is back in Canton, this time to celebrate the induction of his favorite receiver, Andre Reed. Through the years, sixty-seven of the 663 passes that Reed caught from Kelly were touchdowns, but it’s today’s pass that means more than all of the others combined; at the conclusion of Reed’s hall of fame acceptance speech, his quarterback, the greatest and most beloved Buffalo Bill of them all, joins him on stage, and connects one last time as the overflow crowd – Bills fans, mostly – erupt with delight.

 

Jim Kelly and Andre Reed connect for one last pass, after Reed's Hall of Fame speech.

Jim Kelly and Andre Reed connect for one last pass, after Reed’s Hall of Fame speech.

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“I was known for my toughness going across the middle, making that catch, breaking tackles, but the toughest individual I’ve ever met in my life is Jim Kelly, No. 12,” Reed says.  “You’re the reason why I’m standing here today. Every time I looked into your eyes in the huddle, I knew we could get it done, I knew we had a chance to win.  Leadership beyond reasonable doubt, and those around you gravitated toward your leadership and what you said.  You taught us not to quit.  You know what we used to say, 12 plus 83 always equals six.”

That Kelly can even make the trip to Canton is a miracle – his battle with cancer has left him ravaged, and 51 pounds lighter than at the start of radiation and chemo.  Like Reed, he is dressed in his gold hall of fame jacket.  Reed turns his back to the crowd at the podium, and catches that final pass before sharing a long, emotional hug.  Kelly’s promise – to be there for Reed’s induction – is fulfilled.  It’s almost more than the former star receiver can bear.

“When I saw him today, I almost broke down and cried,” Reed remarks a day earlier, after the annual hall of fame luncheon.  “This man has been through so much in his life, he’s had to battle in so many different things, the toughest individual I’ve ever seen, and he was upbeat, smiling.  Three months ago we didn’t even know if he was going to be here in Canton.  My heart beat a bit faster when I saw him because of all that.”

For Kelly, being back in Canton, this time free from the clutches of cancer, is pure catharsis.

“How do I find the words to say anything about you?” Reed asks during his acceptance speech.  “Your belief in me that I could get the job done anytime will resonate with me for the rest of my life.  Jim, you have endured a lot in your life, the loss of a son, and most recently your battle with cancer.  You’re an inspiration to all those you touch.  I’m honored to call you my teammate, my friend, and my family member, and now a fellow Hall of Famer.  I love you, man.”

“I love you too,” Kelly says, tearfully.

Four Super Bowl losses?

Wide right?

There are far more important things in life.

~  ~  ~

“The Pro football Hall of Fame is something that I never dreamt about,” Kelly says, reflecting on his own induction.  “I always looked up to guys like Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, and Merlin Olson.  These are guys that I put on a pedestal, and I never thought that I would turn out to be one of them.  For me, the day that I was inducted was one of the greatest moments in my life.  From the moment I learned that I had been selected, I prayed every single night that if it was God’s blessing, that Hunter would be there with me on the day that I was inducted.  My prayers were answered.  He was there for me, and it’s just one of the most awesome feelings that I’ve ever had.  He never ran out on the football field, or heard the cheers of 80,000 football fans, but I’ll tell you what – I know that he’s up there in heaven, and he’s hearing the cheers from thousands of thousands of families who have been impacted positively through the Hunter’s Hope Foundation.  He knows that their babies are getting a chance to dream like his daddy was able to dream as a little boy, because of what he went through and the difference that we are making through our foundation. I know I’m going to see him again one day, and when I do, I’m going to give him a hug and throw him a pass and do all of the things we couldn’t do while he was living here, on this earth.”

~  ~  ~

Regardless of what happens next, Jim Kelly is ready for the next chapter of his life to play out.  He’s asked daily about those Super Bowl defeats, something that he knows he’ll never be able to shake, a legacy that’s become his own personal scarlet letter.  Deep down it still hurts, but he knows there are far more important things to worry about.

Life is fragile.  The cancer could return tomorrow.

“Even though we went to those for super Bowls and lost, it was the resiliency that we had, the never-say-die attitude that we brought to the game each and every year,” he says.  “Yeah, we didn’t win, but I’ll tell you what, the more that time passes, and the more we are removed from those football games, the more love I have for what we went through as a team.  We kept fighting and we had fun winning, and even though we didn’t win at the end, we never gave up.  We came back the following year, worked harder than we ever have, and we kept doing it.  Unfortunately, it just wasn’t in our cards to win.  So what?  We were men.  We went out there and gave it our all, and we weren’t afraid to put it on the line with the whole world watching.  I’m just damned proud that I was a Buffalo Bill.”

Bill Rodgers – Street Cred

By:  Michael D. McClellan | We ran because he ran.

Bill Rodgers embarked on his iconic running career with neither the curious fanfare nor the quaint spontaneity of the cinematic character Forest Gump, but make no mistake, Rodgers’ cult of personality had the same gravitational pull, conjuring legions of road racers, unbidden, out of the invisible fabric of the universe.  We saw Rodgers win the Boston Marathon, or we read about his exploits in Sports Illustrated, and we got up off the couch and gave it try.  Just do it, he seemed to be saying to us subliminally, years before Nike built a billion-dollar marketing campaign around the catchphrase, and we did.

Rodgers showed us the way.  More than simply popularizing distance running, he helped to usher in an exotic collection of endurance sports; ultramarathons, triathlons, and even something called the World Marathon Challenge, which is – no misprint here – seven marathons on seven continents in seven days.  None of these existed in 1975, when Rodgers set the American record and won his first Boston Marathon with a time of 2:09:55.  Adult exercise ran the gamut from bowling to bicycling, but marathons?  The only ones doing that were the fringe athletes – an underground, counterculture movement whose sport didn’t stand a chance of catching on with the general public.  Kooks.  Rodgers came along and changed all of that.  He started running and he never stopped, forcing us to reconsider not only the limits of human endurance, but the way we looked at those who punished themselves for pleasure.  Before Bill Rodgers, who would have sought out distance running as part of a healthy lifestyle?  Who would have thought it remotely cool?  Certainly there were a few of us at the time, but Rodgers was the one who brought the marathon to the masses; he was Andy Warhol in running shoes, commercializing his sport while turning it into pop art, presenting us with something that we could all try.

That Rodgers could single-handedly lift the marathon’s Q Score is remarkable, given that the sport is the track and field equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield, overshadowed through the decades by the glamour events on the biggest stages – namely, the 100 meter and 200 meter dashes.  Whether it’s Jesse Owens humiliating Adolph Hitler on German soil, or Michael Johnson winning Olympic gold in front thousands of screaming American fans, the sprints are all we really care about.  The anticipation builds and builds, the gun fires, and we have our answer in a matter of seconds.  Who wants to wait hours for a runner to cross the finish line?

 

Jamaica's Usain Bolt reacts to his win in the men's 100-meter final during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics, London, Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 - something Bill Rodgers would never do. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

Jamaica’s Usain Bolt reacts to his win in the men’s 100-meter final during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics, London, Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 – something Bill Rodgers would never do. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

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Rag on them all you want, marathoners like Rodgers are the perfect counterpoints to sprinters like Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt, and the other genetic freaks who lord over track and field like heavyweight champions, Mike Tysons in cleats.  Everything about sprinters – the explosive starts, speeds approaching that of a hungry cheetah running down its prey – is the stuff of pure fantasy, gifts bestowed by the gods on a precious few.  We marvel at their acceleration, at their otherworldly physiques, and understand that we can never be them.  Bill Rodgers is different.  Where Bolt is a Pixar-generated superhero, right down to the post-race lightning bolt pose, Rodgers is everyman.  He’s the dude we can all relate to – the guy who goes to the mall and buys himself a pair of running shoes, stretches a couple of times in front of the living room TV, and then pushes open the screen door and starts logging miles.  Bolt is hounded by paparazzo wherever he goes.  Rodgers is lucky if anyone recognizes him at all.  What Bolt does on the track takes our breath.  What Rodgers does on the road takes what we all have – absolute mule headedness, and an almost sadistic desire to punish ourselves in the harshest weather.

Hell, Rodgers even eats pre-race pasta and then drinks beer after he’s done!

Frank Shorter may have been the trigger man in the 1970s running boom, his gold medal in the ’72 Munich Olympics setting off a fitness frenzy, but it was Rodgers driving the getaway car, taking the marathon to unprecedented heights and transforming it from carnival act in the eyes of many, to a legit recreational sport enjoyed by millions.  Shorter got our attention.  Rodgers got us involved.  While Shorter had by far the superior Olympic career, winning gold in Munich and then taking silver four years later in Montreal, Rodgers’ success in the premiere marathons – Boston and New York – stamped him in our collective psyche as the face of distance running.  Onetime rivals, the two men have formed a lifelong friendship that continues to this day.

