CALGARY -- "This is not just like being Walter Mitty. I am Walter Mitty. Everything that happens to me is something I thought I could only imagine. Different things happen to me every day. People asking for my autograph, paying to hear me speak. Walter Mitty would drive a car and dream about things like that. Only, I'm not dreaming. All this is happening, happening right now."
Mike Eruzione expressed those sentiments just three months short of eight years ago, on his first day back home in Winthrop, Mass., after scoring the goal that beat the Soviets and cleared the way for the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team to win its unexpected gold medal.
Now here is it just weeks short of two Winter Games later and far beyond the statute of limitations for infatuations, and Mike Eruzione is sitting at a table in a hotel on the outskirts of Calgary and still spinning out tales fit for Walter Mitty's dream world. In this age of instant celebrities and disposable heroes, that durability is most certainly surprising.
But, hey, that was GQ, a self-proclaimed arbiter of taste and fashion, that recently was in Winthrop to shoot him for a cover. The magazine tried dressing him in a yellow slicker, but he said no, that's too Marblehead, the neighboring community that locals call a yellow-slicker-and-boat-shoe town, and it went along with him, though it did insist he get a new hairstyle for the photo sessions. It sent along a hairdresser, and Eruzione now says with a roar: "I told 'em I wanted to hire the guy to hang out with me. Every time the wind blew, he was there to fix my hair."
Then there is that celebrity hockey team he plays on, the one that includes Richard Dean Anderson, who has attained some fame as television's MacGyver, and Michael J. Fox, who just happens to be one of the hottest actors in all of the civilized world right now. "I thought hockey groupies were something," Eruzione marvels with a mischievous grin, "until I saw the groupies that hang around Michael J. Fox. Now they're something."
Well, that may be true, but it is something else again the way people remember Mike Eruzione and that improbable hockey team he captained. Its accomplishments grabbed the headlines and a country's imagination, and even now, close to eight years later, the memories are strong enough that he is still doing commercials for an insurance company and a credit card and a gasoline and a coffee.
There are those ongoing negotiations with an automobile manufacturer, which may result in yet another commercial, and all those corporations that hire him to appear at meetings and show a film from those glory Games and talk about that team that made America feel great.
"We were just a bunch of old-fashioned kids who believed in old-fashioned virtues," he tells them, and he then goes on to discuss teamwork and hard work and pride and performance and love and respect, and when he finishes, there are inevitably some in the audience with tears welling in their eyes.
"It was the greatest moment in sports, and I'll tell you why," Eruzione says now. "People in Chicago may say the Bears' winning the Super Bowl was the greatest moment. Well, I'm a Pats fan and I wasn't real thrilled by that. But our win was national, and that's what separates it.
"It's still like it was yesterday, and I'm very, very surprised at the reaction I still get from people. Of course, they all think we played only one game, against the Soviets, and they come up with tears in their eyes, and then they smile and tell me where they were when they heard we won. People get very emotional talking about it."
They were the Kids of the Moment back in February 1980. Their triumphs were improbable, implausible, nearly incomprehensible ("Do you believe in miracles?" ABC's Al Michaels asked), yet they accumulated one after another, and finally those kids had gold medals around their necks and their faces on the covers of countless magazines.
Most would move on to the National Hockey League, where many are still playing today, but Eruzione recognized his reality and rejected that lure. He knew that his talents were limited and that he would be no more than a journeyman if he turned pro. He knew, too, that his sport could never again deliver him the emotional high he felt in Lake Placid. So, just six days after his moment of greatest triumph, he retired and declared: "I do not want to be remembered as a guy who played in the NHL for a few games and then got sent to the minors. I want to be remembered as Mike Eruzione, captain of the U.S. Olympic team."
And now? "There are two sides to my life now. On the athletic side, that's my greatest accomplishment. But I helped deliver my two kids, and that's a great accomplishment, too. That was special. And now, when I see my 4-year-old daughter come running into the room, I think that's great. Then it's, how great is the medal really?
"Watching my daughter, that's real. The rest of it has been one big fantasy dream. I know it's going to end some day. I know that. And when it does, I'll go" -- and here Eruzione holds up his wine glass in a toast -- "I'll go: 'Thank you very much. It's been fun.' "