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Lesson Learned

He decided to return the favor. "The best thing I ever did was to let them know everything about my life. One girl who sent me a thank-you letter right before school ended wrote that the thing she learned most from me was what love and a family was like, and they did. Some people don't go that route, but I thought, if they're going to trust me, I have to trust them. So they heard a lot about Laren and Sammy and Carolyn." Soon, Carolyn discovered that she'd acquired the nickname "LMC" -- short for the "Lovely Mrs. Cyphers."

Coaching was just as fulfilling for Cyphers. He partnered with his brother, Pete Cyphers, another former Grand Junction High School standout who's the quarterback coach for the Mesa State Mavericks, and together they tried to make the various Holy Family teams good enough to compete with much larger public schools. They didn't always succeed, but Steve had more consequential lessons to impart than winning. A softhearted sort with a sincere affection for sports traditions, he loved leading his softball team in singing the national anthem before games, and wrote a poem for the track-and-field squad that he describes as "this rambling rant about a run I wanted us to do in the desert, which I said was a metaphor for life. I definitely got corny, but in my heart, I'm thirteen."

Because his charges were around the same age, he communicated with them in a way they could comprehend, and it paid dividends. "This summer, two girls from Holy Family went to a Grand Junction High basketball camp," he says. "The coach had them running laps, and one of them told me that when they noticed they were the only ones who weren't cutting the corners, they looked at each other and thought, ŒOh, Mr. Cyphers, you'd be proud of us today.' And I was -- because there are no shortcuts."

Experiences like these made grappling with the clan's increasingly ticklish economic situation all the more painful. After looking at their bank statements, Carolyn concluded that the only way they could avoid draining their assets was if she went back to work. A paralegal by training, she volunteered to do so, but that would only have made Cyphers feel lousier about the deficits than he already did. "When we first conceived Laren, we said, ŒThere's no way we're not going to be old-fashioned. If we can afford to have only one of us working, that's the way it should be,'" he maintains. "And we still had the choice to do that."

With such thoughts in mind, he sent out some tapes and landed an assignment with College Sports Television, a new network, to cover the College World Series. "I thought, I can paint houses all summer or do this for a week," he says. He also put out feelers to ESPN, and before long, execs presented him a deal for what he calls "contract work, where I'd do a certain number of pieces and they'd pay me for them." Then, in mid-July, Norby Williamson, ESPN's senior vice president and managing editor, offered him a full-time position. It required a three-year commitment, and after talking things over with Carolyn, he signed on the dotted line. He flew to ESPN's Bristol, Connecticut, headquarters in late August and soon received his first assignments: an interview with Oregon State kicker Alexis Serna, whose missed extra points cost his team a win, and a trip to Vegas, to learn how betting lines on NFL games are set.

This rapid return to the spotlight is no surprise to Luke Cyphers, Steve's younger brother, who's a senior editor at ESPN: The Magazine. "I was truly happy for him when he went into teaching -- not only for him, but for myself," he writes via e-mail. "People in Bristol had stopped saying how much I sound like my brother on the phone, and more important, I could brag about making more money than the one-time Mr. Big Time. Don't get me wrong. I'm once again proud and glad that he's made another Œimportant life decision.' But it kind of sucks for me."

Laren and Sammy know the feeling. "Their dad's been home every night for two years, so the first night that he wasn't there to put them to bed, it was pretty tearful," Carolyn concedes. "But when we were talking to them about it, we mentioned that we'd get free Disney passes, and they said, 'Yeah! Do it!' That was a turning point right there."

Cyphers has made some adjustments of his own. His bosses told him that if he had important family obligations, they'd shuffle tasks to accommodate him. According to him, "I've always said I'd never say no to an assignment unless I was philosophically opposed to it, but now I'll keep that in mind." In his view, "I got to choose between two things I love doing -- and ESPN is the best place to work in the world."

Even so, Cyphers doesn't rule out the possibility of returning to the classroom someday. "All the cliches about teaching -- the good ones, anyway -- are true. It's really rewarding," he says. "I'm so glad I did it. I wouldn't change a thing."

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