Lance Armstrong’s Incredible Comeback

(Editor’s note: Published June 5, 1998, in the Philadelphia Daily News. Re-reading the part about Lance Armstrong’s reckoning and decision to commit to being a great cyclist again in the spring of 1996 feels more ominous than it did when I wrote it. That said, even with all the guy did to hurt the integrity of cycling, his impact on cancer survivors and research is impossible to ignore. And I appreciated that his wife Kristin shared a note Armstrong had written to the teenager that leads off the story. It was a window into him that I couldn’t have gotten any other way.) 

The letters and emails come in—from cancer survivors, from those still fighting the disease, from those who have lost someone to the disease. The letters go out. Feisty, personal words of encouragement, like these, to Billy, a 13-year-old from Austin, Texas.

I heard that your last doctor’s appointment didn’t go the way you planned. I’m sorry to hear about that, but I want to talk about the bigger picture with you. Cancer is a funny illness that comes in all shapes and sizes, sometimes better or worse. Sometimes a short fight, sometimes a long fight. The key word is fight. When I met you at St. Andrews, I felt I was meeting a fighter and shaking the hand of a winner. Regardless of relapse or last checkup, you must keep the faith. The faith in your doctors, the faith in your family, and most importantly the faith in yourself. This, my friend, is absolutely the best thing you can do for yourself. Tell your cancer to go away. Plain and simple, tell it, “Get out of my life. I’m a busy guy.”

I get asked every day why I returned to professional cycling. The answer isn’t about money, winning races or fame. The answer is because of people like you. Cancer patients that want to live forever and fight like hell. I will ride my bike tomorrow for five hours and think of you all day. That’s right, thinking of you, the fighter. Hang in there, my friend.

Yours truly,

Lance Armstrong

At Sunday’s First Union USPRO Championship, Lance Armstrong will take his bike to the starting line on Benjamin Franklin Parkway and continue what is becoming a remarkable and unprecedented comeback, in the making 20 months since he was told he had testicular cancer.

The disease cost him 2 years of his career as the most promising and talented American racer of his era. It cost him money. (His French team, Cofidis, negotiated its way out of a 2-year, $2.5 million contract as soon as it found out about his illness.) It nearly cost him his life.

And he has accepted it all.

“It’s been an unbelievable two years, but that’s the way life goes,” Armstrong, 26, said earlier this week. “It’s been well worth it, though I wouldn’t want to have to do it again. I’m pleased with the way things turned out.”

Said his wife, the former Kristin Richard: “It changed his life, and because he’s recognizable and was so open about it, it changed other people’s lives. Countless lives were helped because he had the courage to come out and talk about the disease. It’s profound.”

‘What Are My Odds of Surviving?’

In the beginning, it was only profoundly disturbing. Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer on Oct. 2, 1990. He was first told he had an 80 percent chance of recovery, but doctors came back several weeks later with more dire news. Before the affected testicle was removed, the cancer had spread to his abdomen, his lungs, and his brain. There would be surgery to remove the lesions on his brain, and intensive rounds of chemotherapy.

“What are my odds of surviving?” he asked. Less than 50 percent, the doctors replied.

The surgeries were successful and so was the chemo, though it took a terrible toll, eating at his physical fitness. Thankfully, as a trained athlete, he had plenty to spare.

And even as he fought his way back toward health, he already had begun to think of a way to help others.

The Lance Armstrong Foundation was founded soon after the cyclist’s diagnosis, in an Austin restaurant, mostly as a vehicle for a charity bike ride. Today it has three full-time employees and offers two $50,000 grants for research on urological cancer, as well as information on the disease and support for its victims. The second running of its annual charity ride, the Ride for the Roses, included more than 4,000 cyclists and raised about $500,000. Armstrong vows to build the event into the biggest charity ride in the United States.

“We have some expenses to pay, but even so it was a really good take for a second-year event,” he said. “There’s a trust thing you have to build up. People will give to the United Way and such, but it’s harder for a new event. I’m very proud.”

And very much in demand. Beyond the media attention his comeback is stirring, he receives a steady stream of letters, many from men who found they had testicular cancer after Armstrong’s case raised their awareness. He offers what help he can—going as far as to get his doctors in touch with a letter writer—and tries to keep pushing the issue into the public consciousness.

A Step Back

Armstrong, though, found little help when he announced last fall that his doctors had given him permission to train seriously again and he wished to return to the pro circuit. No offers came out of Europe, the ultimate cycling proving ground and home to the biggest and best teams.

He ended up signing with the U.S. Postal Service squad, an up-and-comer with both a European and domestic racing schedule but a relatively small $4 million budget (the biggest Euro-teams have budgets twice as big).

Lance and Kristin moved into an apartment in Nice, France, with Armstrong feeling strong and expecting to do well. He finished an encouraging 15th in the four-day Ruta del Sol stage race, But trouble was brewing.

“I started too aggressively, probably did too much too soon,” he said. “I probably should have taken things more gradually.”

It all came to a head in the second stage of the Paris-Nice stage race, in March.

“His confidence had been shaken by how hard it was at the beginning of the season,” said Mark Gorski, the U.S. Postal Service team manager. “He finished 15th in Ruta del Sol, which is a good placing. But he had to work incredibly hard. If you compare it to spring training in baseball, he had to work so hard to get in peak form, as compared to before [he was sick].

“At Paris-Nice, he didn’t do as well as he wanted. It was windy and cold. He didn’t do as well as he expected in the time trial on the first day. On the second … he reached a point of extreme frustration.”

Armstrong pulled to the side of the road and got off his bike.

“I got a phone call from Lance while in the market [in Nice],” Richard said. “He said he had stopped. I was worried that he had crashed or had the flu. But he said he was coming back to Nice and we would talk. That made me even more worried.”

The two had a long conversation about Armstrong and his motivation. After all he had been through, he wasn’t sure that he was ready to commit himself as fully as he needed to if he wanted to succeed in pro cycling again. They decided to return to the States and figure things out.

‘It Was Magic’

In time, he decided he indeed wanted to race. He spoke with old friend and former U.S. national team coach Chris Carmichael, and they put together a plan to get him in shape for Sunday’s USPRO Championship, which he had identified in February as a race he thought he had a realistic shot at winning.

