People open the magazine he writes for
from the back—like the Old Testament—because that’s where his column
runs. Six times his peers voted him National Sportswriter of the Year,
and he’s only 41. If you don’t know him, you probably grew up in a cave
like Maurice "Slo-Mo" Finsternick, the protagonist of his most recent
novel. For the cave-dwellers out there, I’m talking about Sports
Illustrated’s senior writer and columnist Rick Reilly.
Like so many others with a gift for humor, Rick Reilly had
less than an idyllic childhood. His homelife in Boulder, Colorado was a
crucible in which his father's moods were dark and unpredictable. Reilly
claims he’s been "lightening things up" as the family comedian since the
age of two. Even then, making people laugh was more than a hobby to him.
"It was my job," he says.
When he won a writing contest in the first grade, and his
story was displayed in a Pearl Street bank window, he was hooked:
writing, and writing funny, became his obsession. Later, he created a
newspaper with his neighborhood friends which they delivered by a
hand-pulled wagon. "It was 7 cents," he recalls. In high school,
however, Reilly got lax about his writing. Friday afternoons he'd go
drinking with his buddies, even though that was the day his column was
due for the school paper. Sometimes he'd have this "gorgeous blond girl
on the staff" write it for him and sign his name to it. "And that's the
girl I ended up marrying," he says. "I still turn to her every now and
then and say, 'Hey, can you help this?'"
After graduating from the University of Colorado, Reilly
worked for the Denver Post and then moved on to the Los
Angeles Times, where he fell under the influence of the legendary
sportswriter, Jim Murray. Then, 1985, Sports Illustrated called,
and he's been there ever since.
"Life of Reilly," the first signed opinion column in SI's
history, launched two years ago, quickly became a sensation. If it
weren’t so popular, it'd have cult-status, as it defies preconceived
notions of what a sports column is supposed to be. Readers count on
Reilly's point of view on any number of issues; the tone is alternately
angry, funny, offbeat, sentimental, silly--but never boring. For
When Reilly pens his column, he visualizes the guy
he's writing it for. He describes him as "some guy in Peoria, sittin' in
his Barcalounger, after a hard day's work." This imagined reader has
three kids running around him and all the tools of distraction at his
disposal--the Internet, TV, newspapers, a video rental, etc. "What's
gonna keep his interest?" Reilly asks. "It's like Jim Murray used to
say: 'You know, there's no city ordinance says they gotta read you.'"
- Reilly on hunting (written in the form of a
post-game interview with John Doe, general manager and coach of the
deer): "I heard a guy say he never apologizes after he fills one of my
guys with a bucketful of lead, but he always remembers to 'thank the
deer for the contest.' Wait a minute. What contest? This ain't a contest
anymore than the Exxon Valdez versus shrimp was a contest."
- On cheerleading: "I don't hate [it] just
because it's about as safe as porcupine juggling. I also hate it because
it's dumb. The Velcroed-on smiles. The bizarre arm movements stolen from
the Navy signalmen's handbook."
- On Atlanta (host to this year's Super Bowl,
a sporting event he said was "to excitement what Rosie O'Donnell is to
the thong bikini."): "[It] is basically a string of Shoney's restaurants
connected loosely by jammed parking lots, many of them disguised as
interstates...a wonderful place to live if you happen to be a muffler."
- On the Reverend Jesse Jackson
(inappropriately playing the race card): "[He] yelped that the Packers'
recent firing of coach Ray Rhodes, after one 8-8 season, may have been
racist. I love it. Former Green Bay star Reggie White reads from the
Book of Rocker and Jackson yawns, but Jackson makes a football coach
seem like Rosa Parks? Lord!"
- On the Yankees: "Rooting for [them] takes
all the courage, imagination, conviction and baseball intelligence of
Spam. It's like rooting for Brad Pitt to get the girl or for Bill Gates
to hit Scratch 'n' Win."
- On Jim Murray: "He wrote the nation's best
sports column for 37 delicious years at the Los Angeles Times, but, come
to think of it, the column was about sports sort of the way Citizen Kane
was about sleds."
Reilly holds the reader with his knack for putting things
in unique ways. On the golfer Fred Couples, for example, he wrote: "His
swing is slower than the last day of school, holes jump in the way of
his golf balls, and money knocks on doors to find him." Every familiar
analogy, metaphor or turn of speech is blue-penciled and replaced by
something fresh, by language that pops and sizzles. "Instead of, 'He was
quick as lightning,'" Reilly explains, 'He was faster than rent money.'
Or, 'She was gorgeous...no, she was twelve-car-pile-up gorgeous,'" which
is what Reilly wrote of Katarina Witt. He's exceptional at baiting the
Ironic, then, with all the satisfaction he gives others, that
Reilly calls writing "a horrible, lonely job. You sit there by yourself.
If someone doesn't like your writing, it's not because, 'Oh, you've got
a big nose' or 'I hate that tie.' It's the essence of you that they
hate." So he takes comfort writing around others. In fact, he wrote both
his novels, Missing Links (Doubleday) and Slo-Mo! My Untrue
Story (Doubleday), at Zaidy’s, a deli in downtown Denver. He always
sits in the same place, at the end of the counter--girded by a "wall of
noise"--and orders the fried egg sandwich and coffee. "They don't really
talk to me, I just like the fact I'm not alone."
