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The Best of Thom Loverro:
Selected Washington Times columns from 2004

A Steroid Nightmare

Bob Hazelton spent the days before Christmas in a Minneapolis hospital. He had fallen trying to get into a building not accessible to the handicapped, and doctors had to reflap the bone over the muscle above his left knee.

"They had to cut the bone a little bit and repad it with the major muscle in the thigh ... so if I damage it again it won't hit pure bone," Hazelton said. "The bone is soft, and because the bone is soft you have to be real careful that you don't fall or cause any major trauma."

Hazelton knows all about major trauma. His life has been one major trauma.

Hazelton rested in his hospital bed, each of his legs amputated above the knee. He says his condition is the result of abusing steroids when he was a heavyweight fighter.

That is why he got angry when he saw athletes like Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield and Shane Mosley smiling after they testified before a San Francisco grand jury investigating the illegal production and distribution of performance-enhancing drugs - the fancy name for what generally are referred to as steroids.

"It is a synthetic sporting world. From hitting the home run to running for touchdowns, it is all drugs," said Hazelton, 55. "Any record that has been broken in the last 10 years in the world of sports, steroids has played a part in it."

Two former NFL players, Steve Courson of the Steelers and the late Lyle Alzado of the Raiders, often are held up as poster boys for the pitfalls of using illegal performance-enhancing substances. Alzado died of a brain tumor that he believed was caused by years of steroid abuse. Courson suffered heart damage he attributed to steroid use.

But perhaps the most disturbing and compelling example of the dangers of steroid use is Hazelton, one of the pioneers of the trend.

The 6-foot-6 Hazelton was a star in high school in the 1960s in Orlando, Fla., a standout in football, basketball and baseball. He grew up a Redskins fan and dreamed of one day playing in the NFL, dreams that still haunt him.

"To this day, I have a hard time watching football because I think of what could have been," Hazelton said.

Family problems prompted him to join the Navy, which eventually discharged him because of a heart murmur. Hazelton wound up looking for work in Philadelphia, where he was born. He had tinkered with some amateur fighting and one day visited a South Philly gym at which heavyweights like Joe Frazier and Theotis Martin trained.

"I was a big fan of Muhammad Ali's," Hazelton said. "He made the sport look so glamorous. ... I had the ability to do it. I had speed and great hands, but I didn't like hitting or getting hit. I liked hitting in football, but not boxing."

He had the skills to compete, though, and his height made him an intriguing fighter. He had a 7-2 record when he went to Las Vegas in December 1969 to fight the heavyweight division's rising star, George Foreman. Hazelton was knocked out at 1:22 in the first round, but he lost the fight before he ever got in the ring. Hazelton weighed 183 pounds, giving up at least 40 to Foreman.

"When I saw Foreman, I knew it would be rough, but you try to catch lightning in a bottle," Hazelton said. "The fight was stopped in the first round. I was hurt, but I wasn't really hurt. I was cut, a nice gash inside my mouth, and I was sucking down some blood. But I knew what was going on. I had been knocked down twice, and the referee called it. I was overpowered."

That would be a problem for Hazelton until a "friend" told him he knew a doctor in England who could even the playing field.

"The first one I ever took was dianabol," Hazelton said. "That started putting some size on me quickly. I saw that it was working, and there were no side effects as far as I knew. So, I kept taking them and got up to 220 pounds. I came back to America and started fighting again. Things were different this time. I was strong, and I had attitude. I beat Manuel Ramos, the Mexican champion. I knocked him out in the first round."

Hazelton kept fighting - and getting bigger and stronger. His weight increased to 230 pounds, then 240. He kept winning, too, and landed a fight with French heavyweight champion Lucien Rodriguez in May 1977. It was considered an important step in his career - so that meant stepping up the steroids.

"I was taking steroids like you wouldn't believe," Hazelton said. "I took a shot that day for the fight, three milligrams. My left leg was already hurting for about five weeks before the fight. It was swollen badly. I couldn't do roadwork. But we tried to keep it quiet, and the fight went on.

"Arthur Mercante was the referee that night, and he had me winning all three rounds, but my leg was so fat and swollen that it was like a lead weight. I couldn't move it. Rodriguez was catching me with left hooks and knocking me down, but he wasn't hurting me. I lost because of the three-knockdown rule. By the third round, it was over."

Hazelton's nightmare, however, was just beginning. The steroid use had hardened the arteries in his legs so badly that they were nearly closed.

