The Lone Star Shuffle

Feb. 25, 2008
Feb. 25, 2008

Table of Contents
Feb. 25, 2008

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The Lone Star Shuffle

ROGER CLEMENS and Lance Armstrong have long defined themselves as transcendent Texans, becoming the stuff of folktales as they performed amazing feats—even if they held disparate visions of what diet and exercise (alone?) could do. Never to be mistaken for a vegan, Clemens morphed into a beardless Paul Bunyan, while Armstrong, a cyclist devoted to good carbs, slipped into the skin of a mighty Jack Sprat.

This is an article from the Feb. 25, 2008 issue

They are not an iconic odd couple, though. Both are complicated stars who struck Texas tea in sports while leading lives that have run alongside each other like raindrops racing down a windowpane.

They grooved starting in the late 1990s, after Armstrong survived cancer to win an unprecedented seven Tour de France titles and Clemens disproved Boston Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette's "twilight" characterization by adding four more Cy Young Awards to reach his record-breaking total of seven. With each yellow jersey Armstrong was hailed as a medical miracle in the U.S. (His triumphs were a product of chemistry, the French sneered.) With each overpowering start Clemens was extolled as an age-defying wonder by fans. (HGH was his youth potion, many now believe.)

Who could understand what it's like to be Roger more than Lance?

Reared by strong, sometimes single mothers in difficult circumstances, they grew into superstars with 10-gallon hearts for their fans and vengeful feelings for their detractors.

Who could understand what it's like to be Lance more than Roger?

Both listened as former teammates confessed their doping sins, felt the sting of betrayal from members of their inner circles and saw competitors suspected of steroid abuse reduced to tears.

Soft, everyone has gone soft. You can almost hear them say it.

At least they have each other. They run with their fellow FOBs (Friends of the Bushes), talk on the sideline at Longhorns football games and know the same circle of Lone Star celebs. Armstrong did not return phone or e-mail messages regarding his relationship with Clemens, but as he told The Sporting News a year and a half ago, "Roger Clemens is a great friend of mine."

Friends don't let friends drive over a cliff. (These two are not the Thelma and Louise types.) It sure looks as if Lance has loaned the Rocket his dog-eared how-to guide for confronting drug allegations. In recent months Clemens has been in near lockstep with Armstrong's don't-mess-with-Texas methodology: Deny defiantly, sue aggressively.

I've seen others accused of doping take this approach (see Floyd Landis). "Athletes often try to convince themselves and everyone of their goodness," says Steven Ungerleider, a sports psychologist and antidoping expert who graduated from Texas. "They say, 'I'm a good person, so I wouldn't cheat.'"

As the world's most famous cancer survivor and a significant fund-raiser, Armstrong has cultivated a halo effect. This has deflected the negative fallout from tell-all books, the links to a crooked doctor, the dogged pursuit by antidoping czar Dick Pound and the suit he filed against a company for making BARKSTRONG pet collars, which are sold by animal charities.

Clemens, who has mostly overcome pulled groins, has no such protective aura. Yet he tried to splash on a coating of goodwill last week as he told Congress about his generosity, his charitable works and his love of everything but kittens. (Note to Roger: Add kittens.) He presented his p.r. case with the same gusto he used to attack his accuser, Brian McNamee, whom he sued for defamation last month.

"There is a sense of delusional behavior," says Ungerleider. "Many athletes ride that wave and wrap themselves in a delusional package.... I watched the hearings on C-Span, saw how he handled everything. It doesn't look good for Roger."

Whether Armstrong is clean or dirty—and, as it is always noted, his samples have passed every white-glove test—he had the savvy to exit before a raft of elite racers from his era surfaced in scandals that have savaged cycling. Clemens overstayed his greatness. As a serial retiree he could have departed as planned in 2003. Removed from baseball, in a different state of mind, he might have spoken to former senator George Mitchell if asked. He might have saved himself with righteousness.

And this is where his parallel life with Armstrong ends, where their tall Texas tales diverge: Roger has no moral cover. He can't borrow Lance's halo.

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In recent months Roger Clemens has been in near lockstep with Lance Armstrong's don't-mess-with-Texas methodology: Deny defiantly, sue aggressively.