Trading Places

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

For Cyphers, this prospect crumbled as a result of a knee injury that happened while he was wrestling during his junior year and another wound inflicted upon him just prior to a tryout for the Denver Broncos. "The night before, a bunch of us were playing a game of keep-away with a football, and a guy stepped on my knee diving for the ball. He didn't have one cleat screwed in, and it cut a vein. They needed five stitches on the outside and three stitches on the inside to sew it up. I was slow to begin with; after that, I would have been molasses. So I never got a free-agent shot."

Instead, Cyphers left CSU two credits short of graduation and returned to Grand Junction to marry Carolyn and work at his father's business, a dealership that peddled retired Hertz rental cars. But after discovering that he was singularly inept at sales ("People would say, 'That's a lot of money,' and I'd say, 'You're right -- it is'"), he began casting about for vocational alternatives. He was aided in this regard by Bill Noxon, a former Grand Junction High School football coach who'd signed up with Western State College in Gunnison. Noxon needed an assistant line coach, and Cyphers met all his requirements. Cyphers snapped up Noxon's offer, and during his time at Western State, which kicked off in the fall of 1978, he completed his CSU coursework, winding up with an English degree and a minor in mass communications.

Next, Cyphers returned to CSU as a part-time coach before landing a similar job with the Beavers of Oregon State University. Joe Avezzano, the head coach, is now a special-teams coach with the Dallas Cowboys, and one of his then-assistants, Dave Campo, is the Cowboys' top dog -- but despite their skills, the Beavers bit in a big way. "We were horrible, the worst collection of college football players in Division I history," Cyphers says with a certain twisted pride, since he supplemented his coaching duties by serving as the team's recruiting coordinator.

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.

The Beavers would be victory-free that season, and the attendant misery cooled Cyphers on the coaching-go-round. "We were in Austin, Texas, getting ready to play the Longhorns, and I called Carolyn to say, 'I'm not going to do this anymore. It's not me.'"

Why not? "First, what I was doing hadn't been as important to the kids I was coaching as it was to me," Cyphers says. "Second, I wasn't going to be patient enough to climb the ladder to be a head coach. And third" -- he pauses to let the irony sink in -- "I hated the travel."

After closing this door, Cyphers had to decide which one to open next. Initially, the leading contender was law school, but it lost out to journalism. He'd loved a television course he'd taken at CSU -- his proudest moment was assembling a mock commercial for Jiffy Pop popcorn set to the strains of Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" -- and had likewise enjoyed writing recruiting updates and so on at Oregon State and elsewhere. With no other expertise than that, he put out some feelers, and a contact in Missoula, Montana, took mercy on him. "He said, 'Why don't you call this station in Helena? The guy there is nuts. Maybe he'll hire you.'"

And he did.

The one constant in Steve Cyphers's two decades of broadcasting was his certainty that he would be fired everywhere he went. Take the time soon after his 1981 arrival in Helena when he announced that 327 horses had been nominated for "the Kentucky Dubby."

"My life flashed before my eyes in a nanosecond," he maintains. "But then I laughed and said, 'Or, as many of you might say, the Kentucky Derby.' And afterward, our secretary called and said, 'Steve, that was great. I finally saw the real you' -- because instead of scowling at the camera under my Siberian, Cro-Magnon ledge to make sure I never made an error in relaying the words, I finally communicated."

More sackings were anticipated but avoided at a string of other stations. Along the way, Carolyn was credentialed as a paralegal, a profession she still practices on a freelance basis. As a paralegal, she could find work anywhere Steve's job took them -- and it took them to larger markets with each move. Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Tucson, Arizona. Syracuse, New York. And in 1985, Salt Lake City, Utah, where Cyphers succeeded Jim Nantz, now the host of NFL pre-game festivities on CBS.

This progression over a four-year span was remarkable consdering Cyphers's complete lack of formal training. But by 1988, he'd begun to get the itch to hit the highway, whether it involved a jump to a bigger city or not. "Carolyn and I decided we were in a rut. I tried to talk her into walking across country, because I thought that would be fun. She wouldn't go for it, but she said she would ride a bike across the country. So I went to my boss and said, 'I quit.' And he said, 'We can't let you do that. We'll give you a raise and a promotion when you get back.'" About the trip that followed, Cyphers gushes that "it's the absolute best thing to do to strengthen your marriage. We did it on a tandem bike and talked to each other for 3,071 miles. A bunch of it was cussing out semis, but even that was great."

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