"I had a blood clot in my leg," he said. "A good friend who was a doctor in Vegas did some tests and said, 'You've got no blood flow to the leg. You'll be lucky to walk across the room without it swelling up.'"

He kept fighting for another year and met former light heavyweight champion Bob Foster twice, losing in September 1977 and stopping him in the second round in June 1978. That bout was Foster's last, but Hazelton's career was over, too. His leg kept swelling, and, with a record of 28-5, he retired - but only from boxing, not from taking steroids.

"I was into getting bigger and bigger," Hazelton said. "I started taking growth hormones and got up as high as 300 pounds. I loved working out, and I was in the gym every day. And I loved the power that came with it. I had so much anger sometimes after taking steroids, people told me later it looked as if my eyes were red and that they thought they were in a room with a devil.

"That made me feel good, that I had so much power that I could scare someone - that I was overpowering."

Hazelton got work as a bodyguard and as security for musical acts. He was on tour with Van Halen in 1986 when someone noticed that the back of his left leg looked all wet through his clothes.

"I sat down on a stool and looked at it, and the calf was split open. There was just dead meat there," Hazelton said. "It looked like someone took a knife and cut it open. It was infected, and the pus was spilling out."

He flew back home to Florida and saw a doctor.

Two days later, doctors amputated his left leg above the knee.

It wasn't a wake-up call.

"I went off the juice after that, but I was still working out," Hazelton said. "Nine months later, I was trying to get back to work, to go on tour with Heart in Europe. So I started taking steroids again to make sure I was big and strong enough. I was even taking steroids for horses."

Three weeks later, his right leg swelled up.

"Doctors told me gangrene had already sank in," Hazelton said. "It was completely clotted up. They would have to take that leg, too."

This amputation would nearly kill him. Hazelton was in the hospital for three months.

"The infection wouldn't stop," he said. "They kept going up and up and up. It was about three weeks before Christmas of 1987. The doctor came in at midnight. The bandage had come off. He came in to rewrap it.

"He said, 'Don't take it the wrong way, Bob, but I wish I had never taken this case. I can't stop the infection. It seems like every time we think we have it under control, it keeps going up.' They kept the leg open all the time, with a bandage over it, so it could breathe."

Hazelton's heart was damaged, as well. He had two heart attacks.

"It was then that I hit the point where I said something had to happen. I was going to die or live. I said a prayer asking to let me go home for Christmas. A week after the prayer, they did some tests and the infection was nearly gone. Two days before Christmas, the infection was gone and I was home."

After losing both legs and nearly his life, Bob Hazelton finally found purpose in his life: warning others of the dangers of steroids. He has spent much of the past 15 years giving lectures to students and athletes, from high schools to the pro ranks, about his own nightmare from steroid abuse. He has privately counseled athletes and their family members who have sought him out for help.

"I had a baseball player's wife call me once," Hazelton said. "He was at the top of his game, one of the best players, and their marriage was in trouble. He was on steroids, and she wanted to know if there was a way she could approach him to get him off steroids.

"I said it is hard when guys get paid millions of dollars and they don't see the side effects right away. I read in the paper six months later that they were divorced. And now he is having problems. It affected his whole personality."

But Hazelton has grown tired of that purpose, because it seems to be such a lost cause. He sees the use of performance-enhancing substances growing faster than ever, and he sees attempts to stop it as futile.

"The last time I took steroids was when I took those shots in 1987, but sometimes I would be tempted to do it again to show people how bad things could be," Hazelton said. "Do I have to die to show people how much damage steroids can cause?"

Hazelton now lives in Howard Lake, Minn., and is married for the second time. He still works out despite the loss of both legs. "I still have a good body," he said. "I still pump iron. I can bench press 300 pounds."

He would like to get into acting, he says. But his current commitment is to raise funds for prosthetic equipment for those who have lost limbs in Iraq. "I want to bring it over there myself," Hazelton said.

There he will find people who welcome his help.

Here in America, where Hazelton has tried to save people from paying the price for their indulgences, his message seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

"These athletes are kidding themselves if they think they are getting away with using the juice," Hazelton said. "They might not know what is causing that little pain in an arm or a leg. It could be what happened to me, your body breaking down, and then someday you find out the damage is irreversible.

"I spoke to Lyle Alzado before he passed away. That was very sad. By the time these athletes want help, it is often too late. By the time it hits you, this drug has no pity on you once it decides to take you."