“Frank Shorter was definitely a rival at the time, my main adversary,” Rodgers says, “but I didn’t dislike him.  I had no reason to.  It’s just a footrace, a sport, so you just have to tip your hat to the other guy if you happen to get beat.  You just run your best and then you move on.”

 

“Frank Shorter was definitely a rival at the time, my main adversary, but I didn’t dislike him.  I had no reason to.  It’s just a footrace, a sport, so you just have to tip your hat to the other guy if you happen to get beat.  You just run your best and then you move on.” – Bill Rodgers

 

The two men were different in many ways.  While Shorter carried himself with a regal air of an Olympic champion, always keeping us at arm’s length, Rodgers was the guy next door that loaned you the wrench to fix your toilet.  We admired Shorter but we loved Rodgers, the reluctant marathoner who came to the sport when his Triumph 650 motorcycle was stolen, forcing him to get around Boston on his own two feet.  Rodgers did things his way, an unpretentious superstar who was as equally accommodating with an autograph as he was with a photo op.  He smoked.  He hung out in bars.  During his heyday, Rodgers could often be found behind the counter at his now defunct Faneuil Hall running store.  After most every Boston Marathon, he would retire to his brother’s office in the back of the store, a passel of runners crammed into the small room with him, the group drinking expensive Scotch and telling stories and toasting the race just run.  How many celebrity athletes do that?

Rodgers was a household name with the amusing nickname – Boston Billy – and yet, as big as he became, he was never consumed with his own celebrity.  He was one of us, and that was good enough.  We could relate to his dorky side, the Bill-Gates-meets-Napoleon-Dynamite vibe that only added to his charm.  In fairness, part the dorkiness had to do with the era in which he ran; back then, runners dealt with shorts that chafed, T-shirts that hung wet and heavy, and long underwear that kept them warm during winter runs but looked like, well, underwear.  During the winter months he’d wear a toboggan that looked three sizes too big for his head.  In the spring he’d win the Boston Marathon and they would slip that god-awful wreath on his head, the look more goofy-geek than celebrated champion.  Idiosyncrasies that only further endeared him to us.

 

He was an Average Joe, just like us - and a 4-time winner in both the Boston and New York City marathons

He was an Average Joe, just like us – and a 4-time winner in both the Boston and New York City marathons

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“They didn’t have the good gear back in the ‘70s,” Rodgers says, protesting with a laugh.  “There was no Gore-Tex clothing, or any of the other materials they have today.  It was a different world back then.  That stuff hadn’t been invented yet.”

Yes, Rodgers did things his way, his influence rippling across time and going well beyond running’s borders.  Some might consider it a stretch to trace the lineage of today’s alternative sports back to Rodgers and the marathon, but it’s worth pumping the brakes and giving it a look see before totally dissing the notion.  What does someone like Shaun White have in common with Bill Rodgers?  What does landing something called the ‘frontside heelflip 540 body varial’ – a.k.a., The Armadillo – have to do with Rodgers racing Shorter on the Cape, circa 1976, sunlight drizzling through foliage twitching with the breeze?  And why does it even matter?  I’ll tell you why:  If Rodgers didn’t open the door through which the pioneers in other unconventional sports passed, he at least held it long enough for them to glimpse the future, snowboarders and base jumpers and extreme runners alike, weirdo athletes who are now not only considered mainstream, but who are celebrities in their own right.  Rodgers made the uncool cool.  He dared us to expand our pallets, to look at fringe sports the way we look at our go-to sports.

How did it happen?  How does someone so unassuming – so seemingly ordinary – rise up and change the world?  Born on December 23, 1947, Rodgers got a running start on the sport that would later come to define him, spending plenty of time outdoors and, like other kids of the day, staying plenty active in his neighborhood and at school.

 

BOOM! Frank Shorter wins Olympic gold in the 1972 Olympic Games, setting off a running frenzy.

BOOM! Frank Shorter wins Olympic gold in the 1972 Olympic Games, setting off a running frenzy.

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“I grew up in Newington, Connecticut,” Rodgers says, “which is just a few miles southwest of Hartford.  I became a runner partly as the result of a parks and recreation program in Newington.  We’d play games and such during the summers, which kept the kids very active, and we also used to run around the elementary school when we were younger.  It was a very ordinary childhood.  I liked hanging out with my friends.  We all rode our bikes.  We were in the Boy Scouts.  We hunted a little, we fished a little.  We would walk long distances to go to a nice fishing pond, things like that.  I think that that really helped me as a runner later on.

“I remember President Kennedy talking about physical fitness when I was a sophomore at Newington High School, which was back in 1963 and right around the same time that I ran the mile in my gym class. I was the fastest kid in the school, so when they started running cross country a few weeks later I joined the team, along with my brother, Charlie, and my best friend, Jason.

“We were coached by a fellow who went to Boston University, Frank O’Rourke, and we had a lot of fun.  A lot of people don’t realize that cross country is a team sport, but it’s actually one of America’s biggest team sports, high school and collegiate, with about half a million young people running.  So, that’s how I got my start.  Back then, we would run 1.2 miles.  Today, all of the high school runners run 5K.”

The image of Rodgers, the pellucid teenager, running aimlessly through the Connecticut woods, carries a certain nostalgia, like a Norman Rockwell painting of a bygone era.  As a boy, he chased butterflies with a homemade net in a field behind his house, mounting them on a board and studiously recording his collection in a notebook.  He could rattle off the kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species of his winged Lepidoptera as if he’d spent his entire childhood chilling with Charles Darwin.  It was quintessential Bill Rodgers; happy-go-lucky, a little on the nerdy side, and always on the move.

“When I was in high school, I liked music like all young people,” Rodgers says, mixing in some street cred to counter his inner-geek.  “It was the ‘60s, so I was a fan of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones.  I did all of the things kids my age did in those days, but it was running that kept me busy the most.  Our track was in a grass field – it’s almost kind of ridiculous, but that’s what we had back then.  Coach O’Rourke would put limestone down to mark the lanes for the track, which wasn’t even a regulation 400 meter track.  It was more like 300 meters, and odd distance, but we didn’t care.  We just had fun with our running.”

While Rodgers’ love of running was fact, his commitment to training, at least in the early days, was pure fiction.  In high school he made a decent effort, but there was no hint that he had what it took – the drive, the desire, the work ethic – to become an elite distance runner like Shorter or Alberto Salazar, another rival who trained with a maniacal focus even at a young age.  Rodgers ran, but he also made time to enjoy his social life at Newington High.

“O’Rourke’s program wasn’t designed to churn out college track and field stars or world class runners, it was a place where we could run and compete,” Rodgers says.  “It was challenging, but because we didn’t run too much, or work too hard, we didn’t have a lot of injuries.  I think that helped me later on, when I became much more serious about distance running.  I truly enjoyed it.  I think if you have fun with a sport, then I think you’re more apt to stick with it longer term.  And I believe that you’ve got to explore sports, because everyone has a sport that suits them – their personality and their body type.  I found running.  It suited me.  I tried other sports as a kid, like hockey and football, but I was 5’8” tall and 128 pounds.  Football and me had a little bit of a tough time.”

~  ~  ~

Amby Burfoot grew up in Groton, Connecticut, and played a pivotal role in driving the Bill Rodgers narrative.  Burfoot, it turns out, won the Boston Marathon in 1968 while a senior at Wesleyan University, where he and Rodgers were roommates.  The win was a significant achievement, but it occurred during the pre-Shorter, pre-Rodgers, pre-running-boom era, and at a time when the race itself was barely covered by the media.  Even Rodgers himself seemed to take the news in stride, complimentary of Burfoot’s accomplishment but hardly overwhelmed by what had just transpired.

 

The 1967 Wesleyan Cross Country Team - Bill Rodgers is second from the left, front row, dark glasses.

The 1967 Wesleyan Cross Country Team – Bill Rodgers is second from the left, front row, dark glasses.  Amby Burfoot is on the far right.

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“I met Amby at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut,” Rodgers says.  “It’s an old college, a wonderful college, and an institution that’s very challenging academically.  I think I majored in running while I was there [laughs].  That was definitely the case after I bumped into this fellow named Amby Burfoot.  Amby was a high school champion runner in Connecticut.  His dream was to win the Boston Marathon – which he did, in 1968.  It was definitely a big deal, but I don’t know that I fully appreciated his win at the time.  Ironically, the last American to win Boston before him was his high school cross country coach and English teacher, Johnny Kelly.  And interestingly enough, Johnny Kelly was a two-time Olympian.”

Rodgers and Burfoot were teammates on Wesleyan’s cross-country team.  The two men were polar opposites – Burfoot a neat freak who wanted everything neatly in its place, Rodgers the king of clutter – but their personalities clicked from the start.

“Amby was a great roommate and one of my best friends.  He was also a very unusual guy.  He would listen to music from the Broadway play Man of La Mancha – I’m sure you know the lyrics to that great song, The Impossible Dream.  How fitting a song for him, because he went out there and won the Boston Marathon.  All these years later, I still remember how excited Amby was to win it, and how happy I was for him.”

