The Celebrity | Yankee Classic

Yankee Classic: February 1981   Press play to hear how the story happened. The houses press close together along the narrow street, shouldering each other for space. They were built long ago when boats filled with immigrants docked in East Boston, and the more prosperous, earlier arrivals drifted here, three miles east —to Winthrop, where the Eruziones […]

By Mel Allen

Feb 05 2018


Hockey star Mike Eruzione, at right, sits down to a home-cooked meal with his family in Massachusetts.

Photo Credit : Ulrike Welsch

Yankee Classic: February 1981

Hockey star Mike Eruzione, at right, sits down to a home-cooked meal with his family in Massachusetts.
Photo Credit : Ulrike Welsch

Press play to hear how the story happened.

The houses press close together along the narrow street, shouldering each other for space. They were built long ago when boats filled with immigrants docked in East Boston, and the more prosperous, earlier arrivals drifted here, three miles east —to Winthrop, where the Eruziones live in the middle floor of a three-family house. Above and below them live blood relations.

The parents have known each other since their childhoods, growing up first as best friends, then falling in love and marrying. The family ties read like something from the Bible. Eugene (“Jeep”) Eruzione’s sister, Annette, lives on the third floor, married to Anthony Fucillo, brother of Jeep’s wife, Helen. Annette’s twin sister, Ann, lives on the first floor with her husband, Jerry Jaworski.

They moved together into the house over 20 years ago, and they say they will never leave, that they will die there. Among them they have raised 14 children, all first cousins, nearly all named after grandparents or uncles or aunts. The children call it “a house with one door,” and growing up if they didn’t like what was cooking at their mother’s stove, they would scamper either up or down, and find a place at another table, no questions asked.

The wood of the house is a weathered green, and for years the house has been called by neighbors “the Green Monster,” partly because of its size, mostly because the laughter and shouts and noise from parties cannot be contained by the walls and spill frequently onto the street. There is a porch on every floor, and in the infrequent times when activity is stilled, you can see them sitting out, third floor, second floor, first, perched like birds on wires, listening to ball games on their radios.

They drive used cars, handing them down one to another, nursing them into six-figure mileage, and on holidays the flag flies outside. A statue of the Virgin Mary, cracked with age, stands by the front steps, and no matter how late they party on Saturdays, they go together to Mass on Sunday.

When I first met the Eruziones an unexpected feeling of nostalgia came over me, as though I’d come upon a precious but long-forgotten landscape. They are a tie to another time, before families scattered like pods, blown away so easily by our freeways. The children who married strayed no further than a few blocks, and on holidays the house, as ample as it is, bulges with three generations.

I had wanted to meet them because I wondered what happens to a tightly knit family when one of their own, Michael, scores the winning goal in a hockey game against the Russians, and suddenly and without warning no longer belongs just to them, but in becoming a hero belongs to the country as well.

On one of those slow dark Sundays in late fall when the men have moved indoors like bears, to doze before the TV, I found Jeep Eruzione asleep on a sofa, beneath a painting of an ocean sunset. He awoke with a start when I knocked on the side of the open door. He is the kind of man you like instantly, a man with the unruffled manner and good nature of a favorite barber. He removed his glasses and rubbed a sleeve across his face, the habitual gesture of a man who gets by‚ on little sleep. He has almost never held only one job. Three nights a week for the past 25 years, after spending eight hours as a sewerage-treatment worker in Winthrop, he has gone to a popular pizza cafe in East Boston called Santarpio’s to wait on tables and tend bar. There were times when he held a third job as well, making what he could so that his six children would not have to do without sports equipment.

“I don’t really mind it,” he said, “but I do get more tired than I used to. Saturday is a long night behind the bar. But the guys who work there, we’ve been chumming together since we were kids. So I just keep going.