January 7, 2004
(return to column index)

Time for the game to come clean; Steroid use challenges integrity

So Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker likens the questions about steroid use in baseball to McCarthyism.

Maybe he meant Charlie McCarthyism. Or Eugene McCarthyism.

You never know with Baker, baseball's resident social scientist, who, after all, believes the sun is a performance-enhancing substance for black and Hispanic ballplayers.

Remember his observation from last year?

"Your skin color is more conducive to heat than it is to the lighter-skinned people," Baker said last summer. "I don't see brothers running around burnt. That's a fact. I'm not making this up. I'm not seeing some brothers walking around with some white stuff on their ears and noses."

These days, Baker is taking on a new subject - steroids.

Recently, he was asked about his time managing the San Francisco Giants and Barry
Bonds, whose personal trainer, Greg Anderson, is charged with illegally distributing
steroids. Anderson told federal agents he gave steroids to several major league players.
"I'm not going to succumb to the pressure of what everyone else feels I should say or I should do," an agitated Baker told reporters. "I'm 55 years old almost. I have my own mind. I know what my mouth is saying, and I'm pretty good with the English language.
Especially when he is standing in the sun.

Baker is feeling the pressure, and he's not alone. The squeeze is on all of baseball, which is good because that's the only way the questions about steroid use will be answered. It's not self-imposed pressure -- it's coming from those McCarthyists.

But this is not a witch hunt. It's an intervention.

The game's integrity has been challenged. In recent years there have been questions about the inflated home run totals. And now, after baseball's first year of steroid testing, deflated players have reported to camp.

This is not a court of law in which someone is innocent until proved guilty. It is the court of public opinion, which sometimes can be reckless but also can be astute enough to believe what it sees with its own eyes. It saw ballplayers who looked like professional wrestlers and now sees players who look like they spent the winter at Weight Watcher meetings, 24-7.

The pressure must continue until the players union, which has the power and resources to stop the questions and accusations, does something. The union refuses to agree to serious drug testing. Its new testing policy has been called a "complete joke" by Dick Pound, the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The only way the union will embrace testing is if its members -- the players -- demand it. Unfortunately, shaming the innocent is the only way to get results.

The brotherhood is starting to crack.

Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz wants stricter testing. "The more it becomes a monster, the more it plays into everybody's mind," he told reporters.

And Colorado pitcher Turk Wendell had the guts to say what nearly everyone in baseball has been thinking about Bonds. "If my personal trainer, me, Turk Wendell, got indicted for that, there's no one in the world who wouldn't think that I wasn't taking steroids," he said. "I mean, what, because he's Barry Bonds, no one's going to say that? I mean, obviously he did it. [His trainer] admitted to giving steroids to baseball players. He just doesn't want to say his name. You don't have to. It's clear just seeing his body."

Bonds, who set the single season home run record of 73 in 2001, continues his assault on Hank Aaron's career mark of 755. However, the integrity of the game is at stake. Bonds adamantly denied he used illegal performance-enhancing drugs and shot back at Wendell. "If you've got something to say, say it to my face," Bonds told reporters. "You got something to say, you come to my face and we'll deal with each other. Don't talk through the media like you're some tough guy."

Anderson's lawyer has said Bonds was clean. "Barry Bonds never took anything illegal," Tony Serra said. "He declined to take any of these illegal substances."

Of course, we know lawyers never lie.

In Serra's mind, there may be no such thing as an illegal substance. This is the lawyer whose claim to fame is defending drug clients. His life was portrayed by James Woods in the 1989 movie, "True Believer." Some of his former clients include Hells Angels and Black Panthers.

This is Barry Bonds' character reference.

Bonds also got some help from his old nemesis and teammate, Houston Astros second baseman Jeff Kent, who raised the possibility that steroid use is a baseball tradition. "Babe Ruth didn't do steroids," Kent told the Houston Chronicle. "How do you know? People are saying Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth ... how do you know those guys didn't do steroids? So all of a sudden you've got guys doing steroids now in the 20th century, 21st century? Come on."

It sounds like Kent has been out in the Florida sun a little too long, which, as Dusty Baker knows, is not healthy for those lighter-skinned people.

What also isn't healthy for the game is the dark cloud of steroids hovering over it.

It is time for a little Kevin McCarthyism - the star of the 1956 film classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" - whose character, Dr. Miles Bennell, made this urgent phone call: "Something is happening! Send your men of science quick!"