 

“Amby was a great roommate and one of my best friends.  He was also a very unusual guy.  He would listen to music from the Broadway play Man of La Mancha – I’m sure you know the lyrics to that great song, The Impossible Dream.  How fitting a song for him, because he went out there and won the Boston Marathon.  All these years later, I still remember how excited Amby was to win it, and how happy I was for him.” – Bill Rodgers

 

The two men were different in other ways.  At Wesleyan, Burfoot seemed to take his running much more seriously than Rodgers, who liked to hang out in the bars and discos on the weekends.  It wasn’t that Rodgers was a heavy partier – he barely drank alcohol – it was just that he had a hard time focusing on any one thing for very long and, well, college nightlife came with plenty of obvious distractions.  That he would grow bored quickly and move on to something else, leaving a trail of unresolved loose ends in his wake, was just another one of those qualities that endeared him to us later on; Bill being Bill, scatterbrained but well-intentioned, the average Joe we could all relate to in some way.

Another difference:  Burfoot’s Boston win was barely a blip on the radar, and hardly welcomed with the rock star applause that Rodgers received when he won in ’75.

“Boston has always been a big sports town,” Rodgers says.  “The Celtics were winning all of those titles in the ‘60s, and fans have always been crazy about the Red Sox.  The Boston Marathon just wasn’t as big back then as was when I won it a few years later, and nothing at all like it is today.  When I moved to Boston I watched a lot of hockey – I enjoyed watching the Bruins play, because I was really impressed with Bobby Orr.  I later met Bobby…he’s a terrific person, and what a terrific athlete.”

It’s hard to imagine Rodgers as a hockey nut, but then again why not?

“I think I enjoyed hockey so much because, when I was a kid in Newington, we used to play hockey out in the swamp.  We were always looking for any patch of open ice because we loved to skate.  For us, it was part of the whole outdoor lifestyle that we were living as young kids.  I’ll never forget those days.  That’s where I got hooked on walking and running in the fields.  We even hunted a little bit, but not for long – I became an ex-hunter after I shot a little rabbit.  That’s when I thought:  Now what?  I had no idea what I was going to do with it.

“I shot a duck one time, thinking that my grandmother would cook it for me.  But when I took it to her she could only say, ‘No, no, no!’  So my hunting career ended very abruptly, and I felt very bad about it – I didn’t like killing an animal for nothing.  So that was it for me.”

~  ~  ~

Wrap your head around this:  The winner of four Boston Marathons and four New York Marathons, and the man who set the American marathon record in the process – the very face of the running craze that swept across the country like an Oklahoma brushfire – Bill Rodgers exited college and entered the workforce as a chain-smoking ex-runner with zero interest in competing in marathons.  Come again?  The man who would ultimately grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, who would blow the roof off the running boom, hanging out in Boston bars and smoking two packs of Winstons a day?

“I quit running partway through my senior year at Wesleyan,” Rodgers says.  “I missed it almost as soon as I stepped away – I wasn’t part of the team anymore – but I didn’t look back.  I quit mainly because there was so much going on in Vietnam, and I didn’t support our government’s decision to get involved in the Vietnam War.  Overwhelmed by the possibility of going to Vietnam, I became a conscientious objector, and I went to work in a Boston hospital. I worked there for two years.”

 

“I quit running partway through my senior year at Wesleyan.  I missed it almost as soon as I stepped away – I wasn’t part of the team anymore – but I didn’t look back.  I quit mainly because there was so much going on in Vietnam, and I didn’t support our government’s decision to get involved in the Vietnam War.  Overwhelmed by the possibility of going to Vietnam, I became a conscientious objector, and I went to work in a Boston hospital. I worked there for two years.” – Bill Rodgers

 

It’s hard to imagine an elite athlete in his early twenties so far from the pinnacle of his sport, but here was Rodgers, out of shape and smoking, his sleep habits erratic, his food choices bordering on the absurd and loaded with fat – we’re talking pizza topped with mayonnaise…pizza topped with mayonnaise! – and yet, here he was, about to change the world as we know it.  The turning point, as it turns out, came when Rodgers exited a bar only to learn that his trusty Triumph – the most significant asset he owned – had been stolen.

 

Bill Rodgers loads up on one of his favorite dishes - pizza topped with mayonnaise

Bill Rodgers loads up on one of his favorite dishes – pizza topped with mayonnaise

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“When my motorcycle was stolen, I was devastated,” he says.  “It cost me $1,000, which I borrowed from my roommate.  It was my transportation to work, and it’s all I owned in the world.  Just like that, I had nothing left.”

Forced to start walking, Rodgers suddenly found himself reconnecting with the sport he’d spurned in college.

“I started running a little bit,” he says.  “I joined the Boston YMCA, which is how I got back into the sport.  It was a process.  First I ran on their indoor track and then started running outdoors, and before long that old feeling came back.  What helped drive me was I’d reached the bottom – I was broke, and I really didn’t have a lot of options.  As fate would have it, I lived close to the Boston Marathon finish line back then, so I made my way there for a couple of the races in the early ‘70s.  I had no idea how incredibly exciting the Boston Marathon was; Amby had won it, but there was no television coverage.  Seeing it firsthand motivated me.”

Rodgers joined the Greater Boston Track Club, kicked his smoking habit, and started running over 100 miles per week.

“I became much more serious about running than I had been in college,” Rodgers says.  “I experienced a little bit of success in racing in New England.  I ran a 30k race in February, 1973, and I came in third place behind Amby Burfoot, who won.  I qualified for the Boston Marathon with my time from that race.”

That race was the Silver Lake Dodge 30K Road Race, in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.  Rodgers showed up at the starting line that day in tattered khakis and a rag of a shirt, looking more like a homeless person than a distance runner on the cusp, an eccentricity that even caught Burfoot by surprise.  An hour and forty-three seconds later, Rodgers had qualified for Boston.  In street clothes.

Bro.

Are you serious?

“Amby ran a great race that day,” Rodgers says.  “I stayed with him for a while, but I faded a little at the end.  Still, I was pleased with the way I ran.”

The Boston Marathon beckoned.  Unfortunately for him, it didn’t go the way he’d envisioned it going in his mind.

“I tried my first Boston Marathon almost on a whim, which isn’t unusual because everyone in the Boston area tries it at least once.  It was hot and humid on race day.  I don’t know if I didn’t drink enough, but I had tremendous cramps.  My first Boston Marathon was a complete failure, because I didn’t even finish – I dropped out at the top of Heartbreak Hill.  I remember making it 21 miles, and then I could see where I lived, so I gave up and walked home.”

 

“I tried my first Boston Marathon almost on a whim, which isn’t unusual because everyone in the Boston area tries it at least once.  It was hot and humid on race day.  I don’t know if I didn’t drink enough, but I had tremendous cramps.  My first Boston Marathon was a complete failure, because I didn’t even finish – I dropped out at the top of Heartbreak Hill.  I remember making it 21 miles, and then I could see where I lived, so I gave up and walked home.” – Bill Rodgers

 

Despite wilting in the humid conditions, there was something different about this new, improved Bill Rodgers.  He was still the same happy guy, but he was now much more focused.

“I quit running for two months following that first Boston Marathon, but then I eventually started back again.  The big difference this time around was me joining the Greater Boston Track Club.  Everything in this sport is about your teammates – if you have teammates who believe in you, and who think you can do it, then pretty soon you are doing it.  So that really helped me focus and improve.  The club was coached by coach Billy Squires, who, I think, is still America’s greatest marathon coach ever.  There were a lot of top runners on the team, terrific runners like Alberto Salazar, Greg Meyer, Randy Thomas, and Buddy Hodge, and we all pushed each other and encouraged each other.  We were all former collegians who were used to being on a team, and that was the key.  You can go it on your own, but you get more from running and you’re more liable to stay involved if you feel you are part of a team.”

A year later, Rodgers finished the 1974 Boston Marathon in fourteenth place, with a time of 2:19:34.  He was laser focused, with body and mind fully equipped to deal with pushing himself the full 26 miles, 385 yards.

“I believe it’s good to let your body adjust to different distances gradually, because the body will always respond positively to stress, as long as the stress isn’t too much.  Runners know this today, because of all of the science.  Coaches know it, too.  But that wasn’t always the case – the marathon is a very old event, going back to the 1896 Olympic Games, in Athens, Greece.  It has become a very popular event over the last 30 years or so, ever since Frank Shorter won Olympic gold in Munich, Germany.  That’s when the running boom began.  Americans became more active, and a larger number of people started running marathons.  The science quickly caught up with the sport, in everything from nutrition to supplements to training techniques like the Galloway Method, named after Jeff Galloway.  The Galloway Method is a proven approach to build up for all races, no matter what the distance, but it is especially helpful in preparing for a marathon.”