The plan came together perfectly. Amid his training, he and Kristin were married on May 8 in Montecito, Calif.

A refreshed Armstrong raced a little for the Postal Service team, then had his coming-out party on May 22, the Friday night before the Ride for the Roses. He won a circuit race through the city’s nightclub district with 20,000 spectators hollering for him.

“When he came across the finish line, it was magic,” Richard wrote in an online diary she keeps on the foundation’s web site.

His form has continued to improve. He finished second to teammate Frankie Andreu in Tuesday’s First Union Invitational in Lancaster.

“It continues to astound me,” Gorski said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s phenomenal to come back from what he has been through. He was the strongest guy in the field [at Lancaster].

“He had shown flashes, trained hard. Physically, he was doing fine. He was having more difficulty emotionally and mentally. He was so aggressive; he needed to be more patient.

“Once he got used to the idea that he wasn’t go to win a Tour de France stage or the World Championships in his first two months back, his confidence began to grow again.”

And now, improbably, he approaches the 156-mile USPRO Championship with an apparent shot at winning it. He has done it before. He shattered the field on the penultimate climb of the Manayunk Wall in 1993 on the way to a $1 million bonus for winning the three races of the Thrift Drug triple crown.

And where weeks ago nothing was expected of him, now nobody’s quite sure what to expect. Not even Armstrong.

But there is hope and encouragement. Lance Armstrong will hear it on the streets of Philadelphia from fans on Sunday. And he’ll get a daily dose in his mailbox from folks who know what a real challenge is.

Not Yet the Competitor

Asked about living as a athlete and a cancer survivor, Armstrong mentioned an article he saw recently on golfer Paul Azinger, who had a lymphoma removed from his right shoulder in 1993.

“Azinger said it took a while to feel like a professional golfer again, as opposed to like a cancer survivor,” Armstrong said. “Instead of saying, ‘I have to make this shot,’ you say, ‘Whether I make this shot or not, I’m just glad to be out here.’

“In time, that fades and you become more competitive. At this point, I’m a year-and-a-half out. I’m still looking at this like a survivor.”

Two The Hard Way

(Editor’s note: I wrote this in 1990, as a member of the sports staff at the Asbury Park Press. It was named the Sports Feature of the Year by the New Jersey Associated Press.  I recently found it in my clips and, while it betrays some biases and youthful innocence, I do like how many people I reached out to, and how I got to know the two young men at the heart of it.  It has me wondering where they are now. Also, the article was published on Nov. 18, 1990, the day after my brother’s high school team upset the No. 1 team in the area and he was quoted in the article, which appeared on the sports section’s front page, too. It was a good day for the Donahue boys.)

In Asbury Park, the crossroads come early for a young man.

On one hand, there’s the glamour of easy money and acceptance from the majority of your peers—a world of gangs, drugs, alcohol and frequent fights. It’s all around you.

The other path is less clear, if not less traveled. It isn’t easy and it demands a constant vigil and constant dedication. Bruce Springsteen probably never realized how right he was about how hard it is to be a saint in this city.

“The streets get them after awhile,” says former Asbury Park basketball coach Nate Bruno. “If they have some direction they can get through high school and go on to college. If not, the streets will get him. It can turn a good kid into a problem.”

But to Anthony Wright and Mark Murray, former stars at Asbury Park now making their mark at the University of Delaware, the crossroads offered just one road—a road out. Maybe not forever, but a road out now.

“Asbury’s not the nicest place,” says Wright, a redshirt freshman last season who was the East Coast Conference’s Rookie of the Year. “There’s a lot of streets, street stuff. The drugs. We could have either taken the route to the streets or the route we’re on now. It was around me every day and I had to be strong to not fall into selling drugs, making all this money every week, instead of going to college.

“It makes you think when you live around it every day, so basically [Mark] helped me out and I helped him out and we stayed away from it.”

The two meet in 1984. Murray was a sophomore, Wright a freshman. Neither was a native of Asbury Park. Murray had come in seventh grade, from Norfolk, Va., where he and his mother had stayed for two years after his mom’s divorce from dad, Otis, who stayed behind at Sumter, S.C. Wright was a new transfer from Freehold, where he had grown up. “We just built the closeness from that point on,” says Murray. “We didn’t drink, we didn’t do all that other stuff. You know, we partied, but we didn’t overdo it and we fit right in with each other.”

“[The other students] partied real hard,” he says. “They did everything. They’d go out and stay out all weekend partying. We knew people from the top of the gang to the quiet students―and most of them that fit in right in the middle, they went off that way with the hanging crew, that fighting crew. But not Anthony and I.”

Sitting in a comfortable office in the sports information office at the Newark, Del., campus, Wright leans in when he talks about the battle.

“You have the good,” he says, putting his right hand on the desk in front of him, “and the bad,” the left hand comes down, “and you’re right in the middle with the crew, a group of y’all.

“Everybody’s starting to fall and your friends are in here now,” he says, lifting his left hand. “If you go with your friends, you usually end up there, so you have to stand for something.”

So the two stood for the future, for working hard and keeping clean. And they stood next to each other, while still choosing their own paths.

“They had character,” remembers their basketball coach, Bruno, who has since stepped down.

“Neither hung out with groupies. They were basically loners,” Bruno says. “Today in Asbury Park, it’s all gangs. They were never involved.”

“They’re probably two of the best kids to come through here in a long time,” says football coach Leroy Hayes, who only coached Wright, but knew both. “If one of them wasn’t at the high school, the other one was.”

Even their destructive side was constructive. The two broke about a dozen bikes riding each other from basketball court to basketball court, looking for a game or just a chance to practice. Once there, they’d work on their games. The two were virtually inseparable during basketball season, but would tend to go their own ways much of the rest of the year. Since going to college, the friendship has deepened further

“They complimented each other off the court as well as on,” says Asbury Park basketball coach Bob Gohl, an assistant while the two were at the high school. “Even now, they still stop back and visit me. You wish you had more like that.”

“People always drilled into our heads that we were two of the different ones in the school and they wanted us to succeed,” Murray says. “I didn’t see it as a letdown for me if I didn’t go to college, but for a lot of other people. My mother’s a schoolteacher and it wouldn’t have helped her a lot if I hadn’t gone to college.”

