Powerful stuff: Steve Cyphers on the job at Holy Family Catholic School.
Powerful stuff: Steve Cyphers on the job at Holy Family Catholic School.
Chad Mahlum

Trading Places

By any standards, the edition of ESPN Classic's Road Show that was assembled to hype the 2001 Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Seattle featured a dream lineup:

Dave Winfield -- legendary slugger, member of the 3,000-hit club, a phenom so complete he was drafted by professional franchises in basketball, football and baseball. Harmon Killebrew -- nicknamed the "Killer," he sent 573 balls into home-run orbit during 22 years in the bigs. Brooks Robinson -- arguably the most gifted defensive third baseman to ever don a uniform. Gary Carter, Steve Garvey, Ryne Sandberg -- signature players for the New York Mets, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs, respectively. And, as if that weren't enough, the tandem of Bobby Thomson, who hammered "the shot heard round the world" to win the 1951 National League pennant for his squad, the New York Giants, and Ralph Branca, the Brooklyn Dodgers hurler whose pitch Thompson launched into baseball lore.

Oh, yeah: Hosting the program was Steve Cyphers, a onetime Colorado athlete turned broadcaster who understood full well how lucky he was to be trading observations with such an elite collection of baseballers. No wonder he calls his twelve-year gig as an ESPN reporter "the best job in the world."

So why did Cyphers, who's in his mid-forties, walk away from ESPN a few months ago in favor of a position about as far from the limelight as it's possible to get -- namely, a job at a small Roman Catholic school in Grand Junction? "Family," Cyphers says. "There were a few things, but family was a huge first."

Innumerable people have used this rationale over the years to explain decisions that seem on the surface to be inexplicable. But Cyphers is among the fraction of those who actually mean it.

Working for ESPN definitely had its perks, and Cyphers got to enjoy more than his share. Consider that he attended many of the past decade's most exciting sporting events, whether they took place in the United States or elsewhere. Beginning in 1992, for example, he covered five Olympics, including the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia, where he and Robin Roberts, who now delivers the news for Good Morning America, handled all the on-air duties for ESPN. And it was nice to bring greater recognition to individuals who competed in low-profile sports. For instance, Cyphers was largely responsible for informing the nation about Cael Sanderson, an Iowa State wrestler who recently finished his collegiate career with a stunning 159-0 record. Sanderson went on to win one of ESPN's sought-after ESPY awards as Best Male College Athlete.

Even better was the chance to report sports stories whose import went well beyond sports. Cyphers looks back fondly on an early-'90s piece about Jerry Richardson, the girls' basketball coach at a high school on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico. Richardson, who died in a 1996 car crash, not only turned the team into the state's best, but he was also credited with helping his charges rise above the virulent poverty in which they lived. By one account, 80 percent of his players went on to college, with most attending simply as students, not hoopsters.

In Cyphers's opinion, ESPN's decision to tell the Richardson tale epitomizes all that's right with the network. "I thought they'd never do a sports story that covered girls and high schools, and here I was being sent to cover girls at a high school." After years spent in an assortment of regional TV markets, he thought, "I've finally graduated to the varsity."

But this step came with a price: almost constant travel. For Cyphers, spending enormous chunks of his existence in concourses and hotel rooms was actively unpleasant, since the distances involved prevented him from being with his wife, Carolyn, and children, eight-year-old Laren and five-year-old Sammy, nearly as often as he liked. And even when he returned, his journeys had enduring negative repercussions.

"It wasn't just the time he was gone," Carolyn says, "because when he would come home, especially if it had been a long trip, he needed a whole day just to recover, and sometimes two if he was coming back from Japan or Australia or one of those places."

In the hopes of attaining a better balance in his life, Cyphers set out to convince Bob Eaton, ESPN's senior vice president and managing editor, that he could do his duty just as well from Grand Junction, his home town, as from a major media center -- the idea being that if he and his clan relocated there, they would be closer to extended family, making extra travel unnecessary. Eaton was extremely dubious about the scheme: "It was an unusual request," he concedes. But Cyphers made it work by becoming one of the Western Slope community's most frequent fliers, and pretty much its only full-time resident celebrity -- although Cyphers disputes this last distinction.

"In the United States of America, if one in four people knows who you are, you're famous," he says. "If one in a hundred knows who you are, you qualify as someone who works on cable TV."

Unfortunately, neither local renown nor his new base of operations solved all of his problems. Thanks to his ESPN schedule, he was still separated from his wife and kids for lengthy periods that got lengthier after 9/11. "I was wasting so much time waiting for security lines, waiting on the tarmac," he says. "If you read Seuss, he'll tell you in Oh, The Places You'll Go! that the worst place you'll go is the waiting place, and he's absolutely right."