“The guys at the bar tease me sometimes. They know Mike’s a celebrity now. ‘Oh you got lots of money,’ they say, ‘time to retire.’ I says, ‘What do you mean? I still work two jobs. I don’t ask my Michael for nothing. Whatever he’s doing is on his own. He wants to do for us, you know. He wanted‚ to buy me a new car. I said I don’t need a new car. Just get me four new tires and fix the fan belt. I tell him, ‘Just do the right thing and put your money where it’s supposed to be. Don’t be stupid or foolish. Later in life you’re going to need it.’ I tell him what do I need the money for now. Like today, I got up and went to 9 o’clock Mass, then came home and got in the car and shot down to the track. It’s only ten minutes from here. I only played three races. There was a horse called Mike’s Luck running. The horse wasn’t any good. Everything I need is right here.”

I stared at the glossy family portrait hanging above the television. I remarked that Michael resembles Jeep. “Yeah, some of the guys were just telling me that,” he said. “When you go into the bar there’s a huge picture of Mike along the wall. I’ll look at it, and sometimes I think of when I’d take him down on a Sunday when he was little. He’d go through the seats and benches on his knees, holding a flashlight, looking for nickels and dimes dropped the night before. Sometimes he’d find 80 or 90 cents.

After the Olympics, Mike became a fixture on television screens across the country.
Photo Credit : Ulrike Welsch

“Now people come in all the time with their children and call me over. They tell their kids to shake hands with Mike Eruzione’s father. And sometimes I’ll run out to my car and get them pictures of Mike, and they sit there beaming.”

The volume was turned low on the television, but it was obvious the New England Patriots were being upset again. They fumbled on their opponents’ two-yard line and Jeep winced. “Can you beat that?” he said. “That’s it. They’re done.”

We talked about the Olympics then, and his face brightened. Excitement edged into his voice, and his fatigue seemed to slip away effortlessly.

“The only game I missed was against Czechoslovakia. A reporter from Chicago was with us, and we’re here watching it on TV. And I’m telling people Mike will always score, and sure enough while we’re talking we hear the announcer, ‘Score by Eruzione!’ We went crazy.

“‘See that,’ I says. ‘Every time you expect something from Michael he comes through.’ The good Lord must have been on his side from the start. It was uncanny. The score was 3-3 in the Russian game, and I’m sitting next to my wife and I said, ‘You know, Helen, Michael’s not done nothing yet.’ I says, ‘C’mon, he’s due.’ I no sooner got through talking than I see the puck slide across to him. And as soon as he got the stick on it I yelled, ‘Shoot, Mike, shoot! Don’t waste time!’ And he did. He just let it go. I saw that net stretch and I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s it.’ It was beautiful.

“And I started to think—this goal here could be a big thing. If it could stay up with no other team scoring, I knew the impact it was going to have. I held tight to my St. Anthony medal. ‘This is for my Michael,’ I said. ‘Make this thing end 4-3. No more, No less.’ ’Cause I knew what would happen. He’s the captain. He’s got the winning goal. And the people will never forget that.

“The parade they had for him here in Winthrop was scary. I was in a Rolls Royce with Michael and Helen and his girlfriend, Donna. People swarmed on the car. I thought we were going to be crushed. The police had to get him in a police wagon to protect us. I saw him get out of our car and thought, ‘Is this for real?’

“Now after we got home I’m still thinking he’ll turn pro and play NHL. The clubs were interested. To tell you the truth, I wanted him to play. The guys in the bar always said he was too small for the NHL. I’d say, ‘C’mon. He’s got heart and can dig in the corners; he passes and he’s smart.’ But then I’m hearing Michael talking, why he doesn’t want the NHL. He said, ‘Dad, you can’t beat this—what we just achieved. I’ll never score another goal to equal the one against the Russians. This is something I’ll never forget.’ So he got me thinking. So he signs for forty grand. He’d get kicked around. Maybe bust up his knees, then have to sweat it out the following year. All that at 25. And I started seeing things coming into the house for him, like a free car, and I said to myself, ‘This kid’s got it made.’

“And it’s unbelievable that what I have to work for a whole year in one regular job, Mike can make giving a few talks. But he’s surprised me with his speaking. Even my buddies tell me he’s a nice talker. It comes from his heart when he talks to people. Someday, if this thing doesn’t get too big for him, I’ll see him be a coach, because I really think what he’d like to do the most is come home and settle down and have a bunch of little boys.”