March 2, 2004
(return to column index)

Another chance for Manley
Drug-free again, ex-Redskin vows to make good this time

Dexter Manley always had his own flamboyant style, and he shone brightly during his colorful days as a defensive end with the Washington Redskins. "I lived in the sun," he said.

But there have been too many days in the darkness for Dexter Manley over the past 20 years - days where he didn't know where he was, not knowing if he would live or die because of his cocaine addiction.

One thing about Manley, though: Every time he gets knocked down, he tries to get up, and now he is doing so again. Manley was released from prison in March after serving two years on a cocaine possession conviction, and he is taking another step toward recovery this weekend by coming back to the Washington area to sign autographs at Sports Card Heroes in Laurel tomorrow afternoon.

"This will get me in touch with the spirit of the Redskins fans, who are all excited about Joe Gibbs coming back," Manley said. "They may have thousands of questions for me and I won't be able to answer them all, but all I can say is the prodigal son has returned."

He is coming from a halfway house in Houston called "Next Step for Men," where he has been living since being released from Lynchner State Prison in Humble, Texas. He had been given a stiff sentence because he failed to show up for a court-ordered hearing and because of his long history of drug-related arrests.

At 45, he has a long history of stories about a reformed Dexter Manley, all with sad endings. He says this time will be different.

"I have structure and discipline in my life," he said. "I am coming up on two years being clean and sober. Most of those two years were done in state prison, but I have seen these people who I saw in prison come in here, because there is a place for homeless people who want something to eat and they are still on crack cocaine or some kind of drug, but I am staying sober. I am walking through it with sobriety, being uncomfortable, living in this halfway house."

This latest reform episode is a little different, though. Manley said he wants to set up a drug treatment facility in Washington.

"My goal is to come back and help other people who have walked through the same path I have," he said. "I want to help people in Washington who are struggling with drug use, who are shooting heroin or smoking crack cocaine. If one man can do it, so can another man. I am going to work in the recovery field and help those people. I am going to stay sober."

Manley's wife, Lydia, believes he is serious about his goal.

"I believe his calling will be in the field of sports and recovery, in particular football and recovery," she said. "Someone who has been through as much as he has, once they make their mind up to be a contributor, they have a whole lot to contribute."

Manley has been sober before, for five years while he was married and working as a researcher for one of the most prestigious law firms in Houston. But "the beast," as Manley calls cocaine addiction, consumed him again, and he went on another binge in 2001.

Manley's personal woes have been on public display for more than 20 years. There was his tearful testimony in Congress when he revealed he had gone through life unable to read because of dyslexia. His addiction has made news since he was suspended from the NFL in 1989 after testing positive for drug use.

The Redskins released him shortly afterward. Manley played for the Arizona Cardinals for one year, then for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1991. He was banned from the league for life after he failed a drug test for the fourth time and played in the Canadian Football League in 1993.

He was done with football then, but not drugs. Manley was arrested four times for crack cocaine possession between November1994 and July1995. He served 15 months of a four-year sentence and was paroled in November1996. He finally appeared to have gotten his life in order after that, staying clean for five years until his arrest in 2001.

Now Manley is back for another try at a clean life. He knows people will be skeptical, but he is not looking back on his failures.

"I have learned to deal with the past and the present," Manley said. "I have to stay in the moment. I have lost so much. I lost a great deal. When you use mood-altering drugs, you walk through humility. Then you become humble. It took me awhile to become humble. But that is when you start recovering."

The gregarious former All-Pro has been trying to recover since he first used drugs after arriving in Washington as an immature young man who had found a way out of Houston's Third Ward by playing football.

"I never took drugs until I got to pro football," Manley said. "I was about 25, 26 years old when I started experimenting with drugs. I grew up in a drug-infested neighborhood, but I had such great determination to get out of the Third Ward and do something with my life."

Manley had an explosive combination of speed and power, and with the Redskins he became a dominant pass rusher. He averaged 15 sacks a season from 1984 to 1986 and still holds club records for career sacks (97.5 from 1981 to 1989) and in a single season (18 in 1986).

He also produced one enduring image for Redskins fans. Manley had dared the Cowboys to come after him "on every play." They did, and Manley responded by putting Dallas quarterback Danny White out of the 1982 NFC Championship game.

"I remember the energy from the Redskins fans at RFK that day," Manley said. "That motivated us so much. I couldn't believe I was center stage on that January day when we beat the Cowboys 31-17. It wasn't so much me knocking Danny White out or tipping Gary Hogeboom's pass, I had shot my mouth off, and I had to step up to the plate."