Lingering in limbo gave Cyphers plenty of opportunities to consider his options, and his mind kept drifting to the same subject. "I'd thought about teaching for the past three or four years," he says. "But I always thought I'd teach high school or college, never anything else."

Clearly, God works in mysterious ways. This past spring, Cyphers learned about an opening at Holy Family Catholic School, where Laren and Sammy are students, and decided on a whim to call principal Margie Shean about it. Shean, who knew Steve primarily as the person who'd appeared in a video to raise funds for the construction of a new school building set to open next year, wasn't home at the time. So Cyphers left a message, which turned out to be the right choice.

"My husband, who's a real sports nut, was so excited when he listened to the answering machine," Shean reveals. "He said, 'Oh, my gosh. Do you know who Steve Cyphers is? Do you know what this would mean for your school to get him?'"

Holy Family's gain was a loss for ESPN -- and for the Cyphers family's bank account. Correspondent Jimmy Roberts noted the financial blow when paying tribute to Cyphers during a "Parting Shots" segment of Sports Reporters II, a spinoff from the network's popular sports roundtable. "Jimmy said something about me leaving to teach at what he guessed was 15 percent of my current salary, and Carolyn says, 'Leave it to Roberts to get the facts wrong. It's only 13 percent.'" Cyphers chuckles. "And leave it to Carolyn to get out a calculator and crunch the numbers."

According to Carolyn, whose sense of humor is every bit as wry as her husband's, crunching those numbers was hard, since there were so few of them. When she looked at Steve's first check stub from Holy Family, she announced, "This is gross pay."

Most of his ESPN colleagues were dumbfounded that Cyphers would willingly trade a hefty six-figures-per-annum income for the puny amount doled out to Catholic schoolteachers. But those at ESPN who know him best took the news in stride.

"If you told me Steve was going to try to find Sasquatch, or he was going to go meet with the Dalai Lama, or he was going to go run with the bulls in Pamplona, I wouldn't be surprised by any of that," says ESPN anchor and talk-radio host Dan Patrick. "That's the kind of person he is."

He's also the sort of guy who loves challenges, and Holy Family has provided him with plenty. To meet them, he's using his experiences to inform his teaching, with an eye toward scoring educational runs during each trip to the plate.

"Things work for me if I make everything a game," Cyphers says. "And right now, my game is on."

Sports and Catholicism played major roles in Cyphers's upbringing. His parents, Daren and Donna (her given name was Madonna -- "before it was cool," Steve points out), took the biblical recommendation about being fruitful and multiplying seriously, producing seven children. From an early age, Steve, who came third in line but was the oldest boy, showed an immediate fondness for athletic competitions of every description. Such interest was only natural, given the influence of his father: Daren, who currently runs cattle on a ranch near Fruita, a town outside Grand Junction where Steve and Carolyn also live, lettered in football during four consecutive years at Wayne State College in Nebraska. The team notched a perfect record in 1949, Daren's last season.

By the time Steve was old enough to attend Grand Junction High School, he had made himself into a formidable athlete. "I remember him working out endlessly in the garage, jumping rope after a run and then curling some Sears-bought barbells for what seemed like hours," says Luke Cyphers, one of Steve's younger brothers. (Luke, a longtime friend of this writer, is presently a senior editor at ESPN The Magazine.) "He's one of those really nice guys who's just a relentless competitor."

His persistence also worked when it came to romance. Steve and Carolyn met at a party when they were fifteen. "He was too shy to come up and talk to me, so I went off with some other guy," Carolyn says. "But by the end of the night, he'd made sure he was in the same car as I was riding home. That was our first meeting, and we've been in love ever since."

Carolyn was pretty much Steve's only non-team-related extracurricular activity back then. Along with wrestling, he played on the offensive and defensive line for Grand Junction High's football Tigers, and made the baseball team as well. "Once, when I was about eight or nine, he told me he had been drafted by the Boston Red Sox," Luke says. "So I went and told everyone at school. I was very proud. Didn't think he could beat Carlton Fisk, though. That night, I learned he was joking."

More like dreaming out loud -- and he worked hard to make the fantasy a reality upon enrolling at Colorado State University. Cyphers competed in football, wrestling and baseball for CSU and made enough of a mark to win entry into the institution's Sports Hall of Fame in 1998 alongside such fellow inductees as football coach Sonny Lubick. Cyphers is self-deprecating about this accomplishment; his comment when asked about it is, "How weak is CSU?" But he acknowledges that "there was a core of us on the CSU line who were pretty good, and after a while, we started to think maybe we'd have a pro chance."

