SALT LAKE CITY -- It's so infrequent that humility and honor meet that when they do, it always works. It's a choice combination every time.
Like Friday night on top of a stadium that only seemed on top of the world.
America's 1980 gold medal hockey team returned from the shadows of the past to Rice-Eccles Stadium to light the cauldron at the opening ceremonies for the 2002 Winter Olympics. And if it wasn't as dramatic as some other flame-starting stunts, it was as appropriate as any because of who those guys were and who they didn't become.
Those players never tried to be the big shots they could have been, never traded on their achievement the way anybody who steps onto a field tries to today. They didn't keep coming back in commercials, didn't put out an instructional video, didn't cash in on something this country would have bought up like milk.
Different time, I guess. Different guys, too.
Some of them played in the NHL. Some went into coaching. Others became doctors and entrepreneurs.
But none became bigger than they were for those two weeks 22 years ago when they won all their games in Lake Placid and all the hearts in America. They passed as swiftly as they appeared -- champions in February, trivia answers by March.
Maybe that's why they never became spoiled.
They never acted like Eric Heiden, who was asked this week to participate in the parade of U.S. Olympic medallists inside the stadium but told organizers if he couldn't light the cauldron, he couldn't be bothered showing up. He didn't.
A bunch of guys who were still students when they pulled off the impossible never pulled a Karl Malone, either.
Malone is Utah's most-recognizable athlete who said he'd be glad to take the torch through a crowded downtown street but wasn't interested in "running a tenth of a mile in the middle of the dessert.'' He got to sit Friday night out, too. And that was probably good.
There are too many oafs like that in professional sports to bleed over into the Olympics. The ideals of the Games might have been compromised by the inclusion of pros, but the attitudes don't have to be.
And so they weren't at the top of Rice-Eccles Friday, where an unassuming group of guys stood above everyone at the Olympics again.
"That was something that was mid-boggling for all of us,'' said Mike Euruzione, who learned four weeks ago he would be involved in the ceremony, heard four days ago the whole '80 team would be invited but didn't find out until after midnight Thursday that they would all be lighting the cauldron. "When we knew we were going to be the guys, it was like, wow.
"Twenty-two years ago, we were part of something we didn't even know people were watching and they named it the greatest sporting event ever. To have the Games back in this country is so special, and to do this tonight was pretty special.''
Naturally, he and his teammates had to discuss strategy. They had to decide how to act, you know, now that they were going to be such a big deal.
"Yeah, they were a big help,'' said Euruzione. "Two minutes before I go out there, Mark Johnson comes up and says: 'Four billion people -- don't drop it.''
It was a typical lockerroom dig, one a guy like Euruzione, who never overestimated his own importance, could only laugh along with.
Even the captain, who did kind of turn a third-period goal in the semifinals against Russia into a primary career, has kept his sense of place. He didn't forget what opened his path into coaching, announcing and quasi-celebrity.
He was still the same Friday night when he was in stands until 30 minutes before heading into position, answering questions about how disappointing it was going to be to sit there and watch somebody else light the flame.
"This reporter came up to me and said he had a deadline, could he ask a couple of questions,'' said Euruzione, who responded with something about decisions being out of his control. "I saw him walking away and I thought: 'This poor guy. His paper's going to come out tomorrow and he's going to look like a jerk.' ''
Imagine that, an athlete sorry to have misled the media?
The next time that happens in an NFL or NBA lockerroom, somebody will really have a story to write. But you wouldn't have expected anything else from Friday's heroes.
A while back, Euruzione came up with this great line that doesn't just intimate how much he has gotten out of 1980, but how much he appreciates it all.
"All my friends tell me, 'Six inches to the left and you're painting bridges,' '' he has said often.
He painted another image Friday, along with the guys who mean the most to both him and America's Olympic legacy. It wasn't as unexpected as the first time they did it. And it might never replace the way they have been remembered for the last two decades.
But it was another moment at the top for a group of guys who never took as many as they could have.
Savannah Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera is part of a team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics for the Morris News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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