But talk he does. A congenital storyteller, he's as funny
in person as he is on paper. He enjoys public speaking, and has a 30-45
minute routine. He says he thrives on the immediate laughter from the
audience because writing a funny column is like "sending a bunch a jokes
down a deep black well, and you don't know if anybody is laughing,
throwing up, falling asleep or what." He has an unpretentious way about
him, which makes sense; a sportswriter must get along with folks.
That lesson was one of the most important taught to
Reilly while under Jim Murray’s tutelage at the L.A Times.
Murray's gift for working with people made a lasting impression. When
Murray died, Reilly wrote, "Murray was so humble that when you left
him--even if you were the third-string volleyball writer in Modesto--you
couldn't remember which of you was the legend." Reilly attempts to treat
people likewise. He's a mensch, but one with an ulterior motive: his
antennae are always out--just as Murray's was--ready for an amusing
phrase, good dialogue, a new idea. A writer's work is never done.
"I like to think of myself as 22 and cool, you know?"
Reilly says. "I think I can hang with anybody." Indeed, Reilly passed
muster with the professional wrestler Goldberg, whom he met at the Super
Bowl in Atlanta. "He told me, 'Damn, I didn't know any media people
could be cool.'" Not many media people are in Miller Lite commercials
with models, either, as he was with Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. He received
some flak for doing that, which he feels was unwarranted, but his
philosophy is clear: you can love me, you can even hate me, as long as
you read me. "I need exposure," he says. "I want people to hit the back
page, I want them to hear what I have to say." Just don't go up to Rick
Reilly and call him "'the salty guy in the back,'" as one kid did
recently, which the sportswriter received like a shot to the solar
plexus. "I mean, he made me sound like a 60-year-old sailor!"
He's more lighthearted about some of the hate mail he's
received, particularly letters from angry cheerleaders. "They just can't
quite be mean enough. They're like, 'I hope you die!'--with a little
heart over the "i." Or, 'Write back!' They always want me to write back.
No, you don't write back hate mail!"
Regardless of the public's reaction to him, Reilly sees
his responsibility as being simply to tell the truth. As he sees it, the
high-profile athletes he covers have a greater responsibility to the
public. They have the money, the visibility, and the influence on youth
culture to affect major social change, but they often do little with
their privileged position.
Charles Barkley, whom Reilly generally admires, declared
in a Nike ad, "I am not a role model." "Well, it's too late!" Reilly
responds. "You don't get a choice, you're out there, you chose to be
public, you chose to be famous. So guess what? You are a role model,
good or bad." He explains how athletes become role models for different
things: Latrell Sprewell is a role model for selfishness, Michael
Jordan's a role model for success. But Jordan, he feels, is more
culpable than the rest: "He let himself become the most famous person on
the planet. Well, now you got to do something with it. The things he
could do socially are mind-boggling. He could change the world. But he
doesn't take his life to the people."
Furthermore, Reilly has zero tolerance for athletes who
use religion as a "rub-a-rabbit's-foot kind of thing," such as Isaac
Bruce, who claimed Derrick Thomas would have escaped injury had he
invoked Jesus's name as his car flipped; or Reggie White, who uses the
press as a pulpit for racism, homophobia and child abuse--and calls
himself a good Christian.
When he finds the time, Reilly tries his hand at
screenplays. Universal bought a screenplay he co-wrote called Leatherheads.
It's about the 1927 Duluth Eskimos football team of the NFL--"This
owner was so cheap," Reilly pitches, "he'd make the players shower in
their uniforms to keep them clean." Warner Bros. has commissioned him to
write three screenplays, though he chafes under the system’s penchant
for relegating material to development purgatory. He wonders if Kurt
Vonnegut was not correct when he said: "'Go to the Nevada/California
border, throw your book across, take your check and never go in.'" He
has also co-authored several popular sports biographies: The Boz,
with Brian Bosworth; I'd Love To But I Have A Game, with NBC
announcer Marv Albert; The Wit and Wisdom of Charles Barkley,
It was writing Gretzky that prompted his second
foray into fiction. "Gretsky made me rewrite his book three times,"
Reilly exclaims, "it was too funny and too controversial!" He got over
it; Slo-Mo, his most recent effort, is all those things. It's a parody
of the "as told to" genre sports book, filled with real and
stereotypical NBA characters. Maurice "Slo-Mo" Finsternick's a
slow-witted, white, 7'8'' malaprop-dropping teenager, an innocent from a
Colorado spelunking-cult, who is drafted into the NBA as a high school
junior--he can drain 30 foot hook shots with either hand. He's so
clueless, that when Charles Barkley tells him at a hotel-bar to "get
yourself a freak," he responds with, "no, thanks, I don't drink." Reilly
mined every story he wanted to tell about athletes, especially in the
NBA, that was either too dirty or too sensitive for the pages of SI.
How have the hoopsters responded? "Well, the thing about guys in the
NBA, they don't read things, they have a staff that reads for them. They
go play Nintendo, and, you know, watch a video--it's sad.
Reilly's wit and perception on the confluence of sports
and society has taken him a long way from the kid who just wanted to
make people laugh. He has reached an enviable position in life. He's a
skillful and prolific writer, who is widely read and has the respect of
his peers. It's fair to say his existence aptly mirrors the title of his
weekly column: "The Life of Reilly."