He left the room for a moment, and I could hear him rummaging around in a closet. When he returned he had a box of video cassettes of all the American victories, including the closing ceremonies where Michael stood on the podium, the gold medal draped on his chest, and sang the national anthem, his eyes glistening. Then Michael flung his arms aloft, fists clenched in a triumphant salute towards his family sitting ten rows up at center ice.

“Helen and I have seen these a thousand times if we’ve seen them once,” he said. “But sometimes Michael comes home late, and when everybody’s quiet and in bed he puts it on. I think everything went by so fast, it’s a chance for him to enjoy it.”

He put on the Russian game, just before Michael scores his famous goal. “Here it comes,” Jeep said. And suddenly Mike is being pummeled by his joyous teammates. Then conversation stopped and Jeep’s back arched closer to the screen during the last tense minutes. At the end Jeep watched the American players fall on each other with unrestrained emotion. The announcer’s voice filled the room, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” Jeep said, caught somewhere between the past and his living room, “Now I’m the happiest guy in the world.”

* * *

“Every Saturday my mother and my aunts meet upstairs and have breakfast. Then my father’s other two sisters come over from East Boston, and they play cards all day. They’ve been doing this since they were nine years old. They play for pennies and nickels and at the end of the day maybe someone’s won 60 cents.”—Mike Eruzione

I met Helen Eruzione on a rainy November night. She was where she once spent most of her days, in the kitchen, doing what she is famous for, baking lasagna. The kitchen smelled sweetly of flowers hanging by the windows, and from the pantry came the sharp odor of peppers, which she grows and roasts for her husband. She is a stout, friendly woman, and her fresh blue dress was marked by the blood color of tomatoes on her sleeve. When her children had grown up, she went to work at the local high school, ready to help girls with any problems, physical or personal -doing what she can’t help but do—be a mother.

“Mike gets mad now when he comes home late and I’m sitting up for him,” she said, “but I’ve always waited up for my children. When he was playing, I’d light a candle to St. Mary that he’d come out of it all right. At games I’d do my rosaries. Now all my concentration goes on my other son, Vinnie. He’s so small, but he plays as hard for Holy Cross as Michael did for B.U. When they check him against the boards, I look at his face to see if he’s wincing. I was at a game once and Michael was on the ground and they were hitting him on the ground, and the guy in front of me was yelling, ‘Kick him!’ and I was talking a fit. It was an away game and my daughter told me to hush, before they started beating on us.”

It was a strict household run by Jeep and Helen, one not always enjoyed by the children. It was especially difficult at times for the four daughters. Their boyfriends would arrive and find a row of uncles and aunts waiting to inspect the young males. The children had curfews and dared not disobey them.

“Even now Vinnie is 19 and has a curfew. I don’t care what his boy friends do. He has to be in the house by 12:30. I tell him, you want a beer with your friends, come home and drink it. Michael wanted to buy Vinnie a car but I said no. I want him to earn it.

“Both my boys hated to lose. But I’d tell them, if you lose leave it on the field. When they lost they’d go into their room to be alone, and they wouldn’t come out until they could be pleasant.”

But along with the strictness, it was a house known for its gaiety. “We never had family parties, we had house parties,” she said. The parties were legendary. At special times Jeep would bring out his guitar, and all the cousins and all the uncles and aunts would sit on the floor and the songs would go on, raucous ones and sweet soft ones, and none of the children would go to sleep, ever, until they were done.

“That’s the hardest part. We miss Michael now,” she said. “He’s important to our parties. It’s not the same without his tenor. Now,” she said smiling, “he comes home, and I get his two big suitcases. And I wash and fix his clothes, and when I’m done he’s packing again, and he’s gone.”

* * *

Right now I like the travel. I enjoy meeting people. I enjoy telling people about what we did at Lake Placid. And when I don’t want to do it anymore I’ll come home. My escape is my house. If I don’t want to see anyone I won’t. They have to go through my family to get to me.” —Mike Eruzione

My appointment to see Mike Eruzione was for five and now it was past six and I was hopelessly lost. I phoned the house. One of his sisters answered. “Oh Michael’s sleeping,” she said. I said I was supposed to meet him. “Wait a minute,” she said. Within seconds Michael was on the phone. He had told me previously that he would have to leave by seven. He was going to a party. I asked if perhaps we shouldn’t wait for another time. “No problem,” he said, and proceeded to give me quick directions to the house.

