Trading Places

A high-profile ESPN reporter chucks it all to become a low-profile schoolteacher -- and he couldn't be happier.

Lingering in limbo gave Cyphers plenty of opportunities to consider his options, and his mind kept drifting to the same subject. "I'd thought about teaching for the past three or four years," he says. "But I always thought I'd teach high school or college, never anything else."

Clearly, God works in mysterious ways. This past spring, Cyphers learned about an opening at Holy Family Catholic School, where Laren and Sammy are students, and decided on a whim to call principal Margie Shean about it. Shean, who knew Steve primarily as the person who'd appeared in a video to raise funds for the construction of a new school building set to open next year, wasn't home at the time. So Cyphers left a message, which turned out to be the right choice.

"My husband, who's a real sports nut, was so excited when he listened to the answering machine," Shean reveals. "He said, 'Oh, my gosh. Do you know who Steve Cyphers is? Do you know what this would mean for your school to get him?'"

Powerful stuff: Steve Cyphers on the job at Holy Family Catholic School.
Chad Mahlum
Powerful stuff: Steve Cyphers on the job at Holy Family Catholic School.
Hoop dreams: Cyphers coaches Holy Family's basketball teams.
Chad Mahlum
Hoop dreams: Cyphers coaches Holy Family's basketball teams.

Holy Family's gain was a loss for ESPN -- and for the Cyphers family's bank account. Correspondent Jimmy Roberts noted the financial blow when paying tribute to Cyphers during a "Parting Shots" segment of Sports Reporters II, a spinoff from the network's popular sports roundtable. "Jimmy said something about me leaving to teach at what he guessed was 15 percent of my current salary, and Carolyn says, 'Leave it to Roberts to get the facts wrong. It's only 13 percent.'" Cyphers chuckles. "And leave it to Carolyn to get out a calculator and crunch the numbers."

According to Carolyn, whose sense of humor is every bit as wry as her husband's, crunching those numbers was hard, since there were so few of them. When she looked at Steve's first check stub from Holy Family, she announced, "This is gross pay."

Most of his ESPN colleagues were dumbfounded that Cyphers would willingly trade a hefty six-figures-per-annum income for the puny amount doled out to Catholic schoolteachers. But those at ESPN who know him best took the news in stride.

"If you told me Steve was going to try to find Sasquatch, or he was going to go meet with the Dalai Lama, or he was going to go run with the bulls in Pamplona, I wouldn't be surprised by any of that," says ESPN anchor and talk-radio host Dan Patrick. "That's the kind of person he is."

He's also the sort of guy who loves challenges, and Holy Family has provided him with plenty. To meet them, he's using his experiences to inform his teaching, with an eye toward scoring educational runs during each trip to the plate.

"Things work for me if I make everything a game," Cyphers says. "And right now, my game is on."

Sports and Catholicism played major roles in Cyphers's upbringing. His parents, Daren and Donna (her given name was Madonna -- "before it was cool," Steve points out), took the biblical recommendation about being fruitful and multiplying seriously, producing seven children. From an early age, Steve, who came third in line but was the oldest boy, showed an immediate fondness for athletic competitions of every description. Such interest was only natural, given the influence of his father: Daren, who currently runs cattle on a ranch near Fruita, a town outside Grand Junction where Steve and Carolyn also live, lettered in football during four consecutive years at Wayne State College in Nebraska. The team notched a perfect record in 1949, Daren's last season.

By the time Steve was old enough to attend Grand Junction High School, he had made himself into a formidable athlete. "I remember him working out endlessly in the garage, jumping rope after a run and then curling some Sears-bought barbells for what seemed like hours," says Luke Cyphers, one of Steve's younger brothers. (Luke, a longtime friend of this writer, is presently a senior editor at ESPN The Magazine.) "He's one of those really nice guys who's just a relentless competitor."

His persistence also worked when it came to romance. Steve and Carolyn met at a party when they were fifteen. "He was too shy to come up and talk to me, so I went off with some other guy," Carolyn says. "But by the end of the night, he'd made sure he was in the same car as I was riding home. That was our first meeting, and we've been in love ever since."

Carolyn was pretty much Steve's only non-team-related extracurricular activity back then. Along with wrestling, he played on the offensive and defensive line for Grand Junction High's football Tigers, and made the baseball team as well. "Once, when I was about eight or nine, he told me he had been drafted by the Boston Red Sox," Luke says. "So I went and told everyone at school. I was very proud. Didn't think he could beat Carlton Fisk, though. That night, I learned he was joking."

More like dreaming out loud -- and he worked hard to make the fantasy a reality upon enrolling at Colorado State University. Cyphers competed in football, wrestling and baseball for CSU and made enough of a mark to win entry into the institution's Sports Hall of Fame in 1998 alongside such fellow inductees as football coach Sonny Lubick. Cyphers is self-deprecating about this accomplishment; his comment when asked about it is, "How weak is CSU?" But he acknowledges that "there was a core of us on the CSU line who were pretty good, and after a while, we started to think maybe we'd have a pro chance."

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