They say the third time’s the charm, and for Bill Rodgers the old adage proved prophetic.  In the best shape of his life, mentally focused, and with a phenomenal showing in the World Cross-Country Championships under his belt, Rodgers entered the 1975 Boston Marathon eager to prove his worth as an elite marathoner.

 

Bill Rodgers crosses the finish line first in the 1975 Boston Marathon, the first of four such races he would win.

Bill Rodgers crosses the finish line first in the 1975 Boston Marathon, the first of four such races he would win.

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“I was much more confident,” he says.  “It was a process that I had to go through.  I dropped out due to the heat in 1973, and the next year I finished in fourteenth place.  I ran in fourth place for about 20 miles that year, so I was competitive and had a shot at winning.  Until then, I didn’t think the marathon was a good event for me, but I learned about staying hydrated while racing and how to maintain the proper pacing.  In 1975, I knew I was fit after my third place in the World Cross-Country Championships, which was two months earlier.  I just didn’t know how that would translate when I ran the Boston Marathon.

“It was a beautiful day, around 45 degrees, with a nice tailwind.  Early on I was running with Canada’s Jerome Drayton, a good runner who later that year set the Canadian record at Fukuoka, Japan.  We got into a duel and I heard someone yell, ‘Go Canada!’ I thought, ‘Wait a minute – this is my town.’  Around eight miles I pulled away, and I ran on my own the rest of the way.”

And just like that, Bill Rodgers joined his pal Amby Burfoot in an exclusive club:  Boston Marathon champion.

“Winning on my third try was special,” he says.  “My brother Charlie was there, Amby was there, my old high school friends and teammates were there, Billy Squires…they really motivated me.”

 

“Winning on my third try was special.  My brother Charlie was there, Amby was there, my old high school friends and teammates were there, Billy Squires…they really motivated me.” – Bill Rodgers

 

Rodgers set the American marathon record in Boston that year, with a 2:09:55 time, and then finished third in the Fukuoka Marathon, with a time of 2:11:26.  Track & Field News ranked Rodgers as the #1 marathoner in the world, and he was also a finalist for the prestigious James E Sullivan Award, given to the top amateur athlete in the United States.  Rodgers, it seemed, had materialized from nowhere to become the face of a running explosion.

“It was just so much fun,” he says, “because it was the running boom, and you feel like you’re doing something to change the world.  There just weren’t that many Americans running marathons in 1975 in 1976, about 30,000, total.  Today, a half million people run in a marathon every year.  There was a feeling of euphoria in 1975, a feeling that something was happening.  It was like that Bob Dylan song, Ballad of a Thin Man – you know the lyrics:  Because something is happening here.  But you don’t know what it is.  Do you, Mister Jones?  Well, we knew what it was.  It was the kind of freedom that this sport gives you, and it was all about a new way to look at health and fitness.

“It opened a lot of doors for me – after I won Boston, I was able to represent the United States in the way that I had hoped to really do it.  I was able to travel around the world as an athlete, and also as an unofficial representative of our country.  I ended up winning a significant marathon on five different continents.  Only a few of us have done that – Frank Shorter and Ron Tabb of Oregon come to mind.”

~  ~  ~

By the time the 1976 Olympics rolled around, Bill Rodgers was a household name.  He’d won Boston, and the public was fascinated with his story.  He ran strong in the Olympic Trials, finishing second with a time of 2:11:58, and he went to Montreal as a favorite to win the gold medal.  Never mind that rival Frank Short would be there as well.  Rodgers was the hottest marathoner on the planet, and many expected him to prove it on a world stage.

 

Frank Shorter, Finland's Lasse Viren, and Bill Rodgers in the 1976 Montreal Olympic Marathon. Shorter would win silver; Rodgers would finish a disappointing 40th.

Frank Shorter (39), Finland’s Lasse Viren (23), and Bill Rodgers (1) in the 1976 Montreal Olympic Marathon. Shorter would win silver; Rodgers would finish a disappointing 40th.

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“It was an honor to represent the United States in an Olympic sport,” he says.  “That meant a lot to me. I think it’s an important way to break down barriers, because the Olympic Games is about community.  It doesn’t matter where you come from, your race, your religion, your financial situation, or anything else.  This is an event where everybody gets along.  Politics don’t exist.  It’s about coming together, putting differences aside for two weeks, and competing against the best in the world.”

Unfortunately for Bill Rodgers, the ’76 Olympics didn’t go according to script.  There had been talk of a gold-silver finish for Rodgers and Shorter, a storyline which might have topped Shorter’s winning run four years earlier in Munich.  Shorter held up his end of the bargain, winning silver.  Rodgers?  He flamed out, finishing 40th.  It was a bitter end to his Olympic dream, but, in true Rodgers fashion, the good times are what he remembers most.

“It was incredible,” he says quickly.  “Today we have the IAAF World Championships, which includes track and field.  It’s actually the third largest sporting event in the world, after the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games, but it wasn’t around back when I was competing in the marathon.  All we had were the Olympics, which happens once every four years, and all of that preparation came down to one race on one day.

“Going in, I knew I could race with Frank.  He only beat me by seven seconds in the Olympic Trials, so I was very confident I could make that up, but I fell apart.  It was extremely disappointing.  Still, it was very special just to be there, at the Olympic Stadium, with my teammates and all of those other great athletes from around the world.  It was something that I’ll never forget.”

The opening ceremonies were held at Stade Olympique – also known as Olympic Stadium, or more fondly as ‘The Big O’, with 73,000 in attendance and a half billion watching on television.  It was unlike anything Rodgers had ever experienced.

“I was awestruck in many ways,” he says.  “You’ve got all kinds of different people together to celebrate the opening of the Games – I remember seeing a seven-foot Russian woman basketball player walking beside a gymnast who wasn’t even five-feet tall.  The event itself was beautiful, exciting, and so full of possibility, but then the whole Olympic experience was like that.  Barriers fell; you might be talking to someone who doesn’t know your language very well, and yet they want to trade you for your American T-shirt or your American pins.  There was this incredible camaraderie.  I got to meet some very interesting people.  One of my roommates was Ed Mendoza – he was from Phoenix, and ran in the 10K – and another was a marathon race walker named Ron Laird, who had competed in four Olympic Games.  Both men are now in the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame.

“I met the Olympic gold medalist in the discus – Mac Wilkins – right after he’d won the gold medal.  I got to know some of the other elite athletes from around the world, like marathoner Jeff Foster from New Zealand. I met Lasse Virén from Finland, one of the greatest distance runners of all time, which was a huge thrill.  He was the only man to win gold medals in the 5K and 10K in consecutive Olympics.  In Montreal, he ran in the marathon and took fifth place there – eighteen hours after finishing his gold medal run in the 5K.  How special is that?  He was following in the footsteps of the Flying Finn – Paavo Nurmi, way back in the 1920s.  Finland has always had great track and field athletes.”

Rodgers pauses to reflect on the race itself.

“It was so frustrating then, when I fell apart,” he says at last.  “I finished the race, but it was tricky.  I had terrible cramps through my hamstrings and calves; I had to walk some, and I had to struggle in to the finish, but that’s what can happen in a marathon sometimes.  Sometimes I have to remind myself of how special it was just to be there, because once you’ve made an Olympic team you are an Olympian forever.  Americans love the Olympic Games because it represents excellence and it represents patriotism.  There were some people who didn’t think that I was patriotic because of my stance against the Vietnam War, but I am intensely that way, intensely patriotic.  Running in the Olympics gave me a chance to express that.”

~  ~  ~

Rodgers was eager to put the disappointment in Montreal behind him.  He also wanted to cement his reputation as one of the greatest marathoners of the day.  Both of these goals would be achieved a few short months later in New York City, where race officials were looking to close the gap on the historic Boston Marathon, and enticing headline runners like Rodgers and Shorter to join the field was a key piece of the strategy.

 

Bill Rodgers wins the first five-borough New York City Marathon

Bill Rodgers wins the first five-borough New York City Marathon

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“Three weeks after Montreal I was at the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod,” Rodgers says.  “So was Frank Shorter.  Fred Lebow, the race director for the New York City Marathon, met with us there and pitched the concept of us running in the ‘new’ York City Marathon – a race that would take place in the five boroughs of New York City.  Until then, the race had been run exclusively in Central Park.  We both agreed to run, which helped Fred promote the event to a wider audience.  In Frank and I, he had two of the top marathoners – one of them an Olympic multi-medalist – and he could also promote our rivalry.  It really helped to generate interest in the race.  For me, the thought of running in New York was music to my ears because it gave me a chance to have my own Olympic race all over again.  Frank had taken silver and Don Cardon finished fourth in Montreal, so that was a great success for our team, but I was very disappointed in myself because I didn’t do so well.  Here was a chance to do better.

