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In 2002, Steve Cyphers, who'd spent the previous dozen years as a high-profile correspondent for ESPN, left broadcasting in favor of a teaching job at Holy Family Catholic School in Grand Junction that paid 13 percent of his former salary ("Trading Places," November 14, 2002). This month, Cyphers returns as an ESPN staffer, but not because of any dissatisfaction with teaching. "To quote my kids, 'Dude, it was awesome! It was unbelievable!'" Cyphers says. Rather, he's heading back to the tube, just in time to celebrate ESPN's 25th anniversary, because his wages didn't go nearly as far as he thought they would.
"This last year, I made $1,509 a month," he reveals, "and that was a raise from the year before."
How much of a raise?
"Seven dollars," Cyphers reports.
Granted, Cyphers, who's in his forties, knew he'd take a crushing fiscal hit by swapping a position with an ultra-successful network owned by the Walt Disney Company for one in the perennially cash-strapped world of education, and so did his wife, stay-at-home mom Carolyn Cyphers. She made it plain from the outset that keeping their two kids (ten-year-old Laren and eight-year-old Sammy) clothed, shod and fed on about $20,000 per annum would be difficult, even with the savings they'd squirreled away.
"I hate to be an I-told-you-so person," Carolyn says, laughing. "But being the one who pays the bills, I had an understanding of what it takes to run a household, and I knew it was going to be harder financially than he thought it would be. He really wanted to do it, though, so we decided, 'Let's just see how it works out.'"
When things went pretty much the way Carolyn figured they might, Cyphers felt a bit sheepish. Nonetheless, he sees his two years of teaching as a tremendous gift and is both grateful and astonished that ESPN is letting him pick up where he left off. In a typical example of self-deprecation, he notes that "the trend hasn't been to hire middle-aged guys on cable. So I'm lucky. I'm very lucky."
The third of seven children born to a pair of demonstrably good Catholics, Cyphers was raised in Grand Junction, where he became a three-sport star at the town's namesake high school and, more significantly, met and fell in love with Carolyn. After attending Colorado State University, where he showed enough athletic prowess to earn induction into the institution's Sports Hall of Fame in 1998, he served as an assistant football coach at Western State College in Gunnison, CSU and Oregon State University, in that order, before taking a shot at a sportscasting career. He landed his first gig in Helena, Montana, and after stints in Sioux Falls, Tucson, Syracuse and Salt Lake City, where he succeeded future CBS star Jim Nantz, he was chosen to become an ESPN bureau reporter, joining peers Jimmy Roberts and Andrea Kramer.
In 1990, when Cyphers arrived, ESPN was expanding at a killing pace. Although he was stationed in Baltimore, he spent most of his time going to or from distant locales. (He wound up covering five Olympics, including the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia, at which he split hosting duties with current Good Morning America regular Robin Roberts.) He's hardly a born traveler -- he quit coaching in part because he hated being away from home so often -- and when Laren came along, his frustration with his schedule swelled. The situation improved somewhat during the mid-'90s, after ESPN allowed him to move his base of operations from the East Coast to Grand Junction so he could be closer to his extended family. Still, his absences were tough on everyone, and when post-9/11 security concerns resulted in him spending even more time in airports than he had previously, he began thinking seriously about becoming a teacher. An opening at Holy Family, the school Laren and Sammy attended, eventually enticed him to take the plunge.
In the beginning, he felt as if he was drowning. He had to attend classes as part of an alternative licensure program through the Archdiocese of Denver in addition to teaching eighth-grade speech and seventh-grade language-arts classes -- and he also wound up coaching "every sport we had," he says. These demands meant that he had far fewer opportunities to hang out with his own children than he'd anticipated. "I'd leave for school at 7 a.m. with the kids, but Carolyn would come and pick them up after school, because I'd be at practices or games," he recalls. "I'd get home at 5:30 or 6 p.m., if you averaged it, and be able to talk with them for a little while, but I also had to grade papers -- and their bedtime is eight o'clock." If he hadn't risen at around 4:30 a.m. weekday mornings to assemble his teaching plans, he might have been almost totally unavailable to his progeny. At one point, Carolyn told him, "We saw you more when you were at ESPN."
Of course, there was compensation, albeit not of the monetary variety. Because of Holy Family's modest size (its enrollment is in the mid-300s), Cyphers was able to meet and spend time with virtually every child there, and grew especially close to those in the secondary grades. "The middle-school student is a fascinating creature," he says. "There's this constant tug between adulthood and kindergartner." Within months, "I knew what all 99 of them did on the weekend, and I knew when something wasn't quite right. I had them write a lot, and they'll tell you anything."