A NATURAL

On the basketball court, Mark Murray is a soft breeze, a natural.

Fast as the wind, too. Murray is the East Coast Conference 100-meter champ two years running, last time in a searing 10.6 seconds. After redshirting his first year at Delaware, Murray has scored about 12 points a game through the last two years. Barring injuries, he’ll break the 1,000-point barrier sometime late this season.

“Certain things you just don’t teach,” says Gohl. “Mark was a very smooth players, a great leaper, an all-around athlete.”

But when Delaware coach Steve Steinwedel talks about Murray, it’s not the athletic package he mentions.

“He’s just so competitive,” says Steinwedel. “That’s by far his biggest strength. He has a lot of pride and he hates losing—from losing to a teammate in practice to losing to an opponent in a game, and because of that he works very hard and has become a better player.”

Talk to Murray about losing, and he agrees. “I hate it. I hate it—sometimes too much, to the point where I’ll be arguing with my teammates when they do something bad, or I get frustrated in a game sometimes that I take myself out [of the flow] sometimes.”

Steinwedel isn’t the only coach to take notice of the two young men from Asbury Park.

“They’re great,” says Rider College coach Kevin Bannon. “I love guys like that. People say they’re not this and they’re not that. People say, ‘Well, they’re not a forward and they’re not a guard, they’re not this,’ and they overlook them and Delaware just took them.

“Yeah, they’re not all those things. They’re just great players who play their butts off every single night. They get a rebound, they make a three-point shot and they shut down your best guy. We got a 6-10 guy and that’s great, but I’d just as soon fill my team with 6-4 to 6-6 guys who are tough guys. They’re just what we’re going to look for in our recruiting.”

Murray has also spent the past two summers in Newark, working at the local Chrysler plant, fine-tuning his game and bulking up for the coming season. With an assist from Tony Decker, the Delaware basketball team’s strength and conditioning coordinator, the 6-foot-4 Murray has gone from a 175-pounder who got pushed around as a freshman to a 192-pound junior who can do the pushing. A post player in high school, he is now a legitimate shooting guard, with three-point range on his jumper.

“Mark has improved by leaps and bounds every year,” says Steinwedel, a man not prone to faint praise.

All this intensity is news to Ruth Murray, Mark’s mom. A teacher at Asbury Park Middle School, where she works with emotionally disturbed students, she was a great believer in keeping things in perspective.

“Maybe being a single mother, I was different,” she says. “But whenever Mark lost, I would say, ‘You can’t win them all,’ or ‘You can always do your best, but you won’t always be the best.’ “

Around her, Mark was always a laid-back, engaging son.

“He’s more competitive than he was in high school,” says Bruno, who remembers sitting next to Ruth Murray last year during Delaware’s game against Rutgers, at Piscataway, when Mark blew up over a call. “She was embarrassed by the way he acted and said, ‘I’ve never seen him like that.’ But I had, during games. When I had him, I kind of welcomed it, as long as he didn’t try to prolong it. It helped to motivate him.”

“Maybe he’s always been that way,” Ruth Murray says now, “and he hid it from me.”

As a teacher, Ruth never hid her expectations from Mark and his sister, Tiffany, 16. Education has always been the No. 1 priority, as one would expect in a family fairly bursting with teachers. Besides his mom, Marks’ grandmother and two cousins teach. After a short stint as a communications major, Mark is now a physical education major, with thoughts of pursuing a graduate degree as an athletic trainer.

A HOWLING WIND

If Murray’s a breeze, Anthony Wright is a driving rainstorm, a howling wind.

He has careened through life, with great highs followed by great lows, but always his unrelenting determination to succeed has pulled him through.

Wright’s dad left soon after he was born and his mom, Augustine Brown, was hard-pressed to raise four children by herself. A chronic back injury that has kept her out of work, on and off, for the past decade has only made things tighter. The money has been scarce, but she has given her children all the things that money can’t buy—love, as much attention as she can muster, and her own fierce pride.

“I told them always to think of themselves as No. 1,” she says. “And when you want something, don’t ever stop. I never gave up because once you stop, you’re finished. No one’s going to help you.”

And despite his mom’s protests, young Anthony, whom she nicknamed “Sweet Curl” when he was an infant, needed a father figure. He got one as a 9-year-old, playing on the Freehold Pop Warner football team for coach Wayne Holton.

Holton, a white man, was the coach for five years, coaching about 200 kids, but there was only one Anthony Wright in his life.

“He’s a kid who has grown on me,” Holton says. “I’ve always felt something special toward him. He always gave me his best and then some.”

In return, Holton has helped Wright in any way he could. Back then, the coach brought Wright his first pair of football shoes, the occasional ice cream cone. After losing touch for a couple years, Holton, now living in Westfield and running an accounting firm, saw a story in the newspaper about an Asbury Park student named Anthony Wright, who was the first freshman in years to start on the Blue Bishops’ basketball team.

“I thought, ‘Jesus, could that be Sweet Curl?’ ” Holton remembers. It was. Since then he has helped Wright in high school and with the transition to college. When Wright went off to summer school before his first year at Delaware, Holton and Wright stopped at the mall on the way and bought bedsheets, underwear and a college wardrobe, including jeans, button-down dress shirts and a pair of penny loafers. Holton sends him $25 a week spending money, $5 less than he sends to his own son, a freshman in more-expensive Boston. When the care packages go out around exam time, one goes to Delaware. Wright has eaten over and slept over. He showed up at Holton’s daughter’s high school graduation this summer with teammate Alex Coles. Dressed in suits, the two hit 20 of 25 three-pointers in the backyard. “I used to coach him in football,” says Holton, “now I coach him in life. He’s the third kid in my family. I’m so proud of him. To me, he’s a son.”

“He’s like my father,” Wright says.

“He helps me. He makes sure I’m doing well, his children treat me like a brother,” he says. “Thank God for him.”

And for his help, Holton has attached just one string: Wright must do the same for another minority student some day.

WHAT IF …

Imagine if God reached down and took away Picasso’s paintbrush. If He just plucked the music out of Leonard Bernstein’s head. What if you lost the one thing you really loved doing in the world, just watched it disappear in an explosion of white pain, watched a surgeon remove it with a knife.

Then you’d know what it’s like to be Anthony Wright.