“The weather was cool with low humidity – the kind of day that every marathon runner wants.  It was pure fun as we got to run over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the Queensboro Bridge.  I pulled away from Frank around the fourteen mile mark – I like making my move just past the halfway point of marathons, unlike the great Japanese runner Toshiheko Seko, who liked to wait and wait before nailing everyone at the end with a kick.  To win was so exciting.  I ran a strong race and thought I had a chance to break my American marathon record, but I didn’t know the course so I ended up missing the record by fourteen seconds.  To win it was incredible.  It was a great course, and the people of New York came out and they really supported us, you could sense that they really knew what we were doing.  They were really pushing us, and I was going for it.  It felt great to win after performing so poorly in Montreal.”

Thanks in large part to Rodgers and Shorter, the New York City Marathon has become arguably the premiere marathon in the world.

“It was so cool to run through the streets of New York,” he says.  “There were only 2,000 of us back in 1976, but today there are 50,000 people running the New York City Marathon.  I like to think that I played a small part in that growth.  Fred Lebow, and later Mary Wittenberg and George Hirsch from the New York Road Runners, they really built that race step-by-step, block by block, and now it’s one of the great marathons in the world.”

 

“It was so cool to run through the streets of New York. There were only 2,000 of us back in 1976, but today there are 50,000 people running the New York City Marathon.  I like to think that I played a small part in that growth.  Fred Lebow, and later Mary Wittenberg and George Hirsch from the New York Road Runners, they really built that race step-by-step, block by block, and now it’s one of the great marathons in the world.” – Bill Rodgers

 

In 1977, Rodgers won the prestigious Fukuoka Marathon, making him the only runner ever to hold the championship of all three major marathons at the same time.  He was again ranked as the top marathoner in the world by Track & Field News.  He trained hard, at times running as much as 122 miles per week, mixing in interval training, an indoor race here and there, and numerous 20+ mile runs.  But the mega-mileage backfired, as Rodgers went into the ’77 Boston Marathon on tired legs and recorded a disappointing DNF.  He made the necessary adjustments over the summer, recovering in time to test himself in a grueling double; defending his title in New York in early November, and then going after that Fukuoka title four short weeks later.

“As defending champion, I wanted to go back to New York,” Rodgers says.  “I was treated great, I enjoyed the course, and being the defending champ meant a lot to me.  My race strategy was pretty straightforward.  By the time Garry Bjorkland and I came off of the Queensboro Bridge, the two of us had blown the race open – it was just us.  I was trying to defend my title and Garry was going for the win.  We forced the pace going down First Avenue.  I pulled away and Garry faded badly, eventually getting passed by Jerome Drayton of Canada, who ended up second.  I ran alone and won by the race by just over two minutes.  Winning Fukuoka was icing on the cake, but running two marathons in the span of a month was very difficult.  Today, there is more thought put into how races are scheduled.”

Although Rodgers had become a star, he hadn’t become rich off his celebrity.  While today’s New York Marathon winner gets a six-figure check, things were still quite different when Rodgers was in his prime.  Prize money and corporate sponsorship were still in their infancy.

“It was a different world back then,” he says with a laugh.  “The best races would have a television, or maybe a bike as a prize.  I remember winning a 10-speed bike at a race.  Once I won a jar of honey.  Another time I won a rocking chair.  And on another occasion I won a table.  We would always look at the available merchandise before the race, as the winner got his pick.  We were doing the same things as runners like Clarence Demar and Johnny Kelley back in the day, because when it came to prizes and prize money, our sport hadn’t changed in all of those years.

“It was a financial struggle at times.  There was no money in our sport – we had amateur status, which meant we couldn’t win prize money.  It was frustrating, because we were working so hard and the sport itself was rising in popularity because of the work that we were putting in.”

 

“It was a financial struggle at times.  There was no money in our sport – we had amateur status, which meant we couldn’t win prize money.  It was frustrating, because we were working so hard and the sport itself was rising in popularity because of the work that we were putting in.” – Bill Rodgers

 

Rodgers pauses, the dark cloud that had formed in his head passing almost as quickly as it had come.

“I have a funny story about the New York Marathon,” he says quickly.  “One time I took all of the back roads when I drove down from Boston, in order to save money and avoid paying tolls.  Well, I guess I parked in the wrong place, and after I won I learned that my car was gone and had been towed.  I didn’t have any money to get it back, so Fred Lebow had to ‘pass the hat’ to get my car out of the towing company’s lot!”

~  ~  ~

While Rodgers’ competitors knew his talent and fans clamored to rub elbows with him, Rodgers himself seemed oblivious to all the fuss.  It was as if there were two Bills – the ruthless, focused Bill between the start and finish lines, and the friendly, laid-back Bill who posed for pictures and loved talking to complete strangers.  The former Bill had ascended to the top of a grueling sport; the latter Bill won us over, coaxing us to following him like a distance-running Pied Piper.

Stories about Rodgers were almost mythic – he won the 1975 Boston Marathon in a shirt he found in a dumpster, while drinking water from a shampoo bottle – and we couldn’t get enough.  He was also the most dominant marathoner in the world, a runner at the height of his powers who would win a mind-boggling 27 of 30 races he entered in 1978.  Rodgers uses another sporting analogy to describe this period in his life.

“I felt like I was a surfer riding waves,” he says, smiling.  In that moment, it’s easy to imagine laid-back Bill hanging out on a California beach, sand between his toes, his hair bleached by the sun.  “I had a consistency and a strength that gave me confidence to get on the next wave and ride it to the finish line.  Frank Shorter and I talked about it recently, and his dominance felt the same way to him.  So it worked for a while for both of us.  When you get up on the wave you just keep doing the things that got you there, and you do your best to try to stay on top of it.”

When he toed the starting line in the spring of ’78, Rodgers dominance felt less like a surfer riding a wave and more like a cross between Mike Tyson and Michael Phelps, the Boston Marathon outcome all but determined.  He would finish with a time of 2:10:13, winning the race for the second time.

“That year I had a lead but Jeff Wells almost caught me at the end,” Rodgers recalls.  “Jeff and I had competed for the United States at the World Cross Country Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, and he beat me there.  I hadn’t done a lot of anaerobic work, but I had plenty of endurance and I knew the Boston course better than Jeff.  I think I may have underestimated Jeff, and not because he wasn’t a great runner, but because Frank Shorter was in the field and running his first Boston Marathon.  Frank and I ran neck and neck for a while, but I was eventually able to separate.  At the 16-mile mark, there was a group of us who usually made a move to thin out the pack – Esa Tikkanen from Finland, Jack Fultz, Randy Thomas, and myself.  We made our move on the long downhill after Wellesley, which was around 15 to 16 miles.  We were all running well that day, but Jeff stayed with us.  Jeff made a tremendous move in the last couple miles, and if there were another 50 yards in the race I think he would have caught me.  It was very nerve-wracking over that last half mile.  Running toward the finish I kept turning around and Jeff was gaining like a train – good thing it wasn’t 26.3 miles!”

 

Bill Rodgers Wins a 4th New York Marathon in a Row October 29, 1979 X 23815 credit: Heinz Kluetmeier - staff

Bill Rodgers Wins a 4th New York Marathon in a Row
October 29, 1979
X 23815
credit: Heinz Kluetmeier – staff

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On October 29, 1979, Rodgers won the New York City Marathon for a fourth time.  It was his seventh marathon win in a row, a run of dominance that landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

“It was great fun,” Rodgers says of the SI cover.  “I won New York the day before, and I’m walking through the airport on my way home and there it was, in the magazine rack.  I had to do a double take – there I was, on the cover of Sports Illustrated!  I couldn’t believe it.

 

“It was great fun.  I won New York the day before, and I’m walking through the airport on my way home and there it was, in the magazine rack.  I had to do a double take – there I was, on the cover of Sports Illustrated!  I couldn’t believe it.” – Bill Rodgers

 

“I still like going to New York and watching the runners come in.  I was there last year, and I hope to return this year.  You make so many friends in this sport which, in my opinion, is the most powerful thing about running.  There’s an excitement that comes with competing in racing, which is why we’re there, but you also develop this amazing friendships.  And if you have a rival like Frank Shorter, you shake hands at the end of the race and the friendship remains long after the rivalry ends.”

If you believe in such things, Rodgers would fall victim to the famed Sports Illustrated cover jinx, finishing sixth in the Fukuoka Marathon a month later.  Regardless, he closed out the decade as arguably the greatest marathon runner of his generation.  By then, a new generation of challengers had begun to emerge.

“Japan’s Toshiheko Seko came to Boston in ’79 and was one of the favorites to win,” Rodgers says.  “He had beaten me the previous December at Fukuoka, which is Japan’s greatest marathon with 60 years of history, but I was coming off a bout of the flu in Fukuoka and wasn’t at my best.  Coming into Boston I was much stronger; I’d set a world record in the 25K on a track in February of that year.  I felt good going into Boston.  Garry Bjorkland and Tom Fleming were ahead of me through the early part of the race, which goes through Framingham, Natick and Wellesley.  I was so focused on Bjorkland and Fleming that I forgot about Seko, who ended up beside me as we went up the first hill.  We passed Bjorkland, who said, ‘Bill, go for 2:08.’  I got away from Seko again because he didn’t know the course.  Going up Heartbreak Hill I pulled away – I don’t think he was prepared for the hills.  I broke the course record and American record in 2:09:27.”

