Commentary

Yanks fan won't condemn Armstrong

16-year-old cancer patient Kevin Cordasco says cyclist deserves some slack

Updated: January 18, 2013, 9:20 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

As librarians everywhere transfer his bestsellers to the fiction shelves, Lance Armstrong is finally facing a mountain he might never climb. He has cheated, and he has lied, and he has intimidated and bullied enough truth tellers to put a mob family to shame.

The cyclist was running dangerously low on friends as he geared up for Thursday's airing of his Oprah Winfrey interview, and his gross misconduct on and off the course has rightfully left him exposed to the dizzying haymakers being thrown his way. You can call the greatest of Tour de France winners a loser, a fraud, or a Bernie Madoff on wheels.

Only you can't call him any of those things to Kevin Cordasco, a 16-year-old Yankees fan and gravely ill cancer patient from Calabasas, Calif., who has spent six years fighting for his life.

"I would tell anyone saying that about him that they're being ridiculous," Cordasco said during a break in chemotherapy treatments Wednesday at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. "How can you judge one person's character from the mistakes he makes when everybody makes mistakes? I hate to put it like this, but so many athletes have gotten caught doping that I just don't see how people couldn't cut him some slack."

[+] EnlargeLance Armstrong and Kevin Cordasco
Courtesy Cordasco familyLast May, Lance Armstrong visted Kevin Cordasco, who says the time spent provided empowerment in his fight with cancer.

Armstrong visited Cordasco and a 14-month-old cancer patient last May, five months before the United States Anti-Doping Agency would lower the 202-page boom on the one and only, banning him forevermore. Armstrong spent 45 minutes with Cordasco, telling him how he'd survived a cancer that raged from his testicles to his brain and how Kevin could find a way to beat his Stage 4 neuroblastoma, too.

"We were all blown away by how amazingly sincere he was," Cordasco told ESPNNewYork.com by phone, "and by what a great human being he is. I just felt very empowered when he left the room."

You should understand that is no small thing, that feeling of empowerment for a teenager recently sent home by doctors advising him to begin doing the things he most wanted to do. Kevin Cordasco, a high school junior, had been told to start checking off his bucket list, and even then the kid refused to quit.

"He threw out the hospice people a week ago," said Cordasco's father, Kevin, a former professional soccer player out of Randolph, N.J., and the man who raised his son to root for the Yanks. "The hospice people came to our home and Kevin gave them their walking papers. It was one of the proudest moments of my life to see my son say, 'I know who you are. I don't know if you know who I am, but I'm never giving up.'

"That lady walked out and then Kevin called the doctor and said, 'I want to be treated.' The kid is Braveheart, and he's in a dark place nobody should ever be. … He's enduring a horrible, ruthless cancer. For him to get out of bed in the morning is like moving a piano for the average person. When I left my house this morning, I had to lift him into a wheelchair. I lifted him into a car for a chemotherapy treatment he had ordered himself."

Derek Jeter helped this kid in a meeting near the Stadium's indoor batting cages last fall, and in a subsequent phone call Jeter placed to the Cordasco home. President Bush helped him with a personal tour of Air Force One in 2007, after Kevin had written him a letter asking for a visit.

Lance Armstrong helped him, too, helped him in ways other prominent public figures could not. Armstrong had beaten cancer. He had been to that dark and lonely place.

I don't give free passes to people who use performance-enhancing drugs, but I'm going to cut Lance some slack because he's given so many people like myself some hope.

-- Kevin Cordasco

"When Lance walked into the hospital room," said Cordasco's mother, Melodie, "his presence was so strong. He was very positive and warm and he spoke so highly of his mother, and that really touched me.

"He was smiling the whole time he was with Kevin. Lance told him he had the same chemo and said, 'I know what you're going through, but you're a tough guy and you can do this.' It made Kevin feel so strong. When Lance left, Kevin was like, 'Pinch me.'"

Nobody who knew Kevin was surprised he turned out to be a fighter. His great-grandfather, Ray Spencer, was a bare-knuckle boxer who was inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame. Kevin's father was a soccer star at Cal State-Northridge who played overseas before it was fashionable for Americans to do so, and nearly broke into the German Bundesliga before a double fracture in his leg stopped him.

Kevin's 13-year-old brother, Cade, is already making a name for himself in Southern California track circles. Kevin himself was a good enough Little League third baseman to be nicknamed Brooks Robinson by one of his coaches, and to be recognized as the fastest basketball and soccer player in his class.

"He was blessed with the ability to fly," Kevin's father said. "It hurts me so much now to see him grounded."

Kevin has had multiple stem-cell transplants, and he has traveled to hospitals from San Francisco to Memphis and back in search of experimental treatments that might attack and defeat his disease. Kevin has been subjected to full-body radiation three times in lead-lined rooms.

"It's a miracle he's here today," his father said.

Some might say the same of Armstrong. In a 2002 interview I conducted with his longtime oncologist and supporter, Craig Nichols, who became a board member of Armstrong's foundation, the doctor said the cyclist's cancer "was one of the worst cases I've ever seen. Maybe one-third … in his condition would live, and only 20 percent would thrive."

The other day I emailed Nichols to ask if he'd come to terms with the Armstrong disclosures and admissions, and if he'd forgiven his patient for his deceit. "I doubt that I could inform this situation for you and politely decline," Nichols emailed back.

Armstrong owes a lot of heartfelt apologies to a lot of heartbroken people, and he owes something more to the teammates, cycling officials, sponsors, investigators and journalists he used and abused.

Every time a kid with cancer meets a Lance Armstrong, it gives them a little hope, a little more will. And I can tell you what's keeping Kevin alive right now is his will.

-- Kevin Sr.

But to a certain segment of the population, he owes nothing. My father-in-law, Jack, said one of the books Armstrong co-authored with another one of his victims, Sally Jenkins, "It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life," inspired him to get through the chemo and beat his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma while wearing his Livestrong T-shirt and bracelet. Eleven years later, Jack is alive and well enough to remember saying to himself, "If that man can beat what he had, I can beat what I have."

So you have to understand why those touched by cancer aren't so fast to cast Armstrong as an irredeemable phony or snake.

Kevin Cordasco's mother, Melodie, doesn't believe Armstrong should've been forced to resign from his foundation; she recently rebuked a friend for effectively calling the cyclist a bum. Kevin's father agreed that Armstrong had earned his hour of reckoning, but maintained that his rare dedication to those stricken by cancer, especially young ones, mitigates his staggering character flaws.

"Every time a kid with cancer meets a Lance Armstrong," he said, "it gives them a little hope, a little more will. And I can tell you what's keeping Kevin alive right now is his will."

One telephone conversation with Kevin will tell you that he has an indomitable will, and an uncommon intellect and maturity for a 16-year-old. So on the day before Lance Armstrong's confessional to Oprah was broadcast to the world, another day of self-ordered chemo for Kevin, the toughest Yankees fan alive deserved the last word on the latest athlete to fall.

"I was in a little bit of a slump when we met," Kevin Cordasco said, "and he definitely picked me up a lot. My situation is not as fortunate as his, but at the same time the meeting with him gave me a little boost that I needed. I don't give free passes to people who use performance-enhancing drugs, but I'm going to cut Lance some slack because he's given so many people like myself some hope.

"He was sincere and full of inspirational words with me, and he's helped open the world's eyes to what a serious situation cancer is. I think he definitely deserves a pat on the back for that."

Ian O'Connor

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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