Manley's pre-game challenge didn't sit well with Gibbs.

"Before the game Joe Gibbs had called me into his office, and told me that this is a team sport and chewed me out about giving them bulletin board clippings to fire them up," Manley said. "But I always thought it was what you do on the field that was important. I wasn't looking at it from Joe Gibbs' perspective.

"I was excited. I really disliked the Cowboys. I grew up loving the Cowboys. I loved people like Walt Garrison and Duane Thomas, Bob Hayes, Bob Lilly, all those guys, and then suddenly I disliked them. I had great respect for Tom Landry. He was another man to emulate. But at the same time, Tex Schramm had started this whole 'America's Team' stuff, and I didn't like it."

Off the field, Manley was one of the stars of the team, standing out on the conservative Gibbs squads for his sometimes outrageous and colorful comments, and got caught up in the celebrity spotlight.

"All these politicians and government officials come together and put their differences aside and root for the Redskins," he said. "I was a young man visiting the White House, meeting George Schultz and Alexander Haig and President Ronald Reagan. These people knew me. That was amazing. I was in the greatest city in the world to play football. I went to all these high-powered luncheons and dinners in places like Duke Zeibert's and all those restaurants. I was such a showman, and loved to be in the spotlight. Everyone in town knew me. So I had to step up to the plate."

He struck out, though. "I had this beast on my shoulder, and the beast was cocaine that destroyed my life," Manley said. "I never felt like I got the recognition that I could have because of the beast. Because of that, I didn't live up to my expectations or the expectations of other people. I disappointed so many people. I didn't know. I was just having fun."

Despite all his falls from grace, Manley still has people who refuse to give up on him, such as his wife. They have been married for seven years, and she said she is "very cautiously optimistic" her husband will stay sober this time.

"It was heartbreaking [his 2001 arrest], but in the game of life, you have to pick yourself up and keep going," said Lydia, an electrical engineer. "I felt horrible, and I felt horrible for him. But he has always sought recovery, and works very hard to try to improve himself. That's the man I am in love with. There is so much more to him than that larger-than-life football player."

John O'Quinn, one of Houston's most powerful trial lawyers and a long-time friend of Manley's, gave him a job as a researcher in his law firm during his last stretch of sobriety. He is working for O'Quinn again, this time as an assistant general manager for the lawyer's company, Classy Classic Cars.

O'Quinn said he met Manley while he was playing for the Redskins, when he saw him having breakfast one morning in Houston. "I saw him play on television and thought he was a great player," O'Quinn said. "Then one day in a coffee shop in Houston, he was having breakfast with a friend of mine. I went over and said hello and was introduced to him. He was so friendly, we just became close friends after that."

Asked why he would get involved with Manley again, O'Quinn said, "I think he is worth it."

Manley hopes he doesn't let these people down again, and that his final legacy will be one of personal triumph, not tragedy.

"I will be a productive human being," he said. "And I am looking forward so much to coming back to Washington. That place meant so much to me."

June 11, 2004
(return to column index)

This pitchman deserved to make another pitch

HOUSTON -- The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is housed in a metal warehouse-type building on a side street in Houston, about 12 miles from the ballpark where last night's All-Star Game took place.

There's no stained glass, no majestic steeple, no ornate decorations. If not for a small sign identifying the church, you would pass by and not know it was there.

And even if you saw the sign, you still wouldn't know that one of the most famous sports legends in the world is inside, spreading the word of the Lord.

"Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly," preacher George Foreman tells the congregation of about 50 who are present this hot Sunday night. "Who you sit down with and take advice from says a lot about a man."

Someone in baseball could have used some advice when Muhammad Ali was picked to represent the ceremonial first pitch before last night's All-Star Game. Foreman should have been there, too.

Houston is George Foreman's town, not Ali's. It was Foreman who is one of the city's most recognizable figures. It is Foreman who has donated time and money ($250,000 to flood victims here several years ago) to this community. It is Foreman who drove his Hummer into the flooded streets of the city and helped people. It is Foreman who operates a youth center for children.

Yet last night it was Ali, Foreman's old foe, whose main claim to fame in Houston was refusing to be inducted into the army here during the Vietnam War. He defended his title here twice, against Ernie Terrell and Cleveland Williams, but those are footnotes compared to the history that took place 37 years ago in a federal building a few blocks from where the new ballpark sits.

