Trading Places

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

In the end, the only way Cyphers could convince ESPN to go along with his proposal was to switch his status from a salaried employee to an independent contractor for a year. "For our purposes, Steve's home base would be Denver, and it was up to him to get back and forth between there and Grand Junction. But we had concerns about how it would work," Eaton concedes. "So we said, 'Let's try this for the next twelve months, and if it all works, let's see if we can put you back in a staff position.'"

Taking this deal represented a tremendous gamble on Cyphers's part, but it paid off immediately, albeit in a painful way. Steve's mother, Donna, was diagnosed with cancer, and because of the move, he was able to spend much more time with her prior to her death than he would have otherwise. On an infinitely more positive note, Carolyn had a lot more help from family after the arrival of Sammy, whose birth put the lie to their alleged infertility once and for all.

In the midst of this turmoil, Cyphers kept up his usual daunting pace at ESPN. "Steve's record of getting everything done that he was supposed to get done was exemplary," Eaton acknowledges. "It worked fine, and after a year, everything went back to the way it had been."

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.

Until 2002, that is, when Cyphers heard about the opening at Holy Family. When he told Eaton about it, his boss wasn't caught totally off guard. "The last couple of times his contract had come up, he and I had discussions about him wanting to do other things -- and each time, I was able to persuade him to stay with us for a while longer. But I also knew there was going to come a day when he said, 'I really want to teach,' and I wouldn't be able to talk him out of it again. And this year, that day came."

ESPN holds an annual meeting of its bureau reporters. But instead of attending the 2002 get-together, held in July, Cyphers sent a videotape in his place. "It was typically Steve Cyphers," Eaton says. "He gave us a tour of his house and where he lived, and told us what he was doing and why."

Much of Cyphers's reasoning makes sense to SportsCenter's Mayne. "Everybody says, 'Are you guys having as much fun as the teams?' And I say, 'Uh, no' -- the reason being that we're away from our families and we work weird hours. The other day was my day off, and I was on the phone about work for nine hours -- and no, I'm not making that up." But at the same time, Mayne isn't ready to take a similar leap. "I don't know when my contract comes up next -- about a year and a half or so, I think. But I don't plan to take an 87 percent pay cut."

On the other hand, Mayne says, a windfall may be in Cyphers's future. "He's involved with horse racing with his dad. Maybe they'll have a Kentucky Derby winner and be laughing at all of us."

Perhaps Cyphers could get rich thanks to the Derby (or, as he might say, "Dubby"), but it's a long shot. Steve and Daren did indeed purchase a few horses in the period before he left ESPN, and a two-year old named Regal Punch has shown some promise, recently finishing third -- "By a nose, dang it," Steve notes -- at a race in Farmington, New Mexico. Carolyn, though, is finding it difficult to get excited about this hobby.

"We really need to get rid of them," she says. "They're money-suckers."

Cash is a much larger issue around the Cyphers homestead than it once was. "I haven't been on a budget since we were first married, but I'm on a budget now. And I have to shop the sales and check coupons. Instead of shopping in 45 minutes, I'm driving across town for three hours."

Having Steve around instead of absent has been an adjustment as well. "We kind of have our routines and the way we do things," Carolyn says. "So there were six weeks this summer where I was like, 'Don't you have someplace to go? Please?'"

He does now. Cyphers, who's in the midst of earning his teaching certificate through an alternative licensure program overseen by the Archdiocese of Denver, was hired simply to teach physical education. But shortly before the start of the school year, another opening required principal Shean to do some shuffling that added to his responsibilities. He just completed his first season as an assistant volleyball coach, is in the midst of coaching basketball, and will coach track and field beginning next year -- but he also oversees eighth-grade speech and seventh-grade language-arts classes.

As the school year began, Cyphers had a case of nerves like he hadn't suffered in years because of these classroom assignments, but he believes the edge only made him sharper. Having to dress professionally from head to toe still nettles him a bit, since he's accustomed to wearing jeans and tennis shoes on the job; they were always out of camera range. Still, he describes his experiences to date at Holy Family as "awesome." He's also discovered that certain instructional approaches work just as well in the classroom as in the gym -- particularly what he calls "the Cypherian code."

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