Wright was the next Ronnie Lott in high school, a strong safety who could do it all.

Here was Wright in his senior year, an All-State defensive back and quarterback on a 9-2 team his own coach admits shouldn’t have done so well. “He hates to lose at anything,” says Hayes. “He exuded confidence and it rubbed off on the other kids. He got more out of that team than I would have thought possible at the beginning of the season.”

Hayes remembers the first state playoff game that year, against South River, as one of the coldest days of the year, with a windchill of -10 degrees. Wright played brilliantly that Saturday, but ended up with frostbite on both feet.

The doctors said he probably shouldn’t play on Thanksgiving against Neptune, but Wright disagreed. He was on the field Monday and wouldn’t go back inside. He stood out there and exhorted his team through practice. Tuesday he practiced, saying, “This is Neptune, I’m playing.” Thursday? Wright scored twice and led the team in tackles. Asbury Park won.

“I never saw a person with the desire to win as much as Anthony,” says Gohl. “He wouldn’t let you lose.”

Even today at Delaware, that competitiveness shows through. Ask Wright about the Hens’ poor road record last season and his eyes light up.

“That has to change … I’m not going through that again,” he says.

“My mother gave me the will to win,” says Wright. “I hate losing. I hate losing at anything. I’m not a sore loser, but I’d rather win. Besides playing unfair, I’d do anything to win.”

After the football season ended, it appeared Wright couldn’t lose. He was being chased by Penn State, Syracuse, UCLA and USC, among others, all hoping to land a football player who was projected straight up to a professional defensive back. He was the real thing, a sure deal. The only hurdle was his SATs, and the afternoon before playing Wall High School in January 1988, he found out he was OK there, too. He confided in his mother that Syracuse would be the choice.

Then the wind began to blow his world around.

College on his mind, Wright scrambled for a loose ball. He picked it up as a Wall player dove for it. The player’s head hit Wright’s right knee, and three of the four ligaments that secured the joint snapped like dry kindling. Goodbye, Syracuse. Goodbye, football. Goodbye, track, where Wright was high-jumping close to 7 feet as a junior and dreaming of someday competing in the Olympics.

Dr. Norman Scott, who performed the reconstructive surgery on the knee, told him football and high-jumping were out of the question. The schools retreated, their offers drying up and blowing away like so many tumbleweeds.

“He was completely down,” says Augustine Brown, Wright’s mom. “He didn’t want to talk. It was completely over, he thought. I told him to don’t feel sorry for yourself … He’s a strong kid. When he’s hurt, he won’t tell you. I could see the tears in his eyes, but he never once shed a tear.”

Holton had received even more sobering news from the doctor.

“Dr. Scott told me when the operation was complete that the tear was so bad, only Bernard King had ever come back from an injury so bad,” he says.

Only one school called the day of the operation—the University of Delaware.

“They told me the offer [to play basketball] still stands,” says Wright. “And St. John’s called two days later, but I said Delaware’s first, and Murray was there and we were tight. He’s like my best friend.

“I just thought about it, sitting in my bed one day, thinking. And you know, that can touch a person. They knew I was hurt but they called right then … That was the first positive thing that happened after the operation.”

From there, Wright turned his crackling intensity on his mangled knee. He went to rehabilitation every day, for up to six hours a day. Holton got him in to the local YMCA on a friend’s membership to swim. Wright lifted, he rode the stationary bike. He fought the world.

“It was painful,” Wright says. “It was like me against the world. I always did look at it like that and I still do, because once you get hurt everyone looks at you like ‘He’s not going to make it back.’ “

Working with Decker to rehab the knee, Wright sat out his first year as a redshirt at Delaware, and doubted how long he would be able to take this foreign place. “I felt out of place,” Wright says. But having Murray there, who had also redshirted his first year after suffering a compound dislocation of a finger, made things bearable. Now he feels comfortable.

“It’s different. Once you meet people, there’s a lot of great people here,” he says. “A lot of good people that go here and make you feel welcome.

“Now I can react to both [worlds]—up here and at home. I feel more versatile.”

STRUGGLED EARLY

Wright struggled early last season, but his game came together in January of this year. He came home for this summer after averaging 7.1 points and 4.6 rebounds for the Blue Hens, who finished 16-13. His knee was finally back, he felt he was peaking—when he hurt the left one, playing in the Jersey Shore Basketball League.

The injury was not as severe as the first one, and the arthroscopic surgery was performed quickly. Wright is just now rounding back to form. “It was like starting all over again,” he says.

But the heartache is still there for Wright. He looks at the football team practice, or sits in the stands watching the team play on Saturday afternoon, and he retreats into his own private Field of Dreams.

“It’s frustrating,” he says. “Sometimes I think, ‘What if I had played football? Why am I playing basketball?’ It’s like dropping your favorite thing to do. Football was the first sport I ever played. Everyone thought I liked basketball better, but it was football. I high-jumped. I miss that too. It’s depressing because I think what I might have really done if I hadn’t gotten hurt. I had goals of going to the Olympic Games because I was high-jumping [nearly] 7-something my junior year.

“So it was like staring me in the face.”

So far, Wright has stared back. He has overcome the athletic setbacks and last year overcame an educational one. A drop in his grades led to the diagnosis of a learning disability that had not been spotted before. Working with his academic counselor three times a week, Wright got himself back on track for a degree, carrying a 2.6 grade-point average in his physical education major. He hopes to stick around the university and pursue a graduate degree in accounting, like Holton.

Wright’s mother looks forward, as does Holton, to the day the young man they have raised by turns receives his degree. For both it will mark the conclusion of a job well done.

“I have four children and two didn’t finish [high] school. I don’t care if he ever turns pro,” Augustine Brown says. “I just want him to get that piece of paper.”

“He had friends who got in trouble, ended up in detention centers,” she says. “I don’t believe in drugs. I never felt a need to do it. I work with young kids at Marlboro Hospital and I saw a 16-year-old kid who was into drugs. Sixteen, he could have been my son … I didn’t want to see any of my kids like that. Why do they do that stuff? I never understood it.

“And I always told [my children], even if I had a million dollars, if they did it and went to jail, I would never get them out. I’d leave them there. I worked, I struggled, I did my best and I never turned to drugs, and you had better not either.”

