Sunday, January 20, 2013

Step One

In his attempt to comeback a third time in his life (from cancer in '97, and to bike racing in '09), Lance Armstrong has already made one big mistake: the Oprah interview should have been five minutes long, not 2 1/2 hours.

All anybody has ever wanted to hear was Lance admitting that he doped--that's it. And he did that in the first minute of the interview. It was surreal to see the guy who had denied so strongly for so many years finally admitting what the rest of the world already knew. But as the interview continued, a funny thing happened: everyone wanted more. Just confessing wasn't enough. Had he stopped the interview after a few minutes (in hindsight, maybe it shouldn't have been an interview, and instead just a statement?), I think the public would have been OK with things, for a while. We all would have gotten our confession, and then waited to see what Lance would do next on his road to redemption.

But the interview went on, and on, and on--which gave Lance plenty of opportunities to revert to his normal, defensive nature. After making everyone happy and confessing, he then pissed everyone off by qualifying things. He said "I just took a tiny amount of EPO" and "I thought I needed the testosterone because of the cancer" (even though he admitted to taking testosterone before he had cancer). He played the semantics game when asked if he had demanded that teammates dope. The worst moment was the very strange "I called her crazy, called her a bitch, but I never called her fat" defense of his steamrolling of Betsy Andreu. Nobody wanted to hear his qualifications, nobody wanted to hear him playing word games, and all he had to say about Betsy was "I'm sorry." But he couldn't, because he's still not living in the real world--he's still on planet Lance, where all things revolve around his image.

I've always maintained that this interview was about two things. 1) He is the ultimate control freak, and his life is completely out of control. He went from a world where he was revered and in control, to a world where everyone was laughing at him and there was nothing he could do about it. This interview was a way of taking back some control of the situation. If you noticed, many times during the interview he specifically referred to things being "out of control." 2) He desperately wants to compete in triathlons again, and he knew that he had to confess to start the process of getting his lifetime ban reduced. Last summer, Lance was two months away from competing in the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii--a race some thought he would win, and a race I believe he deeply covets--before he was slapped with the lifetime ban. One of the few times he really lit up during the interview was when Oprah asked him if he wanted to compete again--he said "Hell yes! That's what I am, that's what drives me." He then made sure to point out that everyone else who had testified had been given six month suspensions, but he was given "the death penalty." It was his way of telling the world "this isn't fair," which the world doesn't want to hear from a guy who hasn't played by the rules for almost 20 years.

Lance had some good moments during the interview. The best, of course, was him finally admitting that he doped. No athlete in the history of sports had denied doping as strongly and for as long as he did. Admitting that he was a ruthless bully was also a good step forward for him. When he talked about his oldest son, Luke, defending him at school against kids who were saying that his father had doped, he broke down--and that seemed like an honest, difficult moment for Lance, which is something we never see from him. And, saying that he would be willing to help clean up the sport was a big olive branch from Lance to the cycling world, which was a positive.

He had bad moments, too. The qualifications, the semantical games, the defending of the evil Dr. Ferrari, and his insistence that he rode the 2009 and 2010 Tours clean. During the interview he said that he never felt like doping was cheating--that it was as natural as putting air in his tires. He also said he didn't think it was possible to win the Tour clean. So why would he suddenly not dope in his comeback attempt? The biological passport may have given him pause, but it's hard to imagine that, at age 38 and after three years away from the sport, he could come back and finish third in the Tour on bread and water. Many think he's looking for an eight year ban from competing, retroactive to 2005 (his last Tour win) so that he can compete in triathlons this year, thus he wants everyone to believe he's been clean since '05. However, it's hard to believe that he was clean, given the sport, given his history, and given his manager during those years (Johan Bruyneel, who is as dirty as they come). On the flip side, it seems like a huge gamble for a guy who is supposedly now telling the truth to lie about '09 and '10 and risk others coming forward and saying that they saw him doping during those races. But right now it's easier to believe that he would risk getting busted again than believing he rode those Tours on nothing but pasta.

Throughout the interview, I had the feeling that Lance was not sorry about doping, nor was he sorry about the way he destroyed people in defense of his lies. Instead, I had the feeling that Lance was sorry only that he'd been busted. Many think he's hit rock bottom, but I don't think he's close to that yet. I think he's in shock right now--shock that his world has crumbled. He'll get to rock bottom, one day, and perhaps only then will we see true contrition.

