Friday, January 17, 2020

Review: The Making of a Miracle (2020)

By Mike Eruzione with Neal E. Boudette

Right man, right place.

Mike Eruzione will be the first person to tell you how that particular phrase can describe the biggest moment of his life perfectly.

Eruzione scored the game-winning goal in what probably was the most dramatic sporting event of the 20th century: America's win over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Team USA went on to win the gold medal in that tournament two days later.

The players and coaches will be remembered forever. The team went its separate ways immediately after a stop at the White House after the Olympics, but they always will be linked by their participation in those Games.

Here we are, 40 years later, and we still remember the details vividly. And, 40 years later, Eruzione finally has gotten around to writing his autobiography, "The Making of a Miracle."

Eruzione begins his story with tales of origins and place. He was part of a big family, filled with relatives who got together on regular occasions and filled up whatever house they happened to be in. The center of attention was Winthrop, Mass., a insular suburb of Boston that probably would be called a classic American community. Eruzione was a good athlete growing up, but not a great one. He was about to play small college hockey in Massachusetts when his sense of timing first came into view. A scholarship opened up at Boston, and coach Jackie Parker offered it to him at the last minute. The pair stayed together through four straight Frozen Four appearances.

After a little time in minor-league pro hockey under a tryout contract, Eruzione decided to try out for the 1980 Olympic team - and made it. There he joined such future NHL players as Neal Broten, Mark Johnson, Mike Ramsey, and Ken Morrow - all of whom were coached by Herb Brooks, taking a year off from duties at Minnesota to guide Team USA. The book gains steam, at that point, as you'd expect - even though you know how the story turns out. Eruzione says when his friends want to kid him, they point out that his game-winning shot against the Soviets was three inches from missing the net and making him anonymous.

There have been good books (ones by Tim Wendel and John Powers, for example) about the run-up through Lake Placid, and the story hasn't lacked for coverage since then. What's somewhat striking here is how much of a bubble Eruzione and his teammates were in. They thought they were just playing a hockey game. They didn't realize that they were firing metaphorical shots in the Cold War, which was at a tense point because of the Soviets' invasion of Afghanistan.

One of the striking points of reading this now is that the game of hockey has changed so much in the past 40 years. The Americans essentially used the game of speed, passing and puck possession that the Soviets first displayed to the West in the Canada-USSR series in 1972. Now everyone plays that way, and most of the physical nonsense that was preached in the 1970s has been left in the history books.

Once life calmed down for Lake Placid, Eruzione decided that a gold medal was a tough act to follow. He passed up the chance to play in the NHL, and instead has been Mike Eruzione for a living. Good move. He's still in Winthrop, and seems more than happy to chat with anyone who asks about Lake Placid. Mike gets to see the gang for a variety of reasons on a fairly regular basis - they probably didn't guess for a while that they would be linked forever .

"The Making of a Miracle" has its charms, and it is told in a friendly if compact style. There are those who have consumed all available stories about Team USA's win, and they won't find a whole lot here about the road to Lake Placid that's new to them. (I will confess to being in that minority.) However, for those who weren't around at the time or never bothered to consume any of it, Eruzione's book is a good catchup on what all the fuss is about and why we cherish the moment.

Three stars

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Sunday, January 5, 2020

Review: No Way But to Fight (2020)

By Andrew R. M. Smith

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York's boom days." It's interesting that the first part of the line is the one that usually gets repeated, if only for the author of the new story to point out that it isn't true.

Let's give credit, then, to Fitzgerald for the set-up for a new book on George Foreman called "No Way But to Fight." There certainly was a second act to George Foreman's boom days.

Andrew R.M. Smith delivers an almost scholarly look at the life of the twice heavyweight champion, and that in itself is rather funny. After all, Foreman seemed to only have a passing acquaintance with the educational system of Houston during a childhood that was mostly noted for its poverty. What happened from there was almost stunning in hindsight.

Foreman signed up for the Job Corps, an anti-poverty program in the Johnson Administration, and had three square meals a day for the first time in his life. He became big and strong enough to attract attention from people who were running amateur boxing programs. It led to a gold medal at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, with George waving tiny American flags in the ring after the victory. Remember, that was the Olympics of the protests of Tommy Smith and John Carlos, so Foreman made an impression.

From there, a pro career was a natural next step. The quality of his opponents was rather poor, but he beat up on all comers and eventually earned a title shot against Joe Frazier. As Howard Cosell screamed out in the blow-by-blow description, "Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!" In less than two rounds, Foreman was world champion. But then he ran into Muhammad Ali in Zaire in 1974, losing one of the most famous boxing matches in history. Foreman soon retired, and the story seemed over for 10 years.

Or was it? Foreman became a preacher and decided to use boxing as a way to raise money for charitable efforts. It was a curiosity at first - a 38-year-old starting up the mountain again - but the wins against mediocrities kept coming. And Foreman discovered he could make people laugh along the way, making him more acceptable to boxing fans than the sullen personality he offered to the public the first time around. So there was joy when Foreman hit the highest peaks of the sport again.

This is rather dramatic material. It's only sweetened by the fact that Foreman sold his share of the profits to a grilling machine for more than $100 million after getting out of boxing for good. Boxers are not known for their money management skills, but Big George did fine on this one.

Smith certainly put in the time on this project, which began as a doctoral dissertation. He interviewed Foreman several times, and scoured all sorts of sources for information. The footnotes section of the book goes on and on - detailing Smith's large task.

Still, the book is missing something - fun. Foreman had so many transformations over the years that it's difficult not to smile when thinking about him now. But that quality doesn't come across too well here. The only time that the writing has some flair is when some of the big boxing matches in Foreman's career are described.

Part of the problem is that there are virtually no fresh quotes here - even though Foreman must have provided some in the interview process. Many of Foreman's opponents, such as Ali and Frazier, have passed on, but a little outside perspective might have been nice.

I have used this analogy elsewhere - "It has all of the notes but none of the music." It works on "No Way But to Fight." The book will fill a need for information about all of Foreman's life story, but it's not quite as good a read as it could have been.

Three stars

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