Reilly is the Jordan of sports writers
July 11, 2008
The first American Century Celebrity Golf Championship I covered was in 2000 as a reporter for the Nevada Appeal in Carson City. I was two months removed from journalism school when my editor told me, “Go to Lake Tahoe and get something.”
So I followed Jerry Rice for several holes during a practice round. When his entourage separated from him on No. 18, I ducked under the ropes and scurried up to the most prolific wide receiver in NFL history.
“Mr. Rice, Mr. Rice, can I ask you a few questions?”
“No, man, I’m playing right now,” Rice barked.
He saw the expression on my face and quickly realized, like I did, that I didn’t understand media protocol for this event. As he walked up to his second shot, Rice dropped his guard a bit and answered my questions.
Just when I was finished, a member of his entourage ” a large member ” saw me pestering his homey and yelled, “Hey, how did you get next to him? Get out of here.”
I backed off his homey, ducked under the ropes again and said, “I don’t even like Jerry Rice.”
On Wednesday, eight years later, I found myself again on No. 18 and chasing another interview. Michael Jordan and Emmitt Smith need not apply. I’m more nervous opening my gas bill than interviewing them.
No, I was after former Sports Illustrated columnist and current ESPN media personality Rick Reilly, who will likely go down as one of the greatest writers of this generation.
Not the greatest sportswriter. The greatest writer. Now a little background.
He worked at the Boulder (Colo.) Daily Camera while he was a student at the University of Colorado. After graduating in 1981, he had a succession of two-year stints at the Daily Camera, Denver Post and Los Angeles Times before landing at Sports Illustrated in 1985.
Each week, usually on Mondays, I’d receive the latest SI, flip it over and open the issue’s back cover. There, on the last page of the magazine, was the most important story.
Reilly is required reading.
But he’s also balding and wears plaid shorts on the golf course. Playing in the same group as John Elway, Reilly was a janitor in a brown hat. He finished his round and started toward the grandstands, where I took one final breath.
All the TV reporters gravitated to Elway. They went for the matinee, I went for the headliner.
I know what you’re thinking, writers aren’t celebrities. And they certainly aren’t people to be afraid of ” not with 6-foot-3, 225-pound NFL players at Edgewood ” but Reilly isn’t your average writer.
In June, he began working for ESPN, which signed him to a five-year deal worth a reported $17 million ” $12 million more than Elway’s five-year, $5 million contract he signed in 1983, which at the time was the biggest deal in NFL history.
So, yeah, subjecting yourself to an interview with the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year takes some gumption. Or it takes, “Hey, Rick, I’m Jeremy with the Tahoe Tribune. Can I grab you for a few seconds?”
I’ve been big-timed before at Edgewood, but a journalist can’t snub another journalist, that’d be weak sauce. I wasn’t really worried about being rejected, but as he shook my hand, I grew concerned because I forgot every question I had wanted to ask him, but I grinded it out.
He told me he doesn’t regret leaving SI last November because, “I was ready to try something new.” And now he is.
At ESPN, he writes “Life of Reilly” every Wednesday for ESPN.com, contributes to ESPN The Magazine twice a month and also does on-air commentary. After the American Century Championship, which he’s competing in for the first time, he’ll work the network’s British Open coverage.
“I give my TV work a 5 out of 10,” Reilly said. “And I see so much bad TV writing. It’s full of cliches. It’s almost like TV … if you’re talking and you look pretty, nobody cares. At least for me, because I ain’t pretty, I want the writing to be really good. I still think there is room for great writing on TV.”
In a 1999 SI article about the first time he saw Elway, who’s now a close friend, he described him as “Mop-haired, big-toothed, pigeon-toed, throwing passes to one man over and over again.”
He also started at SI a regular parody called “The Chuckies” about people who deserved to be thrown through a plate-glass window after Charles Barkley threw someone through a plate-glass window; Barkley later wrote the foreword for one of Reilly’s books.
Although he’s schmoozing with the same athletes he’s criticized and romanticized, he finds himself stuck on the fence.
“I thought about growing a beard, I really did. Barry Bonds isn’t here, is he?” Reilly said. “Some guys, you can write 99 great things about them, as you will find out (already have, Rick, quit big-timing me), and love them for their entire career, but you write one bad column, and they hate you forever. I’m sure I’ll find out this week who still hates me.”
Before long, I realized that I wasn’t interviewing the guy I grew up admiring. I was talking to “The Next Life of Reilly.”
He’s no longer just required reading. He’s now attempting to become required listening and required viewing.
“I just wanted to write, and I thought that was enough,” Reilly continued. “It’s fun, it’s like starting over, and it’s like I am learning a whole new thing. I still want to bring great writing to whatever it is I am doing. There are so many new ways now to hear your voice ” podcasts, Internet, radio, TV. So even though I think of myself as totally a writer, I’m going to try it. I want to see if I can get to the younger listeners. I do whatever ESPN can dream up.”
Is it worth it?
“Hell yeah, but they made it worth my while.”
Jeremy Evans is a Tahoe Daily Tribune sportswriter. He can be reached at (530) 542-8008.