FEW REWARDS

Wright and Murray have yet to win anything of consequence at Delaware. There have been no ECC titles. When they speak of winning a tournament, it was the Shore Conference, not the NCAAs, which Delaware has never made. The high point for both young men was Murray’s senior year, when Asbury Park High School won a state basketball title.

But time passes. Both Wright and Murray have a sister on the Blue Bishops’ girls basketball team. Nathalie Brown, 17, and Tiffany Murray, 16. Ironically, this pair could end up at Delaware, too. They’ve both received feelers from the university. And if the girls go to Newark, would the boys return to Asbury Park?

Sometimes Murray thinks about returning to his old school, maybe to teach in the same halls he once roamed as a student. Teaching, and Asbury Park, it seems, are in his blood.

“I wouldn’t mind going back and trying to raise the school to one of the best from one of the worst,” he says. Maybe he’d even coach track or basketball.

“It’s a good way to help people,” he says, “taking what I learned and applying it to somebody else.”

Wright says he’d never live in Asbury Park again, but he’d like to be active in the area. And he still has his pledge to Holton to fulfill. Somehow, it’s easy to see Wright walking away from a football field with a 10-year-old in hand, taking him for an ice cream. Giving him a chance. Showing him the right route to take.

“There are a lot of kids with talent out there who need the guidance,” says Wright. “I can show them what [Holton] showed me. He let me know that someplace the grass is greener.”

A Modest Proposal: Super Bowl Saturday

Like the U.S. health-care system, the New York Giants, and Instagram’s algorithm (why can’t I just see stuff in reverse-chronological order?), there is another part of American life that is profoundly broken. The good news is it can be fixed without spending billions of dollars or putting Americans in harm’s way. The only cost will be to the ratings of NBC’s “Dateline.”

We need to move the Super Bowl to Saturday night.

(Editor’s note: I wrote an updated, and data-enhanced, version of the argument for the Vice site Tonic in 2018.)

Why move it, you ask? From the business side, the game is pure, swim-in-a-Olympic-sized-poolful-of-money spectacle and success. More than 111 million people watched New England edge Atlanta last year—down just a bit from the record 114 million three years ago. A 30-second spot on this year’s broadcast will run advertisers as much as four-and-a-half million dollars. In short, it’s the best idea anyone has ever had that wasn’t the wheel, indoor plumbing, or Kyrie Irving leaving Cleveland.

But on this side of the looking glass — that is, to those of us watching or, more precisely, waiting to watch the Super Bowl — the view is much different.

The game starts late (6:40 p.m. ET), runs late, keeps the kids up late — or even worse, sends sports-loving kids to bed without resolution. (What is this — baseball!?!) If you plan on throwing The Ultimate Super Bowl Party, it’ll involve the kinds of food and drink that could use a good day to work through the system. It comes on Sunday night, which makes this a slightly more enthusiastic, gluttonous version of an Oscars party.

Exactly. You see my point.

Worst of all, Monday morning always looms over the Super Bowl. Put your hand in the air if you spent the second half of last year’s game preoccupied by that Monday morning presentation for your boss — or the first half of your Monday workday in the men’s room, revisiting the Super Bowl spread. This is bad for a) your enjoyment of the game, b) your continued employment, or c) both.

We could just make Monday a holiday, but that’s a more complicated solution — and would involve the government and your HR department. It might take decades. Moving to Saturday doesn’t screw up anything but a bunch of VIP parties in the host city and force CBS to move Super Bowl’s “Greatest Commercials All-Star Countdown” to Friday — or Hulu. It makes the Super Bowl the opening act for a truly awesome party night, a night that makes New Year’s Eve pale in comparison. It makes it a truly Super Saturday.

How I Had an Almost-Not-Quite Tragedy—and You Can Too

Hi, I’m Kevin. I’m 49 years old, I’ve been married for 23 years. I have two boys in college. I’m 6-foot tall and weigh almost 190 pounds. I have worked for Men’s Health for the past 8 years and I generally live an active, healthy lifestyle.

And five weeks ago a doctor unclogged an artery in my heart that might have left me dead or disabled before Christmas.

“I’d say I dodged a bullet,” I told a friend, “but that implies that I saw it coming.” It’s more like I was standing one foot in the street when a city bus narrowly missed me.


SEVEN WEEKS ago, I felt something in my chest. It was not quite pain, not quite pressure. Mostly an awareness, usually on the extreme left side of my chest. Sometimes it would jump to the extreme right side.

Initially I thought I had tweaked a muscle while serving as part of a test panel for an upcoming fitness DVD (Oh, the perks of being a Men’s Health editor).

Six weeks ago, the something hadn’t gone away, and I had to admit that it wasn’t a muscle tweak. The discomfort was coming from within my chest—like those floor-drops-out-below-you moments in a horror movie where the police let you know that the maniac’s call was placed from INSIDE your house!!!

The realization came upon me like a dark cloud (cliched, but exactly how I felt). My family has a long history of heart disease. My dad had quintle-bypass surgery in 1985, at the age of 44. Even worse, when he awoke from the procedure, his surgeon asked him when he had his heart attack. My dad stared at him dumbfounded. He had never had a heart attack, he insisted. The surgeon said the scar tissue around his heart argued otherwise. That set off a family parlor game: When Did Dad Have His Heart Attack? We finally landed on a most likely candidate: Family vacation, a few years earlier. The San Diego Zoo. He thought he was coming down with the flu and headed back to the hotel, where he slept it off. He was back in the driver’s seat, driving us to LA, the next day. Call it drive-thru rehab. That was my dad. He passed away five years ago, at 70.

His dad died at the age of 42, in 1944. An Irish immigrant driving a bakery truck, he flipped it over on the streets of New York. They pulled his dead body from the truck. Nobody did autopsies on poor Irish truck drivers back then, so the cause of his death remains a medical mystery.

It’s pretty much like that on my dad’s side of the family. His cousin, in Dublin, has suffered from painful angina for years, and has enough stents to open a cardiac medical supply store.

And still, I figured that if I did enough good things—stayed active, ate pretty well, managed stress and my weight—that I could stay ahead of this shadow. But here it was.

I called my GP, let’s call him Doctor V, and asked to move up a scheduled checkup by a week.