He had come home again, this time for an interlude of three days in a solid month of travel to Minnesota, Colorado, California, working as a technical adviser to a forthcoming movie based on the Olympic victory to be called Miracle on Ice. The next day filming would begin in New York, and a party was planned that evening at Santarpio’s. When I came in he was drinking a Budweiser, watching television. His sisters were home, and his sisters’ children, and his cousin Bobby from the third floor, and his mother. Jeep was working at the cafe. Sitting beside him was Andrew Stevens, the actor who would portray him in the movie.

He had been Mike’s shadow for several weeks, absorbing his speech and brassy manner, and now his family. “I was an only child,” Andrew told me. “My parents were divorced. I never had any of this,” he said indicating the general clamor in the house. “I wish I had.”

Mike brought me a beer and led me past the kitchen, past the bedroom that he shares with Vinnie, past the bedrooms of his sisters, and took me to the outside porch, where we looked down at a large yard.

“That’s Cousins’ Stadium,” he said. “We didn’t have any money, but we had this.” He pointed out home plate and the pitcher’s mound for the stickball games, a horseshoe pit where games sometimes continued all night, a volleyball court, and a basketball net. “This family,” he understated, “is very competitive. This is where I learned to play hockey. My cousin Tony would give me a dime and put me in the goal, and all his friends would shoot at me. After a while I’d go upstairs and cry. Then he’d give me another dime. And they’d shoot at me some more.

“My Uncle Tony had the philosophy the yard was for fun. There used to be a nice apple tree in the yard, but we cut it down. And halfway up the trees you don’t see any branches because we chopped them off. My aunts would be upstairs screaming. ‘What are you doing?’ And we’d say, ‘The ball keeps hitting the branches. We don’t know if it’s a home run or not.’“ Mike shivered from the night air, and walked inside and sat at the kitchen table, his sisters and Andrew joining him, his mother stirring gravy on the stove.

“Everyone expected me to change because suddenly I was making money. I’ve probably made more since the Olympics than my dad’s made in ten years. But I don’t come from money. It doesn’t concern me. If I make it, fine. If not, fine. I want to spend my money on my friends, and two other people—myself and my family. Because if we’d lost I wouldn’t have had a damn thing. I’d be down at the gym tonight playing basketball, because the adult school is open. Probably coaching hockey somewhere. But we did win, and when you win in America you’re rewarded. And maybe all the work my mother and father did, and all the work my uncles and aunts did is coming out now in me, and we can say finally, ‘Hey enough is enough. It’s time for the Eruziones to do something good.’“

Soon he left to get dressed for the party, leaving me with a tape of a speech he had given at a hockey banquet. “If anything this family has gotten closer,” his sister Nancy said. “We saw something threatening the closeness, everybody wanting a piece of him. After Lake Placid the phone never stopped ringing. ‘Where’s Mike? Get him.’ Nobody wants us to be pulled away, so we pull together a little more.”

I had a notebook and I passed it to Mike’s oldest sister, Connie. I asked her to write the names and phone numbers of the members of this sprawling household. I turned on the tape.

“My dad hasn’t lost his perspective,” Mike told his audience. “An insurance company sent him a check for $50. My dad gets the check and he cashes it. He gives my mother $25 and he takes the other $25 and goes to the track and he loses it. My mother’s all upset. ‘You’re supposed to take me out to dinner.’ ‘No, no, there was a good horse. A chance to win.’ And maybe that’s how we were—taking a chance to win. Nobody thought we had a chance, but we changed things around….”

I realized how much they had changed when later that night I looked at my notebook. There were names and phone numbers across a page, neat and cleanly written, but beside Michael’s name there was a smudge. His Winthrop address had been crossed out. Instead his sister had written: “Mike—USA.’’