Trapped in the Net of Fame

updated 03/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Sometimes, in the solitude he prefers to the clamor that followed the United States' 1980 hockey victory over the Russians, goaltender Jim Craig likes to remember a freezing night in Boston two years ago. After a game in goal with the National Hockey League's Boston Bruins, he came outside to find four shivering little boys seeking his autograph. Piling them into his car, he took them all to McDonald's before driving them home. "They sat there with their eyes wide open," Craig recalls tenderly. "It was something I always dreamed would happen to me." He pauses. "When I need a reason to know why the Olympics happened," he says, "I think of that."

Some memories are not so uplifting. Occasionally, from the protective anonymity of a crowd at a hockey game, someone will call out to him, "Hey Craig, who ya gonna kill next?" He will shrug off the remark but later at home will likely replay in his mind once more the frantic seconds preceding a fatal car crash he was involved in last spring. And he will wonder if the fish-bowl existence that comes with an Olympic hero's turf is too high a price for a medal. "I think a hero is somebody like Hercules or Superman in the cartoons," says Craig, now 25. "Heroes never lose. Heroes never get hurt. That's just not reality."

Reality for Craig has been a three-year post-Olympic odyssey crammed with breathless highs and painful lows. Within a week of the stunning win at Lake Placid, his childhood dream of a pro career was fulfilled when he signed a $60,000 contract with the NHL's Atlanta Flames. Traded to the Boston Bruins over the summer, he won his exhilarating home state debut in front of a cheering, sellout Boston Garden crowd and saw himself and his Olympic teammates named Sportsmen of the Year by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.

But suddenly things began to go sour. He played erratically for the Bruins and spent most of his time on the bench. Then came a series of injuries, and the crash on Cape Cod. Finally, last fall, after he had played only 23 games with the team over two seasons, the Bruins cut him. His NHL career had been brief, mediocre and a deep disappointment. Yet everywhere he went, people wanted only to talk about his gold medal win. Craig was looking forward; everybody else was looking back. "I don't mind people being happy from that experience, but it really doesn't do anything for me," he says. "That was one moment in my life, and I can't live off that moment."

Currently, for $125 a week in expenses, Craig is back in the nets playing standout hockey for Team USA, the national amateur team that is testing the talents of some of the players who are likely to compete in the 1984 Winter Olympics at Sarajevo. He is healthier, more relaxed and more confident than at any time since the Lake Placid miracle. "I feel like my life is just starting," he says. "I've made mistakes—who hasn't?—and I hope I've learned from them. Now I'm just trying to grow up and handle what's coming my way."

Thanks to his aggressive agent of 17 months, Bob Woolf, Craig knows there are some things he won't have to handle. "Bob makes me look at the positive things," he says. "He's taken all the pressure off me." Still, only Craig himself can salvage his career as a goalie. "They told me I couldn't play in the NHL but I don't believe that yet," he says. "Right now I'm finding out if it's true." Accused during the last Olympics of being aloof from his teammates, Craig works overtime at being Mr. Nice Guy. He is well liked by his coaches ("He goes out of his way to help our younger goaltenders," says one) and happily accepts the good-natured needling that is proof of his teammates' acceptance. "We caught him ironing his underwear once and really got on him," says Phil Verchota, one of only three other holdovers from the 1980 championship team.

Despite his NHL experience, Craig is allowed under world ice hockey federation rules to play as a reinstated amateur. Still, his eligibility for the 1984 Games is uncertain, pending an expected policy review later this month by the International Olympic Committee. Though many people believe he would be foolish to try to top 1980, Craig says he would welcome the challenge. "You can't be afraid not to do something well," he says. "I prepared hard last time, and if I play this time I'll work just as hard. If the results are different, it won't be because I didn't try."

Craig is boyishly handsome, unpretentious and endlessly chatty. He can also be edgy, painfully sensitive to what others think of him ("I'm just not hard enough to say I don't give a damn") and instinctively guarded with strangers. "Jimmy accepts nobody," says his father, Donald, 64, a retired college food service director. "You have to prove yourself to him. He was never like that before the Olympics." Craig, marching through life with the personality of someone with too much starch in his shorts, admits he can't laugh at himself as much as he'd like. A loner by nature, he is stung by his reputation in hockey circles as being cocky. "When you're afraid you can't do something, you keep telling yourself you can do it," he says. "I think people mistake that for my being cocky. It's more out of insecurity."

Three years ago, of course, Craig's insecurities were hardly a matter of national interest. Americans were being held hostage in Iran, the Russians had invaded Afghanistan, inflation was running amok. So when, after the final Olympic game against Finland, TV cameras caught the flag-draped boy-next-door goalie searching the stands for his father, the nation had someone to cheer for. Craig would have preferred that the moment remained private; he was looking for his father so that the two of them could share a memory of the person he missed most at that moment, his mother, Margaret, who had died of cancer in 1977. But it was that poignant image that sealed his fate as a hero. "The Olympics were over," he recalls, "and my whole world changed."

Craig was awed and confused by what happened. There were parades, autographs, girls fainting when they kissed him. He had to come to terms with life as an instant celebrity ("First it was fun, then it was embarrassing, then it was ridiculous"), groupies ("Please leave," he once told a nude woman he found sprawled on his hotel room bed), demands from dozens of charities ("If I died tomorrow, I'd probably be chairman of the disease"), TV interviews, lunch with President Carter, and enough keys to assorted cities to start a career as a locksmith.