Since then, Ali, suffering from Parkinson's syndrome, has gone from an object of scorn to America's teddy bear, the celebrity trotted out when America wants to feel good about something. And the crowd and players certainly felt good last night when Ali, accompanied by his son, went to the mound and stood next to two Boys & Girls Clubs of America kids as they made the pitches to the plate for him.

But Foreman's story is as American as baseball and apple pie. He was a thug growing up on the streets of Houston's Fifth Ward when he was saved by Job Corps. Under the direction of a counselor, he turned to boxing and wound up winning the Olympic gold medal in the heavyweight division. One of the last images of those Mexico City Games is Foreman waving a small American flag in the ring after receiving his medal.

He went on to become a feared professional heavyweight champion. But he was an angry, hostile figure, and no one shed tears when he retired after getting beat by Jimmy Young in 1977. He says he found God in a vision in his dressing room after that fight and became a minister.

The story is well known after that. He gained nearly 100 pounds while he was retired for a decade, came back to boxing in 1987 to raise money for his youth center, won the heavyweight title again at 45 by knocking out Michael Moorer and became a beloved figure in America after a total personality change. His rise to the greatest grilling machine pitchman in the country earned him $140 million.

Yet he returns to this humble church every Sunday to proclaim the gospel and share his faith.

He opened the service Sunday by playing electric guitar while two of his sons, George IV and George V; his nephew, Jody; and his daughter Natalie sang. He urged the members of his congregation to believe in the power of prayer, and they do. They put their trust in prayer and in George Foreman, asking him to pray for troubled friends, bless travel plans and strengthen their faith. He held court after the 35-minute service, taking time to ask about kids or inquire about their health.

"The work I do here is the most important thing in my life," Foreman said. "This keeps me grounded. People come here from Russia and China and Japan looking for me, and they miss this place. They come looking for some mighty building, and I don't even have my name on a sign outside."

Foreman said he was not invited to be part of the All-Star Game festivities, but he doesn't feel slighted. If anything, he is happy his old-time nemesis is being honored.

"If you are asking me who should throw out the first pitch, George Foreman or Muhammad Ali, I would say Muhammad Ali," Foreman said. "He changed the world. I can't say good or bad, but he changed the world. I don't want people to ever forget Muhammad Ali.

"At a time when commercials were about to be big in sports and he could have made a lot of money, he changed his name for his religion," he said. "That means Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and companies like that, you could say goodbye. And today they want him to throw out the first pitch? Good for him. I only wish I could be there with him."

Baseball commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig said the decision to have Ali for the ceremony was made by baseball's marketing people, and they ran it by Selig before final approval.

"Ali is one of the sports legends of our generation," Cadillac Bud said. "He transcends all sports."

But he has been done and done and done. Of course the marketing people wanted Ali. It's a marketing ploy and comes across like that.

To have Ali and Foreman together, though, in Foreman's hometown, in the year of the 30th anniversary of their epic "Rumble in the Jungle" heavyweight title fight in Africa, would have been a celebration, not a stunt.

Of course, Fox, which broadcast last night's game, may not think so. It is locked in battle with NBC over competing boxing reality shows. Oscar De La Hoya is backing the Fox show, and Foreman, who said he still intends to fight sometime this fall and is on a weight loss program to get down to 225 pounds, is involved in the Sylvester Stallone NBC program, "The Contender." It is not likely Fox would be celebrating any appearance by George Foreman.

What would Foreman have done if he could have been there on the field last night with Ali?

"I would pick him up and give him a big hug," Foreman said.

That would have been an all-time All-Star moment.

July 14, 2004
(return to column index)

Still on his feet, but Ellis pays price for boxing fame

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The city of Louisville went out of its way to embrace its boxing
legacy of heavyweight champions in the week leading up to Mike Tyson's fight last night
against Danny Williams at Freedom Hall.

Four Louisville natives have held the heavyweight title. The least known is Marvin Hart, a plumber who won the title in 1905. The other three are more familiar to boxing fans: Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Ellis and Greg Page.

Those three Louisville fighters were featured in newspaper photos this week in an article about the hopes for a boxing revival in the city spurred by the Tyson bout. But those photos captured only the glory of their time as champions.

They don't show the painful aftermath.

Ali's current physical condition has been well documented. "The Greatest" suffers from Parkinson's syndrome that is believed to have been brought on by the punches he took.

