After gold rush, fame a hard shot to handle

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"It began when Lord Killanin, president of the International Olympic Committee, hung the medal around Jim Craig's neck. For it was then ... that the ribbon-clasp broke and the gold medal fell into the young hero's hands." - From an unpublished manuscript by Baltimore sports agent and author Ron Shapiro

WASHINGTON - It shouldn't have been hard to recognize Jim Craig. At 47, he still has rugged looks and a slightly sleepy countenance. Like many members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, he has a pleasantly unsophisticated quality that seems distinctly American.

But seeing him now, as he finishes a motivational speaking event, it's hard not to try to reconcile this gray-haired businessman in a dark suit and yellow power tie with pictures of Craig from 25 years ago today that will be forever stuck in the mind's eye of America.

There he is, seconds after the U.S. team, having stunned the Soviet Union two days earlier, defeated Finland to win the gold medal. A fan has draped an American flag on the unshaven goaltender's shoulder, and he is squinting up at the Lake Placid crowd and asking, "Where's my father?"

Those indelible moments would help Craig win an NHL contract, endorsements and a place in American sports history. But, like so many others who win accolades before they are quite ready to process them, he would be haunted by them, too.

In the years after the Games, Craig came to have a love-hate relationship with his instant celebrity as he endured exhaustion, an ulcer, an uneven NHL career and a car accident on a Massachusetts road that led to a trial after a passenger in the other car died.

Today, Craig, married nearly 20 years and a father of two, says of the immediate post-Olympic period: "There was a lot of learning that went on. I think all the good experiences - and all the hard experiences - have made me what I am today."

He says he never stopped appreciating - even cherishing - the Olympic gold experience, which seemed to bolster the nation's confidence during a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate period in which American civilians were being held hostage in Iran.

But his hero status created expectations, and expectations created pressure and he was 22 years old and everything was happening so quickly.

There was an irony to the sudden celebrity of Craig, one of eight children from North Easton, Mass., who still lives near his hometown. Part of the U.S. team's charm was that the players hadn't been stars. To most Americans they were unknown college kids and huge underdogs to win the gold. Then, just like that, they were celebrities.

In his 1985 manuscript, Shapiro, best known as Cal Ripken's longtime agent, argues that successful athletes like Craig can fall victim to "a cruel system of huge but momentary rewards and huge but unreal fame which all too often leaves the star athletes worse off, when the cheering stops, than they were before they became famous."

Shapiro chronicled Craig's immediate post-Olympic years - as well as other athletes' up-and-down experiences - as part of the manuscript, which he called The High Price of Heroes. The book says that when their careers are over, some high-profile athletes are left with memories of glory but without some critical skills, business and otherwise, they need to succeed on their own.

Though the book was never completed, Shapiro has since finished others, including one to be published this year on dealing with bullies.

Just six days after his Olympic triumph, Craig appeared in goal for the struggling Atlanta Flames, who were looking for a marketing boost and seemed to find it by signing golden boy Craig. A Coca-Cola commercial featuring Craig and his father began appearing that week.

In the frigid, sleet-filled evening of March 1, Jim Craig skated out onto the glittering surface of the Omni, where a packed arena waited to watch him take on the Colorado Rockies, the least effective team in the NHL. Meanwhile, the promotion-minded Flames management was handing out 8,000 tiny American flags; after each blocked shot, the fans could once again be heard chanting the familiar Lake Placid cry: "U-S-A! U-S-A!" - from the manuscript

Craig won his debut that night, 4-1, and found his picture that week on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline, "The Golden Goalie Cashes In."

But he never found a comfort level in Atlanta, in part because he had joined the team at midseason and his teammates were virtual strangers. No. 1 goaltender Pat Riggin, who would play nine NHL seasons, took a seat on the bench the night Craig arrived.

"Think of a football team that has two starting quarterbacks and one of them is an All-Star and then you get some kid out of college comes in and takes their place," Craig said in an interview last week. "It doesn't make for good teammates."

Says Craig of that first game: "I didn't even know which end of the rink I was supposed to go at. I didn't know where the American flag was."

Plus, he was exhausted. He had a sinus infection left over from the Olympics and was soon found to have an ulcer. "But they couldn't treat me, so they sent me to Florida. That didn't look good when you're an American kid, you play two games and then they let you take a vacation during the season in Florida. Nobody really knew what was going on."

As part of his victory lap, Craig and his former Olympic teammates went to the White House, where President Carter congratulated him and asked him why he had shaved - a reference to the now-famous stubble on his chin in Lake Placid.

Even though Craig's play for the Flames slipped - he surrendered five goals on 11 shots against the New York Islanders - the adulation continued. Craig returned to his hotel room one night to find a naked woman on the bed. "In Chicago, yeah," he said last week with only the slightest trace of a smile. He says he asked her to leave.

He reflects in the manuscript about inadvertently showing up his teammates when autograph-seekers came to call.

"People would come up to us in a restaurant, and they'd ask me for my autograph. And I'd give it to them - and they'd just leave. And here's all these others pros sitting there, staring at me. And so I finally learned that when they give you something to sign, you pass it around for everyone to sign."

Craig played only four games in Atlanta, which lost the franchise to Calgary at the end of the season. After he was traded to the Boston Bruins, Craig's career imploded largely because of injuries that included a broken finger and torn hamstring.

Then, in May 1982, the goalie absorbed the toughest shot of all.

It happened on a rain-slicked Route 6, near Mattapoisett [Mass.], as Craig piloted his new BMW en route to his North Easton home. A flash of color, a swerve, a sickening crunch of metal: Somehow Craig's car had collided with a 1972 Toyota, knocking him unconscious and killing a 29-year-old passenger who had been riding in the other car.

Police said Craig's car had crossed the center line, and he was charged with vehicular homicide. But Craig was acquitted by a judge after testifying that he had done everything possible to avoid hitting the other car, which he said had swerved toward him. There was no evidence that drugs or alcohol were involved.

Despite the acquittal, Craig's image took a hit. While he will always consider the accident a tragedy, he says now that he could have coped better with the public relations fallout had it happened later in his life. But at 25, he wasn't ready for the onslaught of bad publicity.

It was as if the tide of good fortune from the Games had reversed course.

He would talk later about the press coverage which had followed the accident. "I lost so much respect for the press; and that's where I learned how powerful they are. I learned they'd do anything to sell a newspaper. They were rude, they were terrible. They used my name, and my picture, as a flag to sell the newspaper. It was brutal. I mean, they went back to try and find out everything I ever did in my whole life."

After his hockey career ended, Craig needed to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.

Somehow, it seemed easiest to go home to Massachusetts. There, he says, people know him and he doesn't have to live up to any false notions about who he might be.

In the early 1990s, Craig and a brother, Dan, founded the Hat Trick Group, a sales and promotion company in Norton, Mass. He does motivational speaking, often referencing his Olympic experience.

He seems to cling to his family, which includes a son, 16, and a daughter, 13 - both hockey players. He had lost his mother to cancer in 1977, one reason he was so attached to his father as the 1980 Games unfolded.

His father, Donald, died in 1988 after suffering an abdominal aneurism.

In an era of choreographed victory dances, Craig says people might think he had planned his tearful search for his father from the Olympic ice. But he says he didn't script it, nor did he know that the television camera was on him, or what would unfold in his life as a result.

"'I called for my father instinctively," he said, describing the instant which made him a household name in America. "I never thought anybody would pay attention to it."

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