Unlike Bruce Jenner, the 1976 Olympic hero who capitalized heavily on his victory in the decathlon, Craig didn't make the most of his commercial potential. "I get the impression that people think I'm set for life," he says, "and that's just not true." Still, the early money was good: his contract with the Atlanta Flames, a $35,000 Coke commercial with his father, and assorted speaking engagements that enabled him to buy, among other things, two homes, a boat and a new car for his father. But while everybody was saying he had it made, Craig, emotionally and physically drained, developed an ulcer. "My biggest mistake," he says, "was not taking time off after the Olympics."

But his biggest letdown came later, in Boston. Playing for Bruins head coach Gerry Cheevers, his boyhood idol, and surrounded by family and friends from his nearby hometown of Easton, Craig played unsteadily, and his confidence suffered. "I didn't know how to handle the pressure," he says. "I felt I was being judged like a superstar, and I wasn't that. Yet if I didn't achieve, I felt like I was letting everybody down." Again, there was friction with his teammates. "I wanted the guys to like me so badly, but I didn't know how to act," he recalls. "Sometimes I was too cool, sometimes I wasn't cool enough. The harder I tried, the worse it got. I just wasn't mature enough to handle any of it."

Subsequently he irritated the Bruins' management by refusing to play for the team's minor league franchise in Erie, Pa.—it would have meant a drastic pay cut, he says—and sat out the rest of the 1980-81 season. In 1981-82 he played in only 13 minor league games, struggling with medical problems including a broken ankle, back spasms and the removal of a noncancerous growth from his shoulder.

Then, last May 29, while returning at night to his Mattapoisett, Mass. home after a business trip to Los Angeles, Craig's new BMW collided with a 1972 Toyota on a rain-slicked highway. A passenger in the other car, Margaret Curry, 29, of New Bedford, Mass., was killed. Craig, knocked unconscious briefly, was given a sobriety test, which he passed. The other driver told police Craig had swerved into her lane; he claimed she had swerved into his. After a two-day trial last September, Craig was acquitted of a charge of vehicular homicide. An $850,000 civil suit brought by the dead woman's sister is still pending.

"It was a terrible tragedy," he says. "God was good to me. I didn't see the girl who died. I'm the type of person that if it was my fault, or I even thought it was my fault, it would tear me apart. I believe He would have made me see her." After the accident Craig moved in for a week with Woolf, who kept him away from the press. "I was like a hunted animal," Craig says bitterly. Digging for dirt several days after the crash, a Boston tabloid linked Craig to a trivial but embarrassing incident earlier in May on the Massachusetts island of Cuttyhunk. Craig, two of his brothers and some friends had been partying. The group had some beers and one youth was later fined for breaking a pane of glass in a phone booth. No charges were filed against Craig.

No sooner had the publicity ceased than the Bruins bought out Craig's contract and no other NHL team picked him up. Jobless and out of hockey for the first time since childhood, he grew depressed, and he even told a reporter he was sorry he had ever won the gold medal. "It was selfish of me to say that, but it was an honest statement at the time," he says. "I was feeling sorry for myself. It took me a long time to figure out what was going on."

Craig grew up the sixth of eight children in Easton, a working-class Boston suburb. He began skating at 7, starred in goal in high school—though he was a scrawny 5'3" when he graduated—and in 1978 led Boston University to a national collegiate hockey championship. He is unusually close to his family. An older sister cuts his hair; another buys his clothes. His older brother handles his money, and his father tends the mail (10,000 letters since the Olympics), the scrapbook and Craig's beagle, Ralphie.

Remarkably, despite his eligible and conspicuous bachelorhood, Craig's social life is nil. "I don't date," he says. Friends suggest it's because he's afraid of being used. "Let's face it, I looked the same after the Olympics as I did before, so it's not me the women are after," says Craig. Observes his father: "Jimmy's got to learn that not every woman wants to get into his wallet." Eschewing singles bars, and scoffing at his playboy image ("That's a joke," Craig snaps. "I'm so straight, it's almost sickening"), he relaxes by playing golf, boating, playing with his 16 nieces and nephews or simply going off by himself. He is also discovering the value of friendship. "When things were going well I didn't think I needed friends," he confesses. "I realize now I needed them more than ever."

Those who know him best say he will only be comfortable with his Olympic past when his future is settled. He talks vaguely of a broadcasting career, but his heart is still in the rink. Yet his professional prospects are not 14-carat. "He proved at the Olympics he could play against the best in the world," says one pro scout, "but that was two weeks, not a six-month season." If his current comeback falls short, Craig says he will bow out graciously. "I'm not going to be one of those guys who cringe when they see a hockey game," he says. "I only play when I'm good enough to play."

For those who wonder what went wrong with Jim Craig, he has a simple answer: nothing. "I played in the Olympics, I won a gold medal, I played pro hockey," he says. "I met people I never would have met. What went wrong? I was in a car accident. People are in car accidents every day. People get fired from jobs. Before the Olympics, when my mother died, my father was a tired, lonely old man. Now he's a young man, he's jolly, he makes me happy. That's a great reward. Who said anything went wrong?"

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