Also documented is the story of Page, who held the World Boxing Association version of the title in 1984 and suffered brain damage and paralysis three years ago at 42 when he was knocked out and failed to get proper medical care ringside at a fight in Northern Kentucky.

The forgotten champion and son of Louisville, though, is Ellis, who is suffering from pugilistic dementia, the same sort of debilitating mental disorder that plagued one his former opponents, Jerry Quarry, who died of cardiac arrest at 53.

"It has come on in the past year," said Howard Gosser, a former fighter and music and boxing promoter who is a close friend of Ellis. "He has good days and bad days. It's short-term memory problems."

This was not a particularly good day for Ellis, who is 64. He could not remember watching Ibn Ali - the son of Rahman Ali, Muhammad Ali's brother - fight, yet Gosser said Ellis had been working with Ali and had been in his corner for all eight of his fights.

But while warmly greeting fans during lunch at a local restaurant - he is still called "champ" in Louisville - Ellis appeared much like the quiet, talented fighter who emerged as heavyweight champion during Muhammad Ali's 3 1/2-year exile from boxing for refusing to be drafted.

Ellis won the vacant title by beating Leotis Martin, Oscar Bonavena and Quarry in a nationally televised elimination tournament. He successfully defended the title once against Floyd Patterson, winning a close, controversial decision, and then, after not fighting for a year, lost the title when he was knocked out in five rounds by Joe Frazier, who had not participated in the tournament and had been designated heavyweight champion by New York and five other states - the origins of the breakup of the heavyweight title that plagues the sport to this day.

Ali is the face of boxing in Louisville. They are in the process of building the Muhammad Ali Center here, and he remains one of the biggest names in sports on a global scale. But you can't tell the story of Ali without that of Ellis, who was connected to so much of Ali's success and history in the ring.

The two grew up in Louisville, though they didn't know each other as youngsters, and were brought into boxing by the same man, Joe Martin, at Columbia Gym. Ellis said he got into boxing after watching Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, fighting on a local amateur boxing television show.

"I had a friend of mine named Donnie Hall, and he fought Ali on this show called 'Tomorrow's Champions,'" Ellis said. "Donnie lost, and I thought I could maybe be a fighter then."

Ellis went with Hall to Columbia Gym, wound up sparring with Ali, and they became close friends, even though they were rivals. Ellis beat Ali in the amateur ranks but was Ali's sparring partner in the first part of Ali's career, before he was exiled.

Ellis helped prepare Ali for his fights and boxed on the undercard of 10 Ali fights. "We got along really good," Ellis said of his relationship with Ali. "We worked out together and got ourselves ready for fights. We were friends." They remain friends. Gosser said that he and Ellis visit Ali at his home in Michigan.

Ellis began his professional career in April 1961 as a middleweight by knocking out Arley Siefer in three rounds in Louisville. He fought five more times that year in Louisville and suffered his first defeat when he lost a 10-round decision to the District's Holly Mims.

After putting together a record of 21-5, Ellis moved up from middleweight to a small heavyweight, often weighing about 190 pounds, when he scored a big first-round knockout of Johnny Persol in New York in March 1967 - a month before Ali refused induction.

Ali was stripped of his title for his actions, and a tournament was set up among the top-ranked heavyweights for the vacant belt. It was Ellis' knockout of Persol that put him in the tournament. With Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, in his corner, Ellis surprised everyone by beating Martin and then knocking the powerful Bonavena down twice, putting him against Quarry in the final for the title. Ellis defeated Quarry in a decision in April 1968 to become champion.

But Ellis wasn't champion for long. He defended the title once that year in Stockholm, barely winning a controversial decision against former champion Patterson.

Ellis didn't fight at all in 1969 and then lost the belt when he finally faced Frazier, whose powerful left hooks ended the fight in five rounds. He would continue fighting and even fought Ali, who stopped Ellis in 12 rounds in their July 1971 fight in Houston. He fought until 1975, when he was blinded in his left eye by a thumb while sparring. He retired with a record of 40-12-1, with 24 knockouts.

Ellis was not one of the best fighters to ever hold the heavyweight title.

But he fought - and won - the heavyweight title in the toughest era of heavyweight boxing, a former middleweight fighting among the giants.

"He fought in the golden era of the heavyweight division," said boxing historian Bert Sugar. "He had a presence and a name. He was one of those partial champions who gets lost in the shuffle, but whatever he did is better than what we have now. We know who Jimmy Ellis is. We don't know who Lamon Brewster [the World Boxing Organization champion, one of four fighters who currently hold heavyweight titles] is."

