CORONA DEL MAR, Calif. – You often hear pro athletes – especially pro hockey players – talk about “riding the bike.” They mean the stationary bike exercise machine, and they ride it to train, to recuperate, to push their lungs and muscles. Some hockey stars all but live on those things.
Well, the man who co-created the stationary bike industry, the man who, about 30 years ago, started a company called Life Fitness, which produced the Lifecycle, is a guy named Augie Nieto. You probably never met him. And none of the Detroit Red Wings – despite countless hours on stationary bikes – had ever met him.
On Wednesday, one Red Wing met him. It wasn’t a business meeting. It wasn’t a product pitch. The meeting took place inside Augie Nieto’s home in Southern California.
The Red Wing was Chris Osgood.
He brought the Stanley Cup.
He carried it, two-handed, through the front door and down the stairs. He carried it through a living room. He put it on a table near a man who sat in a wheelchair, unable to move his arms or his torso.
“How ya doing?” Osgood asked. A punishing disease
Well, how’s Augie doing? On the one hand, you could say he is not doing well. He has ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. It struck him three years ago, in the prime of his life, age 47, when he thought he had everything going for him: beautiful wife, beautiful kids, gorgeous home, millions in the bank, a life of adventure and accomplishment. In fact, it was during a water-skiing trip through the Mekong Delta in Vietnam (and let’s be honest, how many regular folk do that?) that Augie sensed something wrong. He fell a few times, and his muscles weren’t reacting the way they should.
Soon after, he got the diagnosis. ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. His body, of which he had been so proud, was on a path to unavoidable decay. And his life, at least as this fitness mogul had known it, was doomed to slip away. Everything he took for granted, in time, would need to be done by someone else for him, including bathing, dressing, brushing his teeth.
Or lifting the Stanley Cup and putting it across his lap.
Which Chris Osgood did on Wednesday.
“How does it feel?” the goalie asked.
“I feel,” Augie said, his words coming slowly, “like a champion.”
There’s more to that sentence than you could ever know. Augie, after an initial bout of depression, decided to make the most of whatever time he had left. He created a new business of sorts, this one called Augie’s Quest, whose sole purpose would be finding a cure for ALS. It would be run like a business, with business-like goals and business-like efficiency. It would be funded with contributions from Augie and from others. To date, he has raised – get this – more than $14 million. Yet he has no illusions about a cure that would heal his own body.
His dreams are for others.
And in thinking that way, even as he sank into a wheelchair, he has risen to new heights. He authored a book about his experiences (called “Augie’s Quest”) and is at work on a second (called “Reciprocity, Incorporated”). In this one, he is interviewing successful business people like himself who have found a compelling need to give back.
One of the people he interviewed was Mike Ilitch, owner of the Red Wings, Tigers and Little Caesars. After an hour-long meeting last month in his Detroit office, Ilitch was so impressed with Augie, even though he could not move from his wheelchair, that Ilitch promised to bring him the Stanley Cup if his team won it.
Augie thanked him and headed home.
And the Red Wings developed one very anxious fan in Southern California. The joy of Stanley
“What were you thinking,” Augie asked Osgood, as he looked at the Cup, “in the last 10 seconds of the playoffs?”
Osgood grinned. He knew Augie meant the final play, when Osgood went sprawling to the ice to block the last desperate shot by the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of the finals. The puck never got in the net. The blue light flashed.
“I couldn’t wait to get back up,” Osgood said.
For Augie, and others with ALS, getting back up will remain a dream. But rising up is another matter. What Augie has done is inspire people around him into action. His pureness of spirit makes people energized to work with him, to battle ALS, to pool their efforts to try harder. It’s as if he taps into that part of people that is hidden by the everyday craziness, and only gets revealed when you realize all of our days are numbered in some way.
Augie does all this while trapped in a wheelchair, while needing to be fed or have his tears wiped, while typing with his toes on a computer, and while following your gaze with his own constant smiling eyes, which miss nothing. Having Lou Gehrig’s disease may turn your body into a prison, but your mind is sharper than ever.
And so Augie’s mind was racing Wednesday morning, taking it all in. He had never seen the Stanley Cup. Around him were children, friends, cameras and video cameras. People posed with the Cup and took snapshots. Women kissed it. Men touched it with reverence. Osgood held the Cup over Augie’s head and some people pushed Augie’s arms to make it look as if he were holding it up as well.
“I feel like I’m part of a legacy,” Augie said, his slurred words being translated by his son, Austin.
“Dynasty,” Augie corrected.
“Dynasty,” Austin said.
Actually, he is part of both. The legacy of spreading the Stanley Cup from NHL arenas to hospitals, swimming pools, playgrounds and even living rooms of everyday people.
And the dynasty of the human spirit, which touches one person, who touches another and another and another. You could see Osgood’s face change while he was in that living room. He had been on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” the night before. He was headed to a Hollywood movie premiere of “The Love Guru.” But none of those places would yield the magic he was seeing at that moment. “I like doing this stuff best of all,” Osgood admitted.
He posed with Augie. He put his arm on his shoulder. They talked. They laughed. Then the phone rang, and it was Mr. Ilitch, calling to see how it all was going.
“You’re a special guy,” Ilitch told Augie.
“Thank you,” Augie said. “Now we have to get the Tigers going.”
There is a small detail of this story that has been left out. A few days after the Detroit meeting, Augie and his wife, Lynne, were back in their Southern California house and Lynne was going through the mail. Lots of junk. She impulsively threw a batch of letters out. Then, something made her go back and pick one up. The handwriting on the front. She opened it.
A check from the Red Wings for $50,000 for Augie’s Quest.
She grabbed another envelope from the trash. A check for $100,000 from the Detroit Tigers.
She grabbed one more. A check for $100,000 from Little Caesars.
One life touches another and another. So does a particular silver trophy, carried this week by a good-hearted goalie who held it over the head of a good-hearted fitness giant who no longer can do it himself.
“Amazing,” Augie whispered.
How’s he doing? Well, you could say he’s doing great. And if he can be doing great, we can, too.
For more information on Augie’s Quest and how to make a donation, go to augiesquest.org. Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.