Things were going fine at my checkup. My blood pressure was a little high but that was understandable because I was nervous. I bent over a table, grimaced, and found out second-hand (pun intended) that my prostate was a small, supple thing of beauty. Dr. V and I talked about my chest discomfort and he thought it sounded muscular. Lauren the Nurse would come and give me an EKG and I could go home.

Except that, after taking the EKG and disappearing for a second, Lauren came back and asked me to stick around. Dr. V. wanted to talk with me.

The shadow closed in.

t_wave_inversion

Here’s a quick primer from EKG 101: In a healthy EKG, there are a series of waves, labeled P through U. P marks the contraction of the atria, and is a slight turn upward; QRS is a small down-big up-small down movement that marks the contraction of the ventricle; and the T is a small upward movement that marks the re-set (repolarization) of the heart before it pumps again. The P, R, and S are all supposed to go up. In mine, several of the leads showed the first two waves going up, then the third sagging downward. That’s an inverted T wave, and the T stands for Trouble. It can be a sign of blockage.

But maybe not. My doc wasn’t sure what to do. We didn’t have a history together. In fact, this was our first time as doctor and patient (we knew each other from his treating my 18-year-old son). EKGs are not exact science, he explained. In fact, I could have had this abnormality in my heart beat since I was born. “My gut tells me this isn’t something we should ignore,” he said. “Would you mind going to the ER?”

I didn’t, and I did. The docs drew blood to check for specific inflammation markers and to run a blood panel, and did another EKG. The decision: I wasn’t having a heart attack but I needed more tests, specifically a nuclear stress test.


SIX DAYS LATER, I woke up the morning of the stress test feeling better than I had in two weeks. No pain at all. A ghostly absence of sensation.

The stress test involved injecting a radioactive dye in my bloodstream, then imaging my heart before and after a period of activity. It was pretty cool—I’d been experiencing this long enough that my curiosity was now routinely trumping my fear—and strangely liberating. The ER doc had made a point of telling me not to go too hard until that test, especially after I told her I had pushed a sled with 425 pounds on it around the gym trying to trigger a reaction that would confirm this was angina (it didn’t work). So the chance to exert myself on a treadmill felt good. I was able to walk fast, then run, for about 9 minutes. I got my heart to 160 beats per minute. No pain. Maybe this is going to be OK, I thought. I laid down for the after-exercise set of images and went home.

My brand-new cardiologist, Dr. Matthew Levy, called me on my cell that evening. I was shooting baskets on my driveway.

“It doesn’t look good,” he said. “You definitely have a blockage. I need you to come in two days from now to get cathed. We’ll take a look at it, and if the blockage is severe enough, we’ll perform an angioplasty.”

We talked for a few more minutes, then he said. “I don’t know you very well, but you don’t sound surprised.”

I was, and I wasn’t.


TWO MORNINGS later, I was on an operating room table in Paoli, Pa., the object of a cardiac catheterization. I was drugged but not knocked out; it was more dreamy than blotto. While I know that I was half-there, I have no useful memories from the operation or from the couple hours afterward.

coronary_arteriesI would later find out that my left anterior descending artery (known in heart circles as “the widowmaker”), which snakes down the front of my heart, was about 95% blocked. A stent was put in place to open the blockage. I was out of the hospital within 24 hours of the procedure, with little to show for it other than a broken night’s sleep and a minuscule incision in my right wrist, where the catheter was inserted. The site was a little swollen and bruised. I sat outside on the deck of a local winery at 4 p.m. that day, sipping a half-glass of red wine, enjoying the afternoon sun, listening to a jazz band, and insisting to friends that I had indeed been a patient in a hospital that morning.

I have a new regimen of three pills—baby aspirin, the blood thinner Effient, and the statin Lipitor—that I take daily. I’ve run a few times and the biggest issue has been my balky left knee. I am about a minute-a-mile faster than I’ve been for the past two years. I wonder if having an almost catastrophic blockage of the biggest artery feeding my heart is actually an advantage. Am I now turbo-charged? Am I asking for some karmic fuck-job for even thinking this way??

My cardiologist tells me I was days, or weeks, or maybe a month or two from a possibly devastating heart attack.

I feel pretty damn lucky.


THE QUESTION, of course, is this: Shouldn’t I have seen this coming?

Medically, the answer is surprisingly equivocal.

How to treat folks like me remains controversial, said Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, the medical editor of Examine.com who has a practice in Olney, Md.

“It really depends,” he said, “because someone with a low risk—a slightly elevated cholesterol level but not a family history, they’re clean, their blood pressure and blood sugar is all fine—they can have slightly higher lipid levels without as much of a risk as someone with those risk factors. You may have to treat 100 people like that to avoid one heart attack over five years.

“Now someone with higher risk, you may be treating 50 or less people to prevent one heart attack in five years. It is one of those things we argue all the time. It’s primary prevention vs. secondary prevention.

“What you’re doing now is secondary prevention. You’ve already had a coronary issue and now you’re trying to prevent the second event, a heart attack. And other people who have initially high cholesterol [but no cardiac disease] may be on statins too. What we find is that statins may be more helpful in secondary prevention than in primary prevention.”

So there’s a medical argument that makes me look less like an idiot. Yes, I had a family history, but my blood panels over the years were borderline. Cholesterol right around the 200 mark, with not a lot of the good stuff (HdL). Triglycerides on the high side, but not crazy. Over the years, a doctor would look at the panel, then look up at me, then decide it all bore watchful waiting.

ldl-target-no-CAD

ldl-target-w-cad

Here is a recent blood panel and a popular risk calculator. If I don’t know I have cardiac artery disease, my 10-year risk of heart attack is  6%. It jumps to more than 20% if I do know. Note that I copped to a family history in both examples.

So we watched—until I screwed up. And here’s where we move beyond medical cover into my own accountability. Because I stopped seeing my old GP after we disagreed over how much activity a guy in his 40s should engage in (I said more, he thought it was asking for injuries). He moved out of the area soon after—and for 6 years or so, nobody watched anything.

It’s the most obvious advice one could receive: Find a new GP. But I didn’t. I can say I was busy, that I was occupied by family and career and anything that could keep me from going to the doctor. That I felt fine.