Ellis can recall many of his fights and is proud of his boxing legacy.

"I was a smaller heavyweight, but I could fight the big guys," he said. "There were a lot of great fighters then, and I was beating a lot of them. I fought to win."

After he left boxing, Ellis worked for the city of Louisville in the Parks and Recreation Department, helping youths and senior citizens. He also devoted more time to one of his passions, gospel singing and even recorded a CD three years ago, with the help of Gosser: "Jimmy Ellis - Gospel With A Punch."

Gosser is also working with Ellis to establish an amateur boxing program in Louisville.

"We are trying to bring back the old 'Tomorrow's Champions' TV program," Gosser said. "That used to give kids an incentive to train, to be on television. We want to call it 'Jimmy Ellis' Tomorrow's Champions."

Ellis was one of yesterday's champions, and for a brief spell held the greatest title in the world.

"I'm proud of what I did," he said. "But all I ever wanted was to be a good fighter and a good person."

July 31. 2004
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Forneris gave up ball but not his memories

ST. LOUIS. -- It has been more than six years since Tim Forneris became a national hero at Busch Stadium. Government proclamations followed. He met with the president and appeared on David Letterman. When the spotlight faded, Forneris went off to law school.
And as you might expect from the young man who gave the ball Mark McGwire hit for his record-setting 62nd home run to the slugger, thereby turning down more than $1 million, Forneris became a public defender. There was never any doubt.

"I am a very fortunate person," Forneris said. "With everything that has happened to me, I wanted to give me to people who are not as fortunate as myself and find themselves in a tough situation."

Forneris spends his days in law libraries and prisons, working on appeals for convicted inmates.

"I do all kinds of cases, from car theft to first-degree murder," he said. "It is much different than a trial. It is much more difficult to win a case when the jury finds someone guilty. It takes a lot for the court of appeals to reverse a conviction. But it gives me a good opportunity, too, to see how good lawyers practice."

In his spare time, Forneris still works at Busch Stadium on the ground crew. He was there last night for Game 3 of the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox, just as he was there Sept. 8, 1998, when McGwire drove a shot over the left-field wall to break Roger Maris' single-season home run record.

Forneris beat a number of fans to the ball, stuffed it into his shirt and ran onto the field with dozens of other employees as McGwire rounded the bases. Forneris then handed it over to Cardinals equipment manager Buddy Bates.

It has become one of the game's most celebrated days, with lasting images of McGwire entering into the stands and embracing the Maris family and Forneris, then 22-years-old, presenting McGwire with the ball in a ceremony after the game.

"Mr. McGwire, I think I have something that belongs to you," Forneris said.

In an era in which fans sue each other over famous baseballs, Forneris' gesture -- giving up a ball that, at the time, easily could have brought him $1 million -- illustrated the way they value the game in the heartland. He was lauded for his selfless act, and six years later he treasures the memories of what happened to him more than he would a seven-figure bank account.

"I have absolutely no regrets," Forneris said. "It was as real honor and true blessing to be part of that. I went on a trip to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown [where McGwire donated the ball] a few years later, and they had a display there with a photo. I was there wearing my Cardinals hat, and people were coming over to me, saying, 'Isn't that you?' To be associated with the Hall of Fame and to meet all the people I have over a baseball has been wonderful."

Forneris grew up a Cardinals fan in Collinsville, Ill., the home of the world's largest catsup bottle -- a 170-foot water tower built in that shape. He was 6-years-old when the Cardinals won the 1982 World Series and 11 when they last played in the Series in 1987. He has seen a number of postseason games since he began working as an usher at Busch Stadium 12 years ago (his mother also works there as a concierge at the stadium club) but is enjoying another lifelong dream. He gets to watch a World Series close up, although last night he was pretty busy getting the rain-soaked field ready for play.
"I like this team," he said of the 2004 National League champions. "I felt like we had a strong team all year. I'll be disappointed if it doesn't go six or seven games, though. It's been a great postseason for baseball."

He doesn't know how much longer he will be able to handle both his legal career and his love to be at the ballpark.

"The Cardinals organization is like a family, and they have treated me great," he said. "It's a great atmosphere, and that is why I keep trying to stay as long as I can. This may be my last season. You never know. But I have had a great time."

And he wouldn't trade it for a million bucks.

Oct. 27, 2004 
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