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Once upon a time, before he was a walking Father's Day card, before his writing became a neverending telethon for the blind and the deaf, the palsied and the pinkieless, the one-armed and the no-legged, Rick Reilly was really good.
Reilly has gone in for a lot of abuse hereabouts, all of it richly deserved. But there was a time, long ago, when he was the sportswriter's sportswriter, a guy who some days was the best thing in the business. And on the days he wasn't the best, he was, to crib a line, at least in the photo.
A brief story: In 1998, SI handed over its back page to Reilly, and thus was born the now-trademarked "Life of Reilly." I was in college at the time. Every few weeks, my friend would tear out a good Reilly column and tape it up in a bathroom stall in his dormitory — the door, the walls, wherever he could find free space. The stall filled up in no time. To a college student, this was the highest of compliments. Of course, today, the whole project seems appropriate in an altogether different way. (His latest offering, for instance, is a rather sizable piece of shit.)
Anyway, here are five features — all from his Sports Illustrated days, tellingly — in which Reilly was at the top of his game.
"When Your Dream Dies" (Dec. 26, 1994)
On a refrigerated, colorless Saturday morning in the no-McDonald's town of Walnut, Ill., Kenny Wilcoxen walked along the street carrying the letter he had waited for his whole life, the one that meant that after 20 years he was finally going to ref the state high school football finals. On the other side of the letter, written neatly in blue ink, was his suicide note.
"Heaven Help Marge Schott" (May 20, 1996)
Alone in her bedroom, alone in a 40-room mansion, alone on a 70-acre estate, Marge Schott finishes off a vodka-and-water (no lime, no lemon), stubs out another Carlton 120, takes to her two aching knees and prays to the Men. To Charlie, the husband who made her life and then ruined it. He taught her never to trust. To Daddy, the unsmiling father who turned her into his only son. He taught her never to be soft. To Dad Schott, the calculating father-in-law, whom she may have loved most of all. He taught her never to let herself be cheated.
"I pray to them every night, honey," she says. "How many owners do that, huh? Hit their knees every night?"
Night after night she sits alone in her vast luxury box with just her telephone and Schottzie, not paying much attention to the game, waiting for some high-ranking employee to show up at the door and take Schottzie for a walk. Afterward there's always a report.
"Tinkle or poo?" she will ask.
"Just tinkle," the director of marketing or some other front-office-type will answer sheepishly.
"The Mourning Anchor" (Sept. 26, 1988)
What is it the poet said? Like muffled drums, our hearts beat a funeral march to the grave. And so it is that Bryant Gumbel, a man who is nothing if not prepared, keeps a list of his pallbearers.
Gumbel has a spare dark suit and tie hanging in his office in case the news is tragic and the suit he's wearing is too light for the occasion. He brings six golf shirts on a three-day golf trip just to make sure he looks perfect. Gumbel never loosens his tie or takes off his jacket, even in summer.
March to the grave. High above a checkerboard landscape, Gumbel reaches into the pocket of his first-class seat, pulls out his Filofax and draws out a yellowed piece of paper. The creases are so deep that the paper threatens to rip at the touch.
It is the eulogy from his father's funeral, the one Gumbel wrote and delivered that spring day in 1972. He keeps it with him always. It ends: I say goodbye for those who knew him as "Your Honor." ...I say goodbye for those who knew him as Dick or Richard and thereby shared in the joys which come of fine and rare friendship. I say goodbye for those who knew him as family.... I say goodbye for my dear mother who knew him as husband.... I say goodbye for Gregory, Rhonda, Renée and myself, who were lucky enough to call him father.... Goodbye, Daddy. We love you so very much. God has taken from us and unto himself, the finest man we'll ever know.
"What Is The Citadel?" (Sept. 14, 1992)
Freshman Chadd Smith knows why he's hanging from his closet shelf by his fingers at three in the morning, with his legs bent and spread. It has to do with football. The Citadel hadn't lost the Wofford game since 1958. In fact, it had never lost the Wofford game at home. But tonight it did. As usual, somebody has to pay. As usual, it's the freshmen. That part he understands. What Smith wants to know is, What is it? What is that coldness I feel now and again down between my thighs?
Smith is hanging because of football and duty. At The Citadel it is the sophomores' duty to run out any freshman who does not measure up to the Citadel man-to break him down, humiliate him, run him until he cannot feel his toes, drill him until the arm with which he holds his rifle is numb, yell at him until his cerebellum turns to Jell-O, rack him until he either does things the Citadel way or goes home blubbering to his mommy. It's a point of pride among the 17 companies at The Citadel to see who can chase out the most knobs, as freshmen are called; a usual figure is 15% of the class. This tradition is called the Fourth Class System, and if you survive it you are, say Citadel men, "nine feet tall and bulletproof."
Smith knew knob year would suck, but he knew what to do. You talk to no one and salute everyone. You run when you are inside the barracks. You ask permission to eat, leave, pass, cough, sneeze and scratch your nose. You serve everybody at mess and hope you can stuff in a forkful before mealtime has elapsed. You polish your shoes and your brass until midnight and then your French and chemistry until two, and you hope the guy who blows reveille dies in his sleep.
You do not put a picture of your girlfriend on your desktop. You do not watch TV, because you are not allowed a TV. You do not get Cokes out of the barracks Coke machine. You do not walk on any grass, which means you must walk around the football-field-wide quadrangle in the middle of campus. You do not have any answers besides Sir, yes, sir! and Sir, no, sir! and Sir, no excuse, sir! And you do not complain unless you want 13 weekends of being stuck in your room.
Then came the Wofford loss, and that's how Smith ended up hanging from his closet shelf, his legs burning, his arms trembling, his fingers slipping and his ears absorbing the insults and the spit and the constant warning: "Don't drop, Smith! Whatever you do, don't drop!"
What was it down there?
"O.K., Smith," a voice finally whispered in his ear. "We're getting ready to leave. But before we go, I want you to look down."
There, gleaming in the reflected moonlight, two inches below his testicles, was an officer's saber.
"King Of The Sports Page" (April 21, 1986)
The thing about Jim Murray is that he lived "happily," but somebody ran off with his "ever after." It's like the guy who's ahead all night at poker and then ends up bumming cab money home. Or the champ who's untouched for 14 rounds and then gets KO'd by a pool-hall left you could see coming from Toledo.
Murray is a 750-word column, and 600 of those are laughs and toasts. How many sportswriters do you know who once tossed them back with Bogie? Wined and dined Marilyn Monroe? Got mail from Brando? How many ever got mentioned in a governor's state of the state address? Flew in Air Force One?
How big is Murray? One time he couldn't make an awards dinner so he had a sub-Bob Hope.
Murray may be the most famous sportswriter in history. If not, he's at least in the photo. What's your favorite Murray line? At the Indy 500: "Gentlemen, start your coffins"? Or "[ Rickey Henderson] has a strike zone the size of Hitler's heart"? Or that UCLA coach John Wooden was "so square, he was divisible by four"? How many lines can you remember by any other sportswriter?
His life was all brass rails and roses-until this last bit, that is. The end is all wrong. The scripts got switched. They killed the laugh track, fired the gag writers and spliced in one of those teary endings you see at Cannes. In this one, the guy ends up with his old typewriter and some Kodaks and not much else except a job being funny four times a week.
They say that tragedy is easy and comedy is hard.
Know what's harder?
Both at once.