I reach out and try the basement door. To my complete surprise, it opens.
I hesitate, but then venture inside, inching carefully along a shadowy hallway. Reach a concourse, go up a short flight of stairs. Then down, chancing my luck, hopping over the boards. My steps echo throughout the dark, empty arena.
It is June 1988. I am in Lake Placid, New York. My morning walk, with its unexpected detour, has taken me inside the famous Olympic Centre, site of arguably the greatest sporting upset in history.
It may be hot and muggy outside, but, as I move about the cement floor, I get the shivers. Images abound, from a Men’s ice hockey game eight years earlier in this very building. An Olympic semi-final between the heavily favoured USSR, winner of six of the previous seven gold medals, and a band of inexperienced USA collegians.
Inevitably, I soon find myself in the high slot, 50’ from the Soviet goal. The exact spot from where unheralded American defenseman Mike Eruzione, midway through the third period, let fly a wrist shot for the winning goal in a stunning 4-3 triumph. Then, moving to the other end of the “ice”, I chip an imaginary puck from just inside the American blueline to the neutral zone. In my mind I hear ABC commentator Al Michaels, on his way to broadcasting immortality, make his legendary call, as the last seconds tick down. 5-4-3-2-1.
“Do You Believe in Miracles? YES!”
Winding back the clock, my first real experience of an upset, of being the serious underdog, occurs some fifty years ago. I am ten years old, part of a team representing Duncan, a mill town in central Vancouver Island. Sponsored by the local Tzouhalem Hotel, and having scrambled through local qualifying, we take part in the Sun Cup, an annual knockout competition to determine British Columbia’s age grade soccer champions.
Our opponents, the Blue Eagles from Coquitlam, have actual pedigree. They are intimidating, team personnel and supporters arriving in a fleet of chartered buses. The players, all in matching tracksuits, are physically imposing. Dripping with overconfidence. Their body language and general swagger suggest the upcoming match is a formality.
Certainly, there is a vastly different feel to the afternoon. This is no regular event. The car park adjacent to the McAdam Rd field is jammed to overflowing, with the nearby side streets also clogged with vehicles.
As we begin warmup, the sidelines continue to fill with spectators. The playing surface has been mowed low, then cross-cut, the resulting checkerboard motif nicely matching our blue and white quartered jerseys. Brand new nets adorn the freshly painted goals.
The game begins.
The Eagles press from the opening kickoff, absolutely dominating territory and possession. The first half hour mirrors an artillery barrage, as corner kicks and crosses rain down from all angles into our penalty area. We are limited to desperate clearances, balls hacked or headed away from danger before we scramble to ward off the next wave of attacks.
Somehow, half time arrives. Still 0-0.
The blitz continues after intermission. The goal post comes to our rescue not once, but twice, while goalie Brian pulls off several miraculous saves. Marvin does yeoman work in central defence, while the rest of us hustle and harry. The crowd, generous with its applause, reaches fever pitch.
With six minutes remaining comes the unthinkable. We snaffle a loose ball, send a long pass skidding up the left wing. Kim, our diminutive striker, struggles to gain initial control but then connects on a speculative volley from 35 yards out. The opposition keeper, caught napping well off his line, can only watch as the ball traces a perfect arc before slipping just under the bar.
Improbably, impossibly, it is 1-0!!
The imperious Eagles are badly rattled. They now trail, and panic sets in. Their last few sorties are rebuffed. The referee blows his whistle. 1-0. Final.
Even if, in the moment, a bunch of exhausted young boys have no real idea why, the upset victory seems a big deal. It appears important. Our coach and our parents sport thousand-megawatt smiles. Fans rush the field, whooping and hollering, hugging and hi-fiving. Car horns blare in celebration.
With sport as a platform, and given the passage of time, I now have a better idea as to the reasons underdogs resonate. Perhaps it is a twisted sense of schadenfreude, of taking pleasure at the misfortune of others, especially those well to do or in positions of power. Maybe it is psychological, people fearful of winners, and so subconsciously siding with the weaker team.
Still, more likely is the fact that pluckiness, grit and heart are character traits that appeal to the masses. An underdog defies the odds, is David to Goliath, provides the thrill of victory when it is least expected.
Furthermore, in the humdrum, sometimes monotony, of daily life, the successful underdog creates excitement and happiness.
Finally, and most importantly, underdogs provide hope. Hope that, whatever the situation, things can and will get better in time. Hope that keeps individuals believing and moving forward, regardless of circumstances. Hope that grants strength and resilience in the face of setbacks and obstacles.
A half century has elapsed since our miraculous Sun Cup victory. No doubt some of the specifics might be a little hazy, but the emotions of that day and the lessons learned are not. I decided right then, regarding this thing called sport, I was all in.
Besides, being the underdog had a hidden benefit. After the game, our coach treated us to ice cream.