An upset is when the favorite, be it an individual or a team; loses to someone that they should never lose to. Through the years we have seen many, many upsets in sports and politics.
The Villanova – Georgetown NCAA Basketball Championship game always comes to mind; but was it truly the greatest ever? I say no and my reasoning behind that statement: Nova’s seniors had played Georgetown two to three times a season (depending on the Big East Tournament match-ups) for the past four years. They were familiar and battle tested against the “Big, Bad Hoyas”.
The “Miracle Mets” of 1969 had better pitching then the Baltimore Orioles for that World Series and proved it in almost every game. Thus the winning of the Series in five games did not really shock the baseball experts. The Mets getting there was a bigger upset than their actual victory over Baltimore.
The first Super Bowl victory by the 10-6 New York Football Giants over the 18-0 New England Patriots; was made easier because of the fearsome pass rush of the Giants. A superior pass rush, that is always making the QB move around or run for safety, is a great equalizer; and can bring back to earth a vastly superior offense. Michael Strahan and his pass rushing buddies, were able to neutralize Patriot QB Tom Brady and allowed Eli Manning that last chance to drive down the field and score the game winning TD. If not for the pass rush, Eli might have never been put in this position to win the game.
No, the last true great upset in sports (and to many the largest) took place thirty-four years ago this past February. It was then that a group of twenty College kids took on the greatest Hockey team of its day, and defeated them, 4-3. It was one game, not a best of 3 or Best of 5 or best of 7. No it was just one game, and the upset was made. It was one game that brought a country to its feet in patriotic fervor. It was one game and it showed that sometimes youth and hunger can overcome experience and excellence. The game I am talking about occurred on Friday, February 22nd, 1980 during the XIII Winter Olympics at Lake Placid. Team USA, led by Head Coach Herb Brooks and 20 young men took on the greatest hockey team of the past 15 years, the Soviet Union National Team. It was Communism vs. Democracy. It was “paid amateurs” (professionals to everyone except the Russians) vs. true amateurs. It was bad vs. good. It was everything you could think of, played on ice for 60 minutes to see who would play for a Gold Medal. What happened that night will be talked about as long as there are sports fans walking the earth.
The Soviets were led by Boris Mikhailov, Alexander Maltsev, Vladimir Petrov, Vasili Vasiliev, Valeri Kharlamov and the world’s best goaltender; Vladislav Tretiak. These players had won Olympic Gold, World Championships and battled against Team Canada in the 1972 “Summit Series”. They were 5-0 in this Olympics and had outscored their opponents 51-11 (a 40 goal margin). And if that were not enough, the Soviets had crushed the young Americans 10-3 at Madison Square Garden in their last exhibition game before the Games began.
With all that stacked against them, the American fans at Lake Placid hoped and dreamt that their young heroes could be just that, heroes; and somehow defeat the mighty Red Team from Russia. American flags were draped and waved all over the arena as the game began at 5PM EST.
I remember that night as if it were yesterday. The game had begun but you had to wait for the tape delay on ABC-TV to begin a few hours later. Regardless, I turned on the game and sat in front of my TV to cheer on a group of young, but hard-nosed American kids (I was but 18 myself and a student at Seton Hall University in NJ) against the “Evil Empire” on skates.
They were 20 young men, 12 of which were from the state of Minnesota. 9 of the 12 played for Herb Brooks at the University of Minnesota. 20 kids thrust into the biggest challenge of their lives. 20 kids who grew up before an adoring country’s eyes. 20 kids who played their hearts out. 20 kids who challenged the Soviet Union’s best, and fought them to a standstill.
The game started out well and the Soviets jumped out to a 1-0 lead, but Buzz Schneider scored against Tretiak to tie it at 1-1. Again the Russians took the lead, only to have Mark Johnson convert a rebound from a Dave Christian blast that Tretiak allowed to get away from him. To make matters worse for the Soviet Union, the shot by Johnson beat the buzzer to end the period by one second.
When the teams came out for the Second Period, Tretiak was on the bench and back-up goalie Vladimir Myshkin was in net. The surprise wore off quickly, as the Americans could not score on him; but the Russians put one by Jim Craig in the American goal to take the lead.
Trailing by a score of 3-2 and the Gold Medal game riding on the outcome; the third period began. 20 young men would have 20 minutes to try and do the impossible, defeat the best Hockey team in the world. Could they do it? Would they do it? That was the question all of America and most of the world was asking that evening. The young men of Herb Brooks needed to be up to a monumental task.
Mark Johnson scored on a Power Play at 8:39 of the Third Period to tie the game at 3-3. With that momentum, the Americans skated a little faster, a little harder. They finished their checks a little crisper; they showed just a little more hunger. Soon the tide turned, as Captain Mike Eruzione found himself with the puck in the slot and let fly a shot from about 25 feet out. It was not his best shot. He would say later that he was off-balance and shot off of the wrong foot; but whatever he did, he did it right. The puck flew past Myshkin and into the Russian net. 4-3 USA! The arena exploded with pandemonium, as the fans realized what had happened. The upstart kids from America had just grabbed a lead over the best team in the world, in the Third Period, with less than 10 minutes left in the game. Could it be true? Could the Americans pull off the upset of all time? Only time and Jim Craig could answer that question. And answer he did. With the Russians boring down on him even harder and desperation beginning to take hold of them; Craig and his teammates knew one thing: HOLD ON!
Coach Brooks was using 40 second shifts to keep his players fresh, for he knew they had to be. That was his plan, not to dump the puck in, but to skate with the Russians. To beat them at their own game. To out-condition them, to out-skate them to out Russian the Russians. And it was working. Seconds, then minutes evaporated from the clock as Craig made save after save. The young Americans took everything the Soviets threw at them, but kept on going. They stood up to the Russians, they out skated the Russians, they outplayed the Russians. They out Russianed the Russians!
With the last seconds ticking away, who could ever forget Al Michaels and his heartfelt comment, “Do you believe in Miracles? YES!”. Those words ended the greatest game ever played by American college hockey players, for those 20 young Americans defeated the Soviet Union. It had only happened once before; in 1960 at the Olympics at Squaw Valley; and it would never happen again.
It was a once in a lifetime game, a once in a lifetime Olympics, and a once in a lifetime moment. The game plan of Herb Brooks was run to perfection by his boys. They had defeated the Russians.
On Sunday, February 24th, 1980, the US Team would defeat Finland and win the Gold Medal at the XIII Winter Olympics. Many people forget that part of the story and believe that the victory over the Russians gave them the Gold Medal. It did not, but it would go down as an even more important game.
The victory over Finland gave Team USA a Gold Medal, but the victory over the Soviets gave them something more. It gave them accomplishment. It gave them hope. It completed a dream. It put them with the stars. They had defeated the best in the world.
Team USA had won the last great upset in sports.