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Thursday, August 30, 2012

The tale of two Armstrongs

I know this is a little late coming, but I've been absolutely swallowed (yes, this whale had a very big mouth to swallow me) by doing high school football previews for the last 10 days or so. If you want to know what's going on in Hudson, Essex, Bergen and Morris County football in New Jersey, just ask me, because I've practically spoken to every coach imaginable and written about thousands of kids.

Anyway, last week brought about headlines involving two Armstrongs, both in the matter of days.

Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, died. Lance Armstrong, the winner of seven Tour de France cycling races, saw his once-pristine and impeccable reputation die.

I was eight years old on July 20, 1969, when my father woke me up in the middle of the night to watch history. I mean, it had to be like 2 a.m. or so, when Armstrong made his first steps on the moon and uttered the historic phrase, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

I probably was cranky when my Dad woke me up to watch, but I was glad he did, because I did witness history and remember it clearly.

It also led to an absolute obsession I had with NASA and the pursuit of going into space. I remember watching all of CBS coverage with Walter Cronkite and Wally Sciarra like I was watching the World Series. I was mesmorized by astronauts. I had all the little models of the lunar modules. I learned about torque and speed out of the Earth's atmosphere. The astronauts were heroes. True born and bred American heroes. I had posters on my wall of the astronauts, knew all their names and where they were from, just like my baseball heroes. I watched the Apollo 13 disaster in fifth grade and prayed for their safe return.

And yes, people like Frank Borman, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell were heroes. Especially Neil Armstrong. He was a hero in the finest sense, going where no man ever had been.

A few years ago, I heard a story that I thought was true, but has now been debunked by the late Armstrong himself.

He apparently uttered "Good luck, Mr. Gorsky," when he was on the moon and no one knew what it meant. However, in the world of viral information and the Internet, it was passed around that Mr. Gorsky was a next door neighbor of the Armstrongs, who once yelled at his wife that he was not going to have sex with his wife until the "Armstrong kid next door goes to the moon."

Cute story. Not true.

The other Armstrong, the bicycle-riding one, was also a hero. A big-time hero. He was good, pure, a standout athlete, a good looking guy with a rock-star girlfriend (although he dumped his wife for Cheryl Crow and has since knocked up another woman). He was on the Wheaties box, on commercials, on talk shows. Hero in the truest sense.

In 1998, I worked at the cycling event of the Goodwill Games at Wagner College on Staten Island. I was there for a week with all the top cyclists who didn't compete in road races like the Tour de France, but in the velodrome form of track cycling.

For the entire week, Armstrong's victory at the Tour de France was discussed by the competitors. And they all said the same thing, that Armstrong was involved heavily in blood doping. That after a day's competition, he would go to a doctor who would take out his tired blood and give a transfusion of stronger blood, complete with nutrients and such. That would allow Armstrong to start fresh the next day, not feeling tired after riding the hills of France for hundreds of miles.

The cyclists at the Goodwill Games were all amazed how Armstrong had the strength and stamina to handle those hills day after day. It was even more remarkable that Armstrong was just 18 months removed from a battle with stage-four testicular cancer. Most people don't survive that strain of cancer, yet here was Armstrong, less than two years later, winning the Tour de France?

So I've been professing to everyone I know since 1998 that Armstrong was indeed a cheater.

But no one wanted to believe it, because of his work with LIVESTRONG and giving millions of people with cancer hope. Christ, everyone knows that people stricken with cancer should have the right to be called cancer survivors. We all hope and pray for that.

Armstrong's organization, complete with the yellow wristbands, gave people suffering with cancer major hope. I read the other day that LIVESTRONG has raised more than $400 million through Armstrong's efforts. That's astounding philantrophic work. It's almost as amazing as the work of Paul Newman and Jerry Lewis.

But Armstrong, the head of this organization, was an athletic cheater, like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Michael Johnson, Marion Jones and on and on. Regardless of what he did outside of his athletic field, which was remarkable, he still cheated to win those races.

And Armstrong proved that it was true by backing off his appeal with the United States Anti-Doping Association last week, enabling USADA to strip Armstrong of his seven Tour titles.

I'm one of those who truly believes that if I'm not guilty of something, I'll fight it until the bitter end, at all cost, until the last option has been exhausted. Armstrong gave up his fight last week and in essence, he admitted his guilt.

With that, Armstrong's hero status went right out the window. LIVESTRONG is convinced it will survive this indescretion, but I don't see how it can't be hurt by this.

Two Armstrongs gained headlines last week. One dies a hero, the other loses his hero status in a heartbeat.


Incredibly, this is the 30th year that I'm writing high school football previews. Three full decades of high school football. Amazing.

It reminded me of one of the first years I wrote them. I was working for the Daily Record of Morristown, the same paper I'm doing most of the work for now. What goes around, comes around.

Anyway, I was writing about one team that had three consecutive 1-8 seasons and if they didn't improve, "there would be wholesale changes in the coaching staff."

The copy editor, the late and great Bob Handler, who I learned more from than any journalism class anywhere, called me to his desk.

In his typically dry humor, Handler said, "Er, Hague, want to explain this drivel? Wholesale changes? They're teachers first, big guy, teachers."

What did I know? I was 22 years old. I've learned better now.

Here's to you, Bob, as I write this year's version of the previews, I think of you.

You can read more of my work at, where there are football previews,, where there are football previews, and, where soon, in a special pullout section next week, there will be previews. At least I'm consistent.


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