Trading Places

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

The couple were able to take off on a whim because they were childless, but not by choice. Like Steve, Carolyn comes from a large Catholic family -- she's one of six siblings -- and both envisioned impressive broods of their own. "But at that point, we were the classic infertile couple," Steve says. "I was convinced we'd never have a baby."

When ESPN approached him about becoming a bureau reporter in 1990, the no-kids factor played into Steve's decision. At that point, the network was not nearly the behemoth that it is in 2002; it employed only two other bureau reporters, Jimmy Roberts and Andrea Kramer. ESPN execs were looking to hire another pair (Mark Schwartz later filled the second slot), but they wanted to expand coverage accordingly, guaranteeing at least some travel. Given their childless status, however, Steve and Carolyn thought that the opportunity to work at what was already one of cable TV's biggest successes outweighed what looked on the surface to be minor inconveniences.

"I didn't have any idea what I was getting myself into," Cyphers admits. "I didn't have a clue."

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.

Officially, Cyphers was based in Baltimore, but he spent little time there. Instead he jetted from sea to shining sea, covering an ample assortment of sports. "I never did a tennis story and never did a bowling story," he says. "But there wasn't much else that I missed."

To Bob Eaton, who, as ESPN's managing editor, generally oversaw Cyphers's work, this eclecticism was among his finest attributes. "He cared about the subjects he reported about and tried to do something unique and different with each story," Eaton says. "And he was valuable because he really cared about amateur sports. He did a lot of college football for many years, but his interests went far beyond that. In this world, with so much focus on professional sports, it was rare for someone to suggest a story about wrestling or gymnastics. But Steve would do that all the time."

Adds Patrick, "So many people get into this business to be seen and heard, but Steve did a great job of reporting in a way where it wasn't about him. That's a great talent to have."

True enough -- and his allergy to show-biz mannerisms made him a favorite of behind-the-scenes personnel. "Everyone I meet who worked with him loves him," says ESPN The Magazine's Luke Cyphers. "It's a little annoying, because I can't live up to it. He was the 'talent' who would carry the tripod for the cameraman. He never threw fits at the producers. He was a ton of laughs."

He also had a reputation for caring, especially when it came to family, as deadpan SportsCenter favorite Kenny Mayne can attest. In 1996, Mayne's wife delivered twins prematurely; one, Creighton, was stillborn, and the second, Connor, died a few months later. "When it was all happening, Steve was one of the most compassionate people I ran across," Mayne says. "A lot of people were, but Steve really stood out, and that showed me what kind of guy he is. My wife says he's our hero, and he is."

Even so, such attributes could take him only so far at ESPN. Becoming an anchor would have kept him in one place more often, but those posts tended to go to oversized personalities such as Mayne, Patrick and Keith Olbermann, not self-effacing folks like Cyphers. As a result, he remained a bureau reporter, and the amount he traveled only increased. Of course, having to attend each game of the timeless 1991 World Series between the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves or every leg of horse-racing's Triple Crown year in and year out was nothing to whine about. But the accumulation of miles wore on Cyphers and those he loved.

"It was brutal," Carolyn says. "We could never plan anything in our personal lives."

That includes having a baby. In 1993, long after the Cyphers had come to terms with their inability to spawn, the miracle they'd longed for came to pass. But it wasn't an easy pregnancy. Carolyn went into pre-term labor at 26 weeks and had to be put on bed rest and contraction-squelching medication. After doctors determined that the baby was ready, the medication was discontinued -- but then Steve's phone rang. As Carolyn tells it, "They called and wanted him to go to Notre Dame. And I said, 'No!' Not that he would have considered it anyway, but I put my foot down."

Steve was present for Laren's birth, in January 1994, but missed countless other moments during her first couple of years. At the same time, Carolyn found herself wishing that they were closer to their families, many members of which remained in the vicinity of Grand Junction. This mutual frustration sparked the notion of moving back to Western Colorado, where, Steve says, Laren "would have lots of cousins to be around and wouldn't grow up spoiled rotten as an only child." But selling ESPN bosses on the idea was tough.

"They asked, 'You want to move to Grand where? How far is that from Aspen?'" Carolyn says.

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