 

Bill Rodgers

Bill Rodgers, alone at the top.

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Winning New York later that year would be no easy task, as the three-time defending champ found himself having to come from behind to win.

“The gun seemed to go off early and I got behind a lot of people,” he recalls.  “Kirk Pfeffer was a 2:10 guy and took off fast.  I had a bad start in traffic, and had to pass people to maneuver my way back to the front of the pack.  It took me a while to catch the runners in front of me.  Kirk maintained his lead until I finally caught him in Central Park, at around the 23-mile mark.  I could see him up ahead of me for quite a while – it nerve-wracking because he was such a fast marathon runner, but I loved the Central Park hills.  Even though I didn’t use my usual strategy of making a move coming off the Queensboro Bridge, it was gratifying to win in a different way.  Thankfully I had conserved enough energy to make that final push at the end.  I was running strong by the time we entered Central Park.”

~  ~  ~

Rodgers’ dream of an Olympic mulligan was dashed with the US decision to skip the 1980 Games in Moscow.  He was fresh off a Boston Marathon three-peat, and still the a force to be reckoned with.  The win in Boston was his fourth overall, equaling his title haul in New York.

“Physically I was in pretty good shape, though not quite as good as in 1979,” Rodgers says.  “I was getting ready for the Olympic Trials marathon, but due to the U.S. Olympic boycott I entered Boston at the last minute.  Kirk Pfeffer stayed with me through Wellesley, but at the halfway point I kicked it into a different gear and I was on my own, just like in my first Boston victory.  I think a big key was that I’d trained in Florida and had done a lot of warm weather training.  It really worked out well in Boston, because the temperatures got up around 75 or 80 degrees, so I think I was better prepared for the conditions.  That was the year that Jacqueline Gareau wasn’t recognized as women’s winner until a week later, due to an imposter who cheated.”

The imposter was Rosie Ruiz, who, it turns out, didn’t run the entire Boston Marathon course.  Celebrated at first, Ruiz’s story began to unravel almost as soon as she crossed the finish line.  Rodgers noticed that Ruiz could not recall many things that most runners know by heart, such as intervals and splits.  Others noticed that Ruiz was not winded or coated in sweat.  Still others remarked that her thighs were much flabbier and fatter than would be expected for a world-class runner.  Perhaps most damning of all, no one could recall seeing her on the course.  With pressure mounting, Ruiz later released stress-test results showing her resting heart rate as 76; most female marathoners have a resting heart rate in the 50s or lower.  She was stripped of her title eight days later, and Gareau was declared the winner.

“It was a black eye for our sport,” Rodgers says, his tone growing more serious.  “There’s no place for cheating, whether that’s someone using performance enhancing drugs or someone defrauding the integrity of the sport by lying.”

 

“It was a black eye for our sport. There’s no place for cheating, whether that’s someone using performance enhancing drugs or someone defrauding the integrity of the sport by lying.” – Bill Rodgers

 

The 1980 Olympics represented Rodgers’ best and last chance at Olympic gold, but Cold War politics wouldn’t allow the dream to become reality.  It’s something Rodgers has long since accepted, but part of him still wishes there had been no boycott.

“I ran so terribly in Montreal, finishing fortieth out of 65 runners,” he says.  “I think I would’ve done much better in Moscow – it would be hard to do worse [laughs].  We’ll never know.  I understood why the boycott was held, which was President Carter’s condemnation of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.  It was based on very complicated and tricky stuff.  The Soviets wanted certain individuals in power, and the US wanted the Soviets to end the occupation.  In the end, I don’t think boycotts work.  In 1984, the Los Angeles Olympic Games were boycotted by many Eastern Bloc countries and allies – it was basically the Soviet Union’s response to our boycott in 1980.  In 1976, the African nations boycotted Montreal.  The only ones it hurts, I think, are the athletes who are denied the opportunity to participate and realize the dream of competing for their countries.  In the end, I think it’s better to resolve differences in different ways, because the Olympics is such a great place for young people to express themselves.  For me, running a marathon in Moscow would have been a unique experience.  I competed in the US Olympic Trials in 1984, and I came in eighth.  Not winning a medal for my country is the biggest disappointment of my running career.”

Rodgers pauses, and then the fan in him takes over.

“If you ever have the chance to go to the Olympic Games, anywhere in the world, I would highly recommend it.  I was in Los Angeles and saw Joan Benoit Samuelson take her gold, and when I saw her come through that Stadium – wow – it knocks you back, it’s just incredible.  And then there’s the 100,000 people who stood up and cheered.  It was so powerful.  I wish I had been able to experience that.”

Rodgers string of New York City Marathon wins came to an end in 1980, when Alberto Salazar set a course record with a time of 2:09:41.  Rodgers finished a respectable fifth, but the young Salazar signaled a changing of the guard at the top of the pecking order.  Rodgers was very familiar with his new, younger rival.

“Alberto Salazar was ten years younger than me,” Rodgers says.  “He was born in Cuba, and he came to the United States when he was just a young kid, after his dad had a falling out with Mr. Castro.  Alberto still has strong feelings about that.  He’s a super, super nice guy.  I think he’s our country’s best marathon coaches, perhaps our best distance running coach.  He’s done so much for the US, and he still coaches for the Nike team.

“When I first met Alberto, he was just seventeen.  He joined the Greater Boston Track Club, courtesy of a mutual friend.  His nickname was ‘Rookie’ because he was just a kid.  He was actually one of the best high school runners in the country, so he was recruited heavily and ended up going to school at the University of Oregon.  Every year he’d come back home to see his family, and every year we’d see each other at the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod.  Falmouth is one of our country’s great road races, and historically the top runners would meet in the summer and race –Frank Shorter, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Greta Weiss, Shalane Flanagan, Ben True, all of the big names have been there over the years.  And then, along comes young Alberto.”

 

Alberto Salazar collapses after winning the '82 Boston Marathon against Dick Beardsley. It would later become known as 'The Duel in the Sun'.

Alberto Salazar collapses after winning the ’82 Boston Marathon against Dick Beardsley. It would later become known as ‘The Duel in the Sun’.

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Salazar’s pain tolerance was legendary; in 1982, he won his first and only Boston Marathon after his famous ‘Duel in the Sun’ with Dick Beardsley.  Salazar outsprinted Beardsley and collapsed, completely spent.  He was then rushed to a hospital emergency room, where he was given six liters of water intravenously.  Amazingly – or horrifyingly, depending on how you look at it – Salazar did not drink anything during the race.

“I believe that ’82 race was one of the best Boston Marathons ever run,” he says, “because both of them ran 2:08 in that heat.  I thought before the race that Alberto would win easily – I wasn’t in the kind of shape to keep up with him, and I didn’t think anyone else in the field could, either.  In 1981, I had beaten Dick Beardsley in Houston, and then again in Stockholm.  He had run a 2:09 at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, but no one would have picked Dick Beardsley to challenge mighty Alberto in the 1982 Boston Marathon.  The book Duel in the Sun recaps that race beautifully.”

Surprised by the way the race played out, Rodgers was hardly surprised by Salazar’s reckless abandon.

“I would see Alberto at Falmouth there every summer, and every summer he would push me more and more,” Rodgers says.  “I won Falmouth three times, but one year we were locked in a brutal dual in the heat.  He finally fell back, and I later learned that he finished the race and then collapsed.  They had to put him in a tub of ice water.  His body had overheated so much that it was starting to shut down – he’s Catholic, and it was so bad that they gave him his last rights.  I remember Alberto finally pulling out of it and telling his dad that no one was willing to push themselves as hard as he was.  That actually turned out to be his greatest strength and also his greatest weakness.  Alberto had a wonderful career, but it could have been even longer if he hadn’t pushed himself so hard.  He was a terrific athlete, and a great teammate.  We’re still friends to this day.”

As the ‘80s unfurled, there were plenty of changes afoot in the world of marathon running.  The next generation of runners were eating better, training better, and dropping times at a rapid clip. All of this coincided with something that had long been missing from the sport:  Prize money.

“After the Olympic boycott in 1980, we as a running community really had nothing left,” Rodgers says.  “So, in 1981, we formed an association of road racing athletes with the support of Nike, who put up the first prize money.  It was a game changer – he had the first road race event with prize money in America in about 80 years.  The event was in Portland, Oregon.  Greg Meyer of the United States, the 1983 Boston Marathon champion, won that race.