In the end, this was about as much as we could expect from Lance as he begins the long and maybe impossible task of repairing his image. For now, I'm happy that we at least got a confession. The rest of the world wanted much more--but they wanted the impossible. Lance wasn't going to suddenly flip a switch and cry for two hours and say nothing but "Im so sorry, I'm so sorry"--egomaniacal control freaks don't change overnight. Lance was correct when he said "it's going to be a process." For those wanting more--like names, doping details, full apologies and complete contrition--I think you'll eventually get that. He's got massive legal concerns preventing a lot of that from happening at this moment, and he's got massive personal issues preventing a lot that from happening immediately, too. His therapist may very well be a more important figure in his life than his lawyers as he attempts to move forward.

It was hard to feel sorry for him at any point during the Oprah interview, but afterwards I did--although maybe I was feeling sorrier for the sport of cycling and it's beautiful events like the Tour de France than I was for Lance. The general public, unfamiliar with the nature of the sport, is going to think that Lance just took some pills and then won the Tour, which is far from true. His doping overshadows the amount of work that he--and all of the cheating champions in cycling--still had to put in. Doped or clean, Lance is a phenomenal athlete, capable of doing things very few have ever been able to do. Lance doped, but he also still had to go punish himself on the bike for five hours each day in training, and turn himself inside-out during races to win. But that's the bed that Lance has made for himself. Before, most people looked at Lance and said "freak of nature," which he is. Now, most people look at Lance and say "greatest fraud in sports," which he also is.

(A great cycling hypothetical is the question of birthdays. There is no doubt that Lance is guilty of being a prick and guilty of doping. But can it be argued that he's also a victim of his era? My all-time hero is Greg LeMond. I would bet a lot of money that LeMond was clean during his Tour de France wins--in fact, it's widely acknowledged that LeMond was the last clean Tour winner. But I've always wondered what would have happened had LeMond been born ten years later? As a child, LeMond was driven by the thought of winning the Tour de France and the World Championships. He was at his peak during an era that was pre-EPO. If LeMond had debuted in 1992, when Lance did, would LeMond have tried EPO? The only way to win the Tour in the 90's would have been to dope. By the time EPO hit the peloton full-force in 1991, LeMond had already won three Tours and two World titles, and was set financially for life--he didn't need to dope. But would a 22 year old LeMond, or Hinault, or Merckx, have taken EPO if they had started their careers when Lance did? I think it's easy for riders of past generations to look down on the dopers of the 90's and 00's, but it was a much different game then--a game the older guys never had to decide to play or not.)

For Lance, step one is complete. He's confessed to doping. What will step two look like? Or step three? Will there be any more steps? I believe that, at some point, Lance will testify under oath about everything he knows about doping in cycling. He'll do that not to help the sport heal, but to help reduce his lifetime ban from competition, to increase future earning potential, and to help restore his good name--as well as some scene control. Competing and controlling are at the heart of everything Lance Armstrong does, and I don't think that will ever change.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

God's Finest Work

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a running back. Most kids want to be the quarterback, but not me. 100 yard rushing games were much more magical to me than 300 yard passing games. A touchdown run seemed way more difficult than throwing a touchdown pass. A 1,000 yard rushing season, whether at the high school, college or pro level, was the individual sports number that impressed me the most. There is nothing more beautiful than seeing a running back take a pitch, hit the seam, accelerate, and jet down the sideline. Perhaps growing up in Oklahoma during the halcyon days of the wishbone fostered my love for the running back position, but whatever the reason, I consider myself a running back connoisseur--which entitles me to write this blog post and there is nothing that you, the reader, can do about it.

(Note: While RB's were, and are, my ultimate, I also reserve a special place in my football heart for the running quarterback--I like those guys even more than a pure passer. A special tip of the cap to Jack Mildren, Steve Davis, Thomas Lott, J.C. Watts, Jamelle Hollieway and Charles Thompson, as well as non-Sooners like James Street, Dee Dowis and that freak Johnny Football.)

Who is the greatest running back ever? Few questions in sports generate a heated debate like this one. Ask this question of any football fan, and you could hear any one of 20-30 different names in response. I've always believed that Barry Sanders was the best. I've never seen anyone quite like him. He holds the college single season record (2,628--think about that!) which included five straight 200 yard games. In the NFL, he set the record for consecutive 100 yard games with 14, and had he not retired way too early, he would have easily become the NFL's all-time leading rusher. He gained most of his NFL yardage without the benefit of being on a great team, or having a great quarterback or great offensive line--heck, Sanders rarely even had a fullback to clear the way for him. He did everything on his own.