But the truth is as long as I was feeling good I didn’t want anyone spoiling my party. So I didn’t look while I stepped in and out of that city street.

Anyone else? Show of hands, please. Thought so. We’re a big club, with a lot of turnover. in 2012, more than one-quarter of all guys avoided a checkup with a doctor.

Late this summer, with my 50th birthday just months away, I decided to find a doctor. I made an appointment with a general practitioner who impressed me with his care of my son, who has several health issues. I set up the appointment before I ever felt a twinge in my chest. In my blacker moments, after my chest tingled and before I got to the doctor’s office, I thought, Nice job, Kevin. You invoked this motherfucker.

Except I know I didn’t. And that my decision to move up my checkup may have saved my life.

So here I am, and here’s what I’m doing.

I’M CLEANING UP MY DIET. I love salty snacks and good ol’ Coca-Cola. Both are getting dialed WAY DOWN. The great thing about cravings is the longer you go without them, the easier it is in the moment. My Coke intake is down to about one a week. Pretzels, once a month.

Dr. P.K. Shah, of Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and a member of the Men’s Health advisory board, encouraged me to lean toward a Mediterranean Diet. My cardiologist, Dr. Levy, made it even simpler: eat fish twice a week. Dr. Nadolsky said to snack on nuts and find a way to consume 4 teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil every day.

Since this episode began, I’ve dropped 6 pounds, to 182. I’d like to settle in for now close to 180 pounds.

I’M MOVING. Research says that 30 minutes of moderate exercise 4-5 times a week is where I should start, and I am. But there’s some that suggests that more intensive exercise provides additional benefit. My doctors have told me I’m under no restrictions within reason. My aim is to push myself hard to keep my pipes as clean as possible. I am pushing the sled again, and running suicides at a local basketball court. Suicides suck—but not doing them sucks worse, I think.

I’M RECONNECTING WITH THE DOCTOR. I’ve learned my lesson. I will continue to check in with my GP (Dr. Graham Vigliotta) and cardiologist (Dr. Matthew Levy, Cardiology Consultants of Philadelphia).

The thing is, your 40s are a time of transition and not all of it is positive. Risks accumulate over time, and I cannot ignore them. I am taking statins—with coronary disease now determined, that’s a no-brainer, says Dr. Nadolsky.

If any of this story resonates with you, start at the beginning. If you don’t have a GP, get one. If you haven’t seen yours in a while, see her or him. If you have a family history of heart disease, get a baseline EKG by 40, younger if you have other risks factors (obesity, hypertension, generally shitty habits).

At the same time, and I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m backing out here, I refuse to be defined by my illness. I am not a diagnosis. Going forward, my goal is to be aware of it AND work with it to thrive.

I’m hanging my hat on what Dr. Shah told me: “Although having heart disease at a young age indicates a serious predisposition, proper lifestyle and medical management can largely control that risk and is compatible with a normal life span.”

“People with conditions like yours live into their hundreds,” said my new best friend, Dr. Nadolsky.

I’M STAYING POSITIVE.  People who have coronary disease who have a positive attitude tend to stick with behaviors that provide better outcomes, like exercise and compliance in taking meds,  reports a study in Psychosomatic Medicine.

Beyond that seemingly self-evident bit of news, I have a fresh new frame: I’m on a journey from happily ignorant to scared shitless to soberly, joyously aware. I know that I was extraordinarily lucky. A very-real and long-unacknowledged peril never turned into a calamity.  I know people right now who weren’t cut such a break.

One thing I’ve done is apologize to my wife for letting this all skulk in the shadows long enough that she needed to wait an hour for me to return from a hospital cardiac cath operating theater. Just before I headed in, she looked down with her eyes brimming, and said, “You know you mean the world to me.”

I know, and I know that I am part of a lot of people’s worlds. I will be a better steward of her care, and their care, going forward.

I’M TREATING MY LIFE AS A GIFT. I’m sharing this with the intention that it helps me (and you) live in awareness of the shadows and the light of our experience.

A Father-Son Talk With Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell is my favorite singer/songwriter. Has been for about two years now, since the release of his album Southeastern. So I was super-excited to have a chance to speak with him last month for an article about Father’s Day, fathers and sons. Isbell has a song in which he recounts the advice his dad gave him as the 21-year-old Isbell set off on the road with the hard-livin’ band Drive-By Truckers. (Here’s a very funny story about the song.)

The discussion morphed into a lot of other directions, including what saved his life and why he thinks checklists are a bad idea. Here is a transcript of our discussion, with my parts paraphrased (sorry, I didn’t need it for the article, so I didn’t transcribe my parts).

What happened when you shared “Outfit” with your dad for the first time?

I was probably 21 or 22, and it was one of the first songs I’d written after I’d first gone on the road with the Drive-By Truckers. It would have been late 2001 or early 2002. I brought a guitar on over and sat down and played it for him. I believe that’s what happened. Probably because we didn’t have a recording of it. You know, he liked it a lot. He has a good sense of humor and he understands what parts of that song are serious and what parts aren’t. And even the parts that aren’t are in tribute to the kind of person he is.

He’s a good listener, so he knew exactly what I was talking about when I sang it for him.

Continue reading “A Father-Son Talk With Jason Isbell”

A Month without Beer

I took a monthlong “vacation” from alcohol recently and am writing about it. I haven’t spoken to experts yet to help me frame my experience, but I’m working on it. What follows are my initial thoughts.

=============

Maybe you’re like me. You like beer and wine. Sometimes you really like them. And you wonder, is this a problem?

Not a Drinking Problem, I think, but perhaps a little-d, little-p drinking problem.

And that’s why I gave up booze (for the most part, qualifier to come) for the month of September.

Some friends asked why when I declined a beverage. It’s not that complicated. Basically, I felt the need to reign in a habit that had gotten away from me—especially on weeknights, when there was no specific benefit. I was knocking down a couple beers because they were in the fridge. It was a poor excuse. And at 2 and sometimes 3 beers on a weeknight, I was padding my diet with 300-500 calories daily. It added up to a roughly-6,000-calorie anchor on my metabolism every month.

And like a lot of men from a lot of families, there is a thread of substance abuse, mostly alcohol, that runs through my family tree. It seems to become more pronounced as the men age. As I’ve gotten older, I find myself aware of it, intent to not ignore it.