 

“After the Olympic boycott in 1980, we as a running community really had nothing left.  So, in 1981, we formed an association of road racing athletes with the support of Nike, who put up the first prize money.  It was a game changer – he had the first road race event with prize money in America in about 80 years.  The event was in Portland, Oregon.  Greg Meyer of the United States, the 1983 Boston Marathon champion, won that race.” – Bill Rodgers

 

“It was a big gamble, because we were going against not only our federation’s leadership, but the Olympic leadership.  In the end, everyone agreed that it was time for change.  The leaders realized that we could build the sport by having more money come into it, and not only in the marathons, but in all Olympic sports.  With more money came more exposure and more visibility, and more media coverage, and with it more popularity.  But for a while there was a lot of criticism – people, particularly in Boston, did not want to change.  The longtime organizers of the Boston Marathon didn’t want to give prize money.  The problem was, the other big races, like the London Marathon, were giving away prize money.  Even the Pittsburgh Marathon was giving away prize money.  So Boston, after several years, finally did change, and John Hancock, the big Boston insurer and financial services company, stepped forward and put up the first purse at the Boston Marathon.”

Rodgers’ last real shot at Boston glory was in 1986, where he finished fourth to Australia’s Robert de Castella.  Within a few short years the floodgates would open and wave of runners from Kenya and Ethiopia would begin to dominate.

“That was the year the Boston Marathon awarded prize money for the first time, so many more of the top marathon runners from around the world came, including the eventual winner, Rob de Castella. Everyone knew about the ‘Man from Down Under.’  In 1981 he had run 2:08:18 at Fukuoka and had won the Commonwealth Games Marathon by beating Juma Ikangaa.  Juma was from Tanzania and a crowd favorite in Boston, partly because he finished second three years in a row during the late ‘80s.

“Rob de Castella was an iconic figure in the sport, like Alberto Salazar, and he was trying to become the best in the world.  He proved he was the best in Boston that year by running away from the field and setting a new course record.  I was very happy to finish fourth, and very proud of my effort.  I was 37 years old, almost 38, and it was becoming harder to stay with the new wave of runners.  After so many years of top racing your mind begins to have trouble with training and racing hard.  It’s something that all runners go through at some point.”

 

“Rob de Castella was an iconic figure in the sport, like Alberto Salazar, and he was trying to become the best in the world.  He proved he was the best in Boston that year by running away from the field and setting a new course record.  I was very happy to finish fourth, and very proud of my effort.  I was 37 years old, almost 38, and it was becoming harder to stay with the new wave of runners.  After so many years of top racing your mind begins to have trouble with training and racing hard.  It’s something that all runners go through at some point.” – Bill Rodgers

 

Rodgers is still in love with the Boston Marathon.  In 1976, Asics paid him $3,000 to wear their shoes, a small fortune to a man who once lost everything when his motorcycle was stolen.  Gradually, he was able to start earning money from his life on the road.  He opened a running store in 1977, started a clothing line, and in a small way, cashed in his celebrity as a runner.  Without question, prize money changed the sport, and while he wasn’t able to fully benefit from it in his prime, he’s happy that Boston has kept pace.

“Dave McGillivray, the race director of the Boston Athletic Association, has transformed the Boston Marathon into such a strong event.  Now, when you go to the start line, there’s medical care as well as medical care along the course, in case you get blisters or you overheat or get injured.  You can get a ride to the finish line if you’re injured.  You have portable toilets at the start line and all along the course.  The crowds are bigger than ever, the media coverage is better than ever, it’s even more of an international field that when I ran.  They’ve managed to keep all of the traditions, but they’ve also helped guide the race into the twenty-first century.”

~ ~ ~

Fame is fleeting, and Rodgers appreciates this certainty perhaps as much as anyone.  He understands that his time as the world’s most dominant marathoner has long since passed, and he remains appreciative of those who still remember him at the height of his powers.  And he’s learned that he can still have fun running at an advanced age.

“When people come up to me and want me to sign an autograph, I’m always happy to oblige.  When I go to marathons around the world people still recognize me and have nice things to say.  It’s different for marathoners, because we’re not as well-known as athletes in other sports.  The same is true of most Olympic athletes – for every Michael Phelps there are a hundred who compete once on the world stage and then disappear.  It’s not like baseball or football or basketball, or other sports that are widely shown on television.  You can’t get cocky in this sport.  You have to appreciate the fans who recognize you.

“In my late 30s, when I started to slip from being a top marathoner, that stung.  But on the other hand, as I’ve gotten slower, I’ve learned to accept it.  It’s a whole new perspective. You have to re-calibrate your goals, but it’s not the end of the world.  It’s actually a chance to create a whole new set of goals.

 

On the run - Rodgers may run slower these days, but he's always on the go.

On the run – Rodgers may run slower these days, but he’s always on the go.

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“It’s always important, but even more when you’re aging, to have the support of your running group. We need our training partners, because we’ve all got ailments and there’s less tread on the tires.  I remember this one guy running in a race beside me who said, ‘I just had a hip replacement.’  Wow.  There are these life things that happen to older runners that wouldn’t happen to younger runners.  It’s the reality of aging, and it’s fascinating how people overcome that.”

Like a passionate affair that has cooled with the passage of time, Rodgers and running make the perfect married couple; while the emotion may not burn as brightly as before, the love is stronger than ever, forged from the heat of those punishing Boston Marathons.

“When you look at the aging process, most athletes leave their sport at a very young age,” he says.  “Running is different.  You can run at any age.  It doesn’t have to be a marathon – there are plenty of a 5K races out there.  Still, getting older has been a unique experience – and it can certainly be humbling at times.  I recently ran a half-marathon in Nashville, Tennessee, and was beaten soundly by a guy who was just a few months younger than me.  I was kind of angry, because he whipped me pretty good.  But after I had time to think about it, I realized that, on the other hand, I ran my best time in a number of years.  So, in the end, you just do your best.  That’s all you can do.  I walked away admiring him.  He ran one heck of a race.”

Rodgers never tires of running, and never tires of talking about running.  His life is a steady stream of conversations with complete strangers, many of whom have either ran in marathons with him or who have been lucky enough to have met him, ever-so-briefly, at one of the umpteen races he’s ran over the years.  He’s always kind and cordial, almost affable to a fault – until you realize that he really does care, even if he has no recollection of those brief encounters.

“I enjoy meeting people as much as running the race itself,” he says.  “There are so many great stories, which is why running is an incredible sport.  And the people who are involved today – it has totally redefined our definition of the modern athlete.  Just look at the Paralympics.  Look at the athletes who are out there running on one leg.  I was running the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon five or six years ago, and I look up and see this guy ahead of me.  He’s got one leg, and he’s running on one of those curved blades.  I just had to wonder – how is this guy beating me – because I’m still a pretty good runner, even at this age.  It forced me to reevaluate.  And do you know what I read about that guy later? He was riding a motorcycle when someone ran a light and smashed into him.  When he came to, he begged the doctors not to amputate his leg.  The doctors had no choice.  So shortly after the surgery he saw the Ironman Triathlon on TV, and it motivated him to get up and run”.

Diet is another concession to the aging process.

“Through the years I’ve always been a big junk food eater, but that was just a sign of the times.  When we were traveling from race to race, we’d go back to a hotel afterwards and our celebration was getting a big bowl of nuts or chips with cheese.  We didn’t think about nutrition like the professional runners today.  Frank Shorter and I were a little bit closer to the earlier Boston Marathon winners, the Johnny Kelleys and Clarence Demars, than to runners of the present day who are so focused on all aspects of fitness, including nutrition.  With that said, my diet is a little healthier than in years past.  I still like my cookies and my pecan pie.  And I still eat treats here and there, because you have to celebrate life.  You can’t have too austere a diet.”

 

“Through the years I’ve always been a big junk food eater, but that was just a sign of the times.  When we were traveling from race to race, we’d go back to a hotel afterwards and our celebration was getting a big bowl of nuts or chips with cheese.  We didn’t think about nutrition like the professional runners today.  Frank Shorter and I were a little bit closer to the earlier Boston Marathon winners, the Johnny Kelleys and Clarence Demars, than to runners of the present day who are so focused on all aspects of fitness, including nutrition.  With that said, my diet is a little healthier than in years past.  I still like my cookies and my pecan pie.  And I still eat treats here and there, because you have to celebrate life.  You can’t have too austere a diet.” – Bill Rodgers

 

For someone who has logged so many miles, Rodgers has remained relatively injury-free.  There’s been a ding here and there, some worse than others, he’s emerged on the other end no worse for the wear.

“Some of it is genetics, and some of it is luck,” he says quickly.  “Mary Decker Slaney is someone who’s had a tremendous amount of bad luck.  She was an amazing talent; as a 13-year-old kid she was a phenom.  They called here ‘Little Mary Decker’, and to this day she remains one of our greatest talents, and certainly one of the greatest female track and field athletes we’ve ever had.  She was a world champion in the 3,000 and the 5,000, but she pushed herself too hard on the track.  The problem with the track is the intensity of those turns.  She put in so much training on the track – endless miles – and when you’re training and racing at that level it can be pretty tricky.  She produced terrific records, that’s for sure, but she’s had nearly thirty surgeries on her legs”.

