Rick Reilly, Loving Limbo
When most of us leave one job for another, we might get a week or two off to put our affairs in order if we're fortunate, and considerably less time if we're not. By this standard, Rick Reilly is the luckiest man in the galaxy.
In late October, ESPN announced that the longtime back-page columnist for Sports Illustrated would be joining its team both on the air and in the pages of ESPN The Magazine after signing a deal reportedly worth around $2 million per annum. Due to a contractual adjunct known as a no-compete clause, however, he can't begin his ESPN duties until June 1 — and the ongoing strike by the Writers Guild of America means that he isn't allowed to work on film or TV scripts, either. So what's a guy with no daily deadlines and an enormous pile of cash doing with himself these days?
"I just got back from three weeks in Argentina," Reilly says, "and I'm fixing to go to Tahiti, Thailand, New Zealand, Cabo, Europe. I'm going to drink coffee, play the piano, get up, have breakfast, go back to bed and read, and forget the job. They call it a no-compete clause. I call it bliss."
Granted, Reilly's style has been cramped a bit by all that forced leisure. On December 13, Major League Baseball released the Mitchell Report, an investigation conducted under the auspices of former senator George Mitchell into players' alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. The report identified more than eighty former and current ballers as de facto pin cushions, and Reilly, a longtime critic of steroid chicanery, ached to weigh in on the findings. After all, he says, "nobody likes bursting people's giant balloon heads — aka Barry Bonds — more than me." But when he got a call from the CBS Evening News asking him to jaw about the results on the program that evening, he had to turn the offer down. Not that he remained silent on the topic.
"I didn't talk about it with Katie Couric," he concedes. "I talked about it here at my house. I said, 'I told you so! I told you about all those fucking people!' You tell me Roger Clemens wasn't 'roided out of his mind that time with Mike Piazza? When he threw part of a bat at Piazza as if Piazza had planned for it to shatter and the shards to fly at him? You don't think he was a little bit raged out? He looked like he could squeeze a golf ball into a diamond. I mean, this whole era of baseball to me is a bunch of guys stuck in a bathroom stall somewhere with their pants down, injecting each other. Only [Senator] Larry Craig could love this era."
Actually, Reilly should have a soft spot for the Human Growth Hormone Years, too, since they've provided him with a rich vein of material. Yet he's the rare scribe capable of making practically any subject compelling, entertaining or just plain funny. After graduating from Boulder High School, where he won a statewide sportswriting contest circa the '70s, Reilly headed to the University of Colorado at Boulder, and by his sophomore year, he was splitting his time between school and a gig at the Boulder Daily Camera. At one point, a prof tried to steer him away from fields of play. "She said, 'You're better than sports. Get out of sports,'" he recalls. After he inked with ESPN, he adds, he made a point of e-mailing her stories about how much he would be paid. He ended the note with an attempt at translating a raspberry sound into English. The spelling he settled on was P-V-V-V-V-B-L-T.
Following his Camera stint, Reilly spent two years with the Denver Post and another couple at the Los Angeles Times before Sports Illustrated brought him aboard on April Fool's Day 1985. He covered golf, college football and plenty more for SI before getting the opportunity to pen a back-page column once every four weeks. Then, in 1998, ESPN made its first run at Reilly, and he used the company's interest to his advantage. SI superiors "came to me and said, 'What can we do to keep you?' I said, 'Give me the back page every week,' and they said, 'All right.' I think they thought I was going to be awful, but it worked out great. It was the best job in sports journalism."
Reilly traveled the globe, writing about whatever struck his fancy, be it a ride in an F-14 or a trip to Japan to quiz the world's greatest eater. But the columns he most valued were the ones involving regular people doing extraordinary things. One of his favorites was a 2003 piece that focused on Ben Comen, a South Carolina high-schooler who insisted on completing every race for his cross-country team even though his cerebral palsy caused him to fall repeatedly and painfully — an example of courage and determination that spawned Ben's Friends, a group that gathered at each contest to root him on to the finish line. The tale moved thousands of sports fans, including actor Kevin Costner. "He called up the kid, and he's paying for him to go through college and medical school," Reilly reveals.
In a backhanded way, Comen also inspired Reilly's move to ESPN. The network did its own version of the student's story, winning an Emmy for its efforts, and scored another trophy after tackling a Reilly column about a handicapped football fan whom athletes at Middlebury College in Vermont transported to games. "That's one of the reasons I took this job," Reilly says. "I kind of got tired of them taking my column ideas and winning Emmys with them. ABC News was really good at it, too, sometimes ripping off whole sentences and not giving me credit. The hardest thing to do is find the great story that nobody is writing, so it was depressing to see these stories on ESPN and ABC, where they'd just wholesale lift things."
Now, of course, Reilly will be able to write the columns, as he'll do for the biweekly ESPN The Magazine, and collect any awards their broadcast adaptations garner. As for his other duties, he's got a plan: "I think I'm going to do televised commentary on SportsCenter — about 25 a year — and televised essays on ABC's golf coverage of majors: the U.S. Open, the British Open. I'll be like Jack Whitaker without the pocket square, except not nearly as elegant or as good. And I don't know if it will come off, but I'd like to do my own interview show — the kind of thing Bob Costas did on Later."
Meanwhile, Reilly's preparing for the April 4 release of Leatherheads, a George Clooney-Renée Zellweger vehicle about the early days of professional football that he co-wrote with Duncan Brantley — his first produced screenplay after "about 900 close calls," he says. He cameos in the film as a reporter who does a double take when Zellweger enters the press box, an all-male bastion at the time. Clooney, who also directed the film, ran through multiple takes of the sequence, and on about number sixteen, Reilly asked if he should be doing something differently. "He said, 'It's great when you clear. Keep doing that,'" Reilly remembers. "So I turned to that little stapler guy from Office Space" — Stephen Root, who plays a fellow reporter — "and said, 'What's that mean, "clear"?' And he said, 'That's when you get out of the shot.'"
With hopes for a career in acting looking dim, Reilly hopes to get back in Hollywood's good graces with a script he's written with his friend J.R. Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar — but they can't start pitching it until the writers' strike wraps. Even so, he'll do plenty of hanging around in Los Angeles, where ESPN is building a new studio. Once his ESPN career begins in earnest, he expects to spend "about a third of my time in Denver, a third on the road, and a third on the beach."
Until then, Reilly is "reading all the books I ditched out on in high school — like Nabokov, who I'd never read before" and adding to his frequent-flier miles. He'll continue doing so for the better part of four months, all the while collecting a massive salary simply for being him.
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