(Note: Because I believe Sanders to be the best does not mean that I think everyone else sucked. If you want to argue that Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson (awkward), Gale Sayers, Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk, L.T., Marcus Allen, Tony Dorsett--or any of the guys I'm about to mention--are the best ever, I don't really have a problem with it. You would be wrong, but I don't really have a problem with it.)

One of the things I look for in a back is the thrill factor--that feeling of great anticipation you get before the snap, just hoping that he gets the ball because something really exciting could happen. Franco Harris had zero thrill factor. John Riggins, Larry Csonka, Otis Anderson, George Rogers--all great backs, but guys who barely moved the needle for me. Luckily, as kid who loved OU, I always had a thrill-back to root for. Greg Pruitt, Joe Washington, Billy Sims--all had a huge thrill factor. Marcus Dupree may truly have been the greatest that never was--a massive thrill every time he touched the ball.

And then there was Sweetness. Walter Payton was a god. If you want to argue that he was the greatest ever, you have a pretty good argument. Great speed, great strength, great moves, great numbers. If you don't have Payton in your top two or three running backs of all-time, then you are making a big mistake. He is the second-most perfect back that God ever created.

Which brings me to the guy that I consider the closest to perfection at the position that I've ever seen: Adrian Peterson. Sanders was the best, but he wasn't the perfect back--he was 5'8. Payton was 5'10. Peterson is the perfect size: 6'1, 217. Big enough to scare the hell out of defenders, but light enough to possess 4.3 speed. Only Bo Jackson (6'1, 227) and Herschel Walker (6'1, 225) compare to Peterson in terms of size/speed perfection, but neither of those backs had Adrian's moves. Dickerson was 6'3, 220--perhaps an inch or two too tall, hindering his ability to "get small" and somewhat limiting his shiftiness. No back has ever thrilled me like A.D (All Day, for those who don't know and think I made a typo). I don't believe we've ever seen anyone with his size, his speed, his vision, his moves, his toughness and his work ethic. Ever.

Peterson can run straight over you, or he can take one arm and throw you out of his way. He can run around you, either by freezing you with a great stutter-step or by changing direction on a dime. He can run away from you by using his great acceleration at the line of scrimmage, or by using his blazing speed in the open field. There are no limits to the ways in which he can get his yardage. His one weakness, which showed early in his career, was the fumble, but over the last three years he appears to have corrected that problem.

Peterson's 2012 season was the stuff of legend, and probably the greatest season by a running back in NFL history. With apologies to '73 Simpson, '77 Payton, '84 Dickerson, '97 Sanders,'06 Tomlinson, and '09 Johnson, '12 Peterson beats them all. 2,097 yards (an astounding 6.0 yards per carry!) eight months after tearing his MCL and ACL on a team that has zero passing threat is such a remarkable feat it defies all football logic. Had Peterson rushed for 1,000 yards this season, I would have considered that an incredible comeback. But to double that? You have to be kidding me.

His very first carry in a big game in college was a 44 yard run against Texas--you could tell that Peterson was extra-special. 1,925 yards as a true freshman and (at the time) the closest a frosh had ever come to winning the Heisman Trophy. Kids everywhere wanted to wear #28.

(Note: A.D., Dickerson, and Faulk made high 20 numbers for RB's cool. 26, 27, 28, and 29 were always a bit of a wasteland for great backs, who usually wore low 20's or low 30's. High 30's never, ever look good on a running back. Traditionally, the best running back numbers have been 20, 22, 24, 32, 33, 34. In college, I've also always loved a running back who wore a single digit--it makes them look fast. And, oddly, I liked it that Charles White wore 12 at USC--somehow he made that ultimate QB number look cool as a RB. It should also be noted that 49 is the worst possible legally-allowed number for a running back.)

In addition to authoring the greatest-ever season by a running back, Peterson also holds the NFL record for most yards in one game (297). With 8,849 career yards at age 27, A.D. has a chance, if he remains healthy (big if for any running back) to come close to Emmitt's all-time mark. He would have to average about 1,300 yards for seven more seasons--not out of the question given his physical gifts and his work ethic. Even if he never threatens Emmitt's mark, he's already cemented himself as the best back of his era, and one of the best of all-time.

No running back has ever come close to giving me the thrills that A.D. has. I would like us all to hit our knees and thank the sweet Lord for creating the perfect running back. Amen.