So with reasons both immediate and long-term nagging me, I decided it was time to check and make sure that those couple beers a night were serving me—and not the other way around.

The first couple nights following Labor Day were weird, but I soon settled into a routine, substituting green tea or sparkling lemon water for the beer and occasional wine while watching TV, talking with my family or a friend, or tapping away at a keyboard. I thought weekends would be difficult, but they weren’t really, though I did break with my intentions twice—both times for wine tastings at previously-scheduled social events. Each time I drank about one full glass of wine.

So here were my takeaways from this 30-day experiment:

1. I slept better. I knew this from a slew of studies, and from my own experiences when reviewing an activity tracker from Jawbone, but the month proved it again: alcohol, even a comparatively small amount, messes with my sleep. It tends to wake me in the early morning and keep me from sleeping deeply again till just before dawn. It doesn’t seem like much of a disruption, but once I was aware of it, I could feel it in the morning and see it in my tracker’s overnight report.

2. I didn’t feel better. Maybe my expectations were too high. I thought that I’d feel an increase in energy and generally function better. That didn’t happen, which was disappointing. On the other hand, it confirmed that my drinking wasn’t a real impediment to my health. And it did make me sharper at both ends of the day: I woke up feeling ready to go (credit #1 above), and it kept me sharper later at night, so I was able to get more reading and writing and thinking done in the hour-plus before bedtime. Bonus!

3. I gained weight (at first). This shocked me. I expected that jettisoning 6,000 calories over the course of a month would have me swimming in my pants. No such luck. In fact, after two weeks, I had GAINED 3 pounds! I assume I compensated in much the same way people often stop at Starbucks as a reward for a trip to the gym. I am not a snacker, so I must have eaten just a little bit more at meals—and I do think my body craved sugar to replace the alcohol and that I found it in pretty subtle ways. The good thing is once I noticed it, I was able to adjust and ended the month back at 186 pounds.

4. I thought about drinking pretty much every day. It wasn’t an overbearing compulsion or an urge, but it was a consistent daily feature, a tug on my consciousness, and it made me think about the nature of habit. In their book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir talk about “tunneling,” which they write is what the mind does when confronted with scarcity.

An example: As World War II ended, the US Army sent psychologists into German POW camps where Americans had been held. The US soldiers had basically been starved toward the end of the war when there wasn’t enough food for German soldiers and their captives. The psychologists were shocked by the level to which food dominated the American POWs’ thoughts and even their behavior. They could do very little except think about food, and it affected their ability to think about anything else. They were also willing to do almost anything to get food.

Beyond this example, many people are captives to their own reactions to scarcity. Tunneling and cravings are powerful roadblocks for people in all sorts of paths to recovery.

For me, the thoughts were most prevalent on weekends, in the late morning and early afternoon, when I had a little free time and tasks that didn’t require a lot of concentration. I thought about what kind of beer I’d like, or I would swallow and be reminded of the feelings of a beer in the back of my throat, of a bottle in my hand. What’s weird is that I didn’t have these thoughts at night, only in the day, and I never came close to acting upon them except for the already-mentioned wine tastings. 

That said, I was surprised by the persistence of these cravings; I thought they’d subside by the end of the second week or so, but that wasn’t true.

The other surprising thought, though, was an equally stubborn one that settled in during the third week—that I should continue this for another month. Honestly, I’m not sure what I’ll do this weekend (editor’s note: abstinence thwarted; five beers total over three  days.)

5. I have never been so hydrated. Between tea, water, fizzy water, coffee, and soda (my true guilty pleasure), I drank way more fluids than I did previously. I spent roughly one-third of the month, zipper down, dick in hand, peeing into one basin or another, including one overnight trip to the bathroom each night on average. That might have some effect on my weight as I often felt like a large, slightly distended, pink balloon.

5. It brought me closer to my wife. I didn’t ask her to join me in this little experiment, but she did, on weeknights. I know some people who have done similar experiments say one of the negatives was the loss of “happy hour” time to survey the day or the week. We didn’t experience that; talking over tea worked just fine. And not being quite as dulled at bedtime had other benefits.

So, all in all, it was a positive. I’m committed to maintaining the weeknight ban and holding myself to two beers on (most) weekend nights.

Mostly, I am pleased that a habit that I felt was developing a life of its own feels firmly back in check. I know it can be managed.

Next up: sugar. In particular, soda. I have at times in the last few years really cut back and gone weeks without it, but I’m back to a daily drinker, though probably not what, according to Michael Moss’ eye-opening Salt Sugar Fat, the folks at Coca-Cola calls “a heavy user.” That said, my younger brother has diabetes, my dad had all sorts of health issues that cut his life short, and I could probably do much better at corralling my intake. I think I’ll aim for post-Thanksgiving to the holidays. Some people think that’s crazy, but if I can avoid junk during the junkiest time of the year, I should be poised for a great 2015. Right? Right?!?

I am very interested in others’ reactions and their own experiences.

Hey NFL, Do This

I was driving to my office last Monday when I had one of those weird ideas I couldn’t quite shake, so I called a sports business prof from Penn’s Wharton School and, when he didn’t laugh me off the line, wrote it up.

In short, it says the NFL has a lot of problems, between player violence, concussions, and difficulty globalizing:

Each of the problems can be addressed. But taken together, it’s not unthinkable that the league’s popularity is at what the petroleum industry calls “peak oil”—the high point of production. If stadiums don’t sell out, if the best young athletes stop playing football and move to basketball, soccer, or baseball because their parents won’t let them, if the NFL’s ability to attract a live TV audience diminishes even a little bit due to new viewing patterns … well then, the NFL could use a hedge to secure its ever-growing ambitions.

Luckily, there’s one right under their noses: Major League Soccer.

I think it’s worth a read, or I wouldn’t have written it, obviously.

My (In)Activity Tracker Epiphany

I wrote for Men’s Health recently about my 100 days (and nights) wearing a Jawbone UP24 activity tracker. If you want to save 5-6 minutes, I’ll give away the surprise: I learned more about what happens when I was asleep than when I was awake, and what I learned is that even a little alcohol affected my sleep quality. Put the saved time to good use.

The Unexpected Thing I Learned from My Activity Tracker (April 6, 2014)