Last night, NBA Hall of Famer turned author, advocate and founder of The Skyhook Foundation, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, spoke at the Times-Union Center as part of The Florida Forum benefiting Wolfson Children's Hospital. As inspiring and eloquent as KA-J was, I wondered what Lance Armstrong, originally slated to speak at the event, would have said. And I couldn't stop thinking about a local man's poignant — and pointed — open letter to Armstrong following his confession about using perfomance-enhancing drugs, that I discovered on Twitter …
It is with great regret that I'm compelled to write you this seemingly antagonistic letter although I assure you that isn't my intention at all... Empathy, then, is my goal for you after you read this letter.
They say that empathy is knowing how a person feels regardless of whether or not you've ever been in their situation. Martin Luther King had empathy. John F. Kennedy had empathy. And for the most part, it seemed that you did too. But now, after your confession [aired] on the Oprah Winfrey Network, I fear that you won't realize exactly what people like me are going through. My fear is that you won't recognize the embarrassment you've caused us, and I don't want to sit on the sidelines, not affording you the opportunity to hear what I have to say. I fear that you won't feel our pain. Thus, begins my open letter to you...
For the better part of the past decade, I have aspired to what I thought was the LiveStrong way of life and the embodiment of an attitude that says anything, no matter how difficult, can be accomplished so long as you combat it with the iron will that we're all born with yet fear to use. I believed in that lifestyle — and I believed in you.
As a young plebe at the United States Naval Academy, I was given my first LiveStrong bracelet by my squad leader JD Dunivant. I wore it with pride as it was a reminder that regardless of how difficult life was as a young student at the academy, yours as a cancer patient and survivor was much more challenging. To think that you were able to win seven straight Tour de Frances following a bout with cancer that should have killed you, allowed me the belief that I, too, could overcome life's difficulties. I graduated from the Naval Academy in May 2008 with a LiveStrong bracelet tucked neatly beneath my dress whites because bracelets aren't allowed to be worn while wearing a military uniform. But the bracelet was there on my wrist and it was in my heart.
I carried the LiveStrong bracelet to the USS Bonhomme Richard where I was a young surface warfare officer trying to make my way. … Countless days at sea, almost 300 in total, were accompanied by my thoughts that the LiveStrong attitude would get me through even the worst of sea legs... As the division officer in charge, I felt compelled to share with my sailors the reasons as to why I wore the [LiveStrong] bracelet. “On your most difficult days on the ship,” I'd tell them, “remember that there are those who have it more difficult than you. Let the LiveStrong way guide you as you serve your country.”
While aboard the Bonhomme Richard and on active duty, I began to feel ill. My legs were falling asleep. I couldn't run without pain. I couldn't stand for more than 10 minutes, and I couldn't sit for more than five. A circulation issue, I thought. But circulation wasn't the cause for my abrupt lack of mobility … I was diagnosed with MS on Sept. 11, 2009, and after letting the news set in, I decided there was only one thing to do: Combat the evil disease that I'd been diagnosed with the same way Lance Armstrong combatted cancer — head on.
I read your books. I posted your quotes about the house so I would be motivated. I listened to my doctors and my family, and I was determined to get through my rigorous treatment as a new patient … I changed my diet, hit the gym and got into the best shape of my life following a diagnosis of a disease that many thought would keep me from living a normal life. I gave the credit to my doctors, nurses, family, friends and to God. But most importantly and most likely the most emphatically, I gave the credit to you. You reminded me that I could do anything and overcome the steepest of setbacks. You helped me defeat (or at least manage MS). Even as recently as this past fall, I mentioned you in interviews when asked what helped me cope: “Lance Armstrong and his drive to overcome obstacles: He motivated me.”
Life is full of twists and turns as you undoubtedly know. And mine took the worst turn when my mother was diagnosed with cancer in the winter of 2010. My family shed some tears, shared some hugs, some words of encouragement with her as we sat around the kitchen table talking about her medical options. Following the conversation, my mother deadpanned, “Donnie, I want Lance's book. And I want a bracelet.” She wore that bracelet through a year of chemotherapy. and she wore it after she heard the great news that her cancer was in remission. [After seeing your interview, however], she texted me: “I can't wear the bracelet anymore. His book is a lie. And his lifestyle is too.” I took my bracelet off after I read her text.
You undoubtedly helped me through my most difficult times. You helped my mother overcome cancer. You helped all of us believe that we could live a better life so long as we LivedStrong. But, Lance, your life was contrived. It was fake. It was a lie. And we all lived it.
Lance Armstrong was once the reminder of what I could be. I was wrong. We all were.
How do you think that makes us feel?
Donnie Horner III
Horner, who serves as vice president of business development for MainOcean Port Services, is currently in Washington, D.C., lobbying the federal government for additional funding to help treat individuals with multiple sclerosis and ultimately find a cure.
To join Horner's Walk MS event on April 20 in Jacksonville or to make a donation, visit his Team Sleep Walkers' website.