Above all else, Rodgers has remembered to have fun.  Sure, running was considered bizzaro by the populace at large when he ran his first Boston Marathon – truckers even threw beer cans at runners’ heads – but the stories he can tell are priceless.  Laser-focused between the start and finish lines, Rodgers has taken great care to enjoy the ride.

“I remember going to the Stockholm Marathon with Dick Beardsley,” he says with a smile.  “And there at the race were two former heavyweight boxing champions, American Floyd Patterson and Swede Ingemar Johansson.  The two men had been big rivals in the ring, fighting three times for the heavyweight championship, and yet Ingemar Johansson and Floyd Patterson became good friends who flew across the Atlantic to visit each other every year.  So, they ran the marathon together – the same marathon that Dick and I were running.  Hundreds of thousands of Swedish people were waiting for them to finish, and these are big people so it took them a long time.  But they were cheered every step of the way.  That’s what I love about running, and those are the stories that I’ll remember most.  The energy, excitement, and the stories.  I still go to marathons today, and I love to be at the finish line, whether that’s in Boston, or New York City, or Oklahoma City.  You can see the effort of the runners involved, and you can see how hard they try.  In Oklahoma City, you see them running in memory of somebody who died in the terrible bombing.  It’s just incredible.  I always say that it’s more than just a sport.  It is a sport – it’s a very competitive sport – but it’s got those stories that you can’t find anywhere else.”

~  ~  ~

Today, Bill Rodgers is the elder statesman of distance running.  He still runs, though not quite as far or as fast as before, and he dispenses funny stories and sage advice in equal doses.  He’s written an autobiography, Marathon Man, and he’s survived a battle with prostate cancer.  He’s made money, though not as much as you might suspect, and he’s lost it, too:  In 1987, his running apparel company, Rodgers & Co., was forced into bankruptcy to cover $1.3 million in debt (reduced from $3.5 million just two years before).  His house, which had been used as collateral, was foreclosed upon.  The Bank of Boston put locks on the doors, and the house was eventually sold.  Rodgers simply smiled through the adversity, moved into an apartment…and started running again.  In 2012, the Bill Rodgers Running Center shuttered its doors, another link to the running boom broken.  But before you start to feel sorry for Bill Rodgers, he’s quick to remind you that he’s survived it all, and that while much of this race called life is behind him, he’s hopeful for plenty of good miles ahead.

 

Rodgers stopped long enough to pen his autobiography.

Rodgers stopped long enough to pen his autobiography.

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“In life and in running, I think it’s extremely important to have a good, positive mental attitude,” he says, smiling.  “I think it’s a very important tool to have in your tool belt.  Everyone gets some dings along the way.  Everyone loses something or someone.  Both can be challenging, but most of us also have great experiences to draw strength from.  Running is a great sport in that regard, because it can teach you so much about life if you let it.  It’s something you can do no matter what your age.  You can get stronger and fitter, and you can see improvements almost immediately.  I would always say to folks who are reading this, don’t let anything stop you.  Go to your local running store, or your local athletics store – Fleet Feet, or Dick’s Sporting Goods, or wherever – and try on several pairs of running shoes.  Then get out there and try some walking and running.  We were meant to move; when you move you feel better, you eat better, you sleep better…life is better.  I think we’re seeing the American people really desire to keep their health more today than ever before.  Running and walking can be a big part of that.”

Rodgers knows a thing or two about toughness.  When the doctors delivered the news about the dreaded C-word, he responded by going out and running a 10K.  In 2003, his right tibia snapped during an eight-mile training run; Rodgers simply had a seat on the ground and stuck out a thumb and hitchhiked back to his vehicle.

“I don’t think I’m tougher than anyone else,” he says, “and I’m probably not as tough as a lot of people. I think I was lucky that I was able to have good coaches, and good training partners, which helped me to compete with a lot of different runners.  Actually, I dropped out of eight marathons in my career, so I had some races where I wasn’t so tough.  Sometimes you’ve got to drop out.  If your health is on the line you’ve got to be smart about it.  In 1983, I was running in the Beijing International Marathon, and I was in the lead with one other guy chasing me.  I couldn’t hang on – I got dehydrated and I had to drop out with one mile to go.  American Ron Tabb went on to win.  That was a race that I really wanted, because China is such a big country, but it didn’t go my way.  I had to play it smart and take care of my health.”

In 2000, Rodgers received his sports’ highest honor – induction into the USA Track &Field Hall of Fame.  He was taken aback by the announcement, but he shouldn’t have been surprised; that kind of stuff happens when you dominate distance running for a decade.

“That was great fun, and what an honor,” he recalls.  “The United States has a rich track and field history, with so many celebrated athletes.  Sprinters like Jesse Owens, Allyson Felix, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson…and distance runners like Craig Virgin, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and Lynn Jennings.  The list goes on and on.  To even be mentioned in the same breath with these people is still a shock.”

~  ~  ~

Shock…and disbelief.

Everything changed on April 15, 2013, when two pressure cooker bombs exploded near the Boston Marathon finish line on Boylston Street.  Three people were killed, and 264 others were injured.  For Rodgers, as well as most everyone else, it was racing’s darkest day.

“When I initially heard about the bombing, I wasn’t at the finish line,” Rodgers says.  “I was at home, having just finished a run with my girlfriend.  We were about to turn on the TV and watch the marathon when I started to get phone calls from neighbors.  That’s how I received word that a bomb that went off at the Boston Marathon.  I was in complete disbelief.  I just kept saying the same thing to myself:  This can’t be.  Why would there be a bomb at the Boston Marathon?  But then I saw the TV footage and I could see spots on the ground that looked like wet spots, and I immediately knew that it was blood.  You can’t help but think terrorism.  Sadly, I was right.

 

In this April 18, 2013 photo, memorials for Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu, and Krystle Campbell, killed in the bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, stand among other artifacts at a makeshift memorial in Copley Square in Boston. Thousands of items from the original memorial are going on display at the Boston Public Library in April 2014 to mark the anniversary of the attacks. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In this April 18, 2013 photo, memorials for Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu, and Krystle Campbell, killed in the bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, stand among other artifacts at a makeshift memorial in Copley Square in Boston. Thousands of items from the original memorial are going on display at the Boston Public Library in April 2014 to mark the anniversary of the attacks. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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“What happened hurt so many people, but I think the terrorists lost badly.  In the end, you only make enemies when you do things like that, and I think the people of Boston – and the people across the US and the world for that matter – united after this cowardly act of terrorism.  That’s what happened when one of my buddies, Keith Moore, reached out to me after the bombing.  He’d ran the marathon like he’s done so many times in the past.  He called me, and he asked if I would present his Boston Marathon medal to someone who had been wounded in the attack.  So I went to the hospital and I presented it to her.  Sometimes you feel helpless, like there’s nothing you can do, but we can all do something to make a difference, no matter how small.”

~  ~  ~

Bill Rodgers soldiers on, evangelizing the sport that made him famous, this while making time to appreciate the little things at the end of a storied career – things like chatting up fellow runners wherever he goes, reminiscing about the good old days with Frank Shorter, and having a post-race laugh with complete strangers over a glass of Scotch.  In some ways nothing has changed; he’s still that kid with the butterfly net, running through the field, drenched with sweat, the summer sun gluing that wavy mop of hair to his head.  In other ways everything has changed; the Boston Billy phenomenon, with all the theater and passion that would attend it, has long since slipped away, the nation no longer needing him to serve as front man for the running revolution.  We got this, we seem to say.  Thank you for getting us up off the couch, but we can take it from here.

 

Veteran marathon runner Bill Rodgers gestures after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before a baseball game between the Boston Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles in Boston, Monday, April 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Veteran marathon runner Bill Rodgers gestures after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before a baseball game between the Boston Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles in Boston, Monday, April 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

.

Rodgers still competes, his goals neither as lofty nor as well-chronicled as before, his pace relatively pedestrian, his race results mostly middle of the pack.  Time catches us all.  His face is a little softer now, and that infectious grin is framed, parenthetically, with the deep lines of time.  Still, he’s very much the same Average Joe that we all fell in love with.  He runs, content, not because his likeness has long since been chiseled into the Mt. Rushmore of distance running, but because he’s still able to do the thing that he loves most.

“Running has always been important, but it’s more important to stick with your family and your friends,” he adds without hesitation.  “You have make the important things a priority.  It’s tricky sometimes.  You can get caught up in life, or business, or sports, or politics, or whatever, and if you’re not careful you can lose sight of what’s really important.  Family and friends are the most important thing.  Everything else – running included – is icing on the cake.”

And just like that, Bill Rodgers – the chain-smoking, pizza-and-mayo everyman who took up running after his motorcycle was stolen, and then proceeded to conquer the world – is off for a little road work, his next half-marathon two weeks away.

It’s all part of the Boston Billy Mythology.

It’s been one hell of a run.