For Cyphers, this prospect crumbled as a result of a knee injury that happened while he was wrestling during his junior year and another wound inflicted upon him just prior to a tryout for the Denver Broncos. "The night before, a bunch of us were playing a game of keep-away with a football, and a guy stepped on my knee diving for the ball. He didn't have one cleat screwed in, and it cut a vein. They needed five stitches on the outside and three stitches on the inside to sew it up. I was slow to begin with; after that, I would have been molasses. So I never got a free-agent shot."

Instead, Cyphers left CSU two credits short of graduation and returned to Grand Junction to marry Carolyn and work at his father's business, a dealership that peddled retired Hertz rental cars. But after discovering that he was singularly inept at sales ("People would say, 'That's a lot of money,' and I'd say, 'You're right -- it is'"), he began casting about for vocational alternatives. He was aided in this regard by Bill Noxon, a former Grand Junction High School football coach who'd signed up with Western State College in Gunnison. Noxon needed an assistant line coach, and Cyphers met all his requirements. Cyphers snapped up Noxon's offer, and during his time at Western State, which kicked off in the fall of 1978, he completed his CSU coursework, winding up with an English degree and a minor in mass communications.

Next, Cyphers returned to CSU as a part-time coach before landing a similar job with the Beavers of Oregon State University. Joe Avezzano, the head coach, is now a special-teams coach with the Dallas Cowboys, and one of his then-assistants, Dave Campo, is the Cowboys' top dog -- but despite their skills, the Beavers bit in a big way. "We were horrible, the worst collection of college football players in Division I history," Cyphers says with a certain twisted pride, since he supplemented his coaching duties by serving as the team's recruiting coordinator.

The Beavers would be victory-free that season, and the attendant misery cooled Cyphers on the coaching-go-round. "We were in Austin, Texas, getting ready to play the Longhorns, and I called Carolyn to say, 'I'm not going to do this anymore. It's not me.'"

Why not? "First, what I was doing hadn't been as important to the kids I was coaching as it was to me," Cyphers says. "Second, I wasn't going to be patient enough to climb the ladder to be a head coach. And third" -- he pauses to let the irony sink in -- "I hated the travel."

After closing this door, Cyphers had to decide which one to open next. Initially, the leading contender was law school, but it lost out to journalism. He'd loved a television course he'd taken at CSU -- his proudest moment was assembling a mock commercial for Jiffy Pop popcorn set to the strains of Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" -- and had likewise enjoyed writing recruiting updates and so on at Oregon State and elsewhere. With no other expertise than that, he put out some feelers, and a contact in Missoula, Montana, took mercy on him. "He said, 'Why don't you call this station in Helena? The guy there is nuts. Maybe he'll hire you.'"

And he did.

The one constant in Steve Cyphers's two decades of broadcasting was his certainty that he would be fired everywhere he went. Take the time soon after his 1981 arrival in Helena when he announced that 327 horses had been nominated for "the Kentucky Dubby."

"My life flashed before my eyes in a nanosecond," he maintains. "But then I laughed and said, 'Or, as many of you might say, the Kentucky Derby.' And afterward, our secretary called and said, 'Steve, that was great. I finally saw the real you' -- because instead of scowling at the camera under my Siberian, Cro-Magnon ledge to make sure I never made an error in relaying the words, I finally communicated."

More sackings were anticipated but avoided at a string of other stations. Along the way, Carolyn was credentialed as a paralegal, a profession she still practices on a freelance basis. As a paralegal, she could find work anywhere Steve's job took them -- and it took them to larger markets with each move. Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Tucson, Arizona. Syracuse, New York. And in 1985, Salt Lake City, Utah, where Cyphers succeeded Jim Nantz, now the host of NFL pre-game festivities on CBS.

This progression over a four-year span was remarkable consdering Cyphers's complete lack of formal training. But by 1988, he'd begun to get the itch to hit the highway, whether it involved a jump to a bigger city or not. "Carolyn and I decided we were in a rut. I tried to talk her into walking across country, because I thought that would be fun. She wouldn't go for it, but she said she would ride a bike across the country. So I went to my boss and said, 'I quit.' And he said, 'We can't let you do that. We'll give you a raise and a promotion when you get back.'" About the trip that followed, Cyphers gushes that "it's the absolute best thing to do to strengthen your marriage. We did it on a tandem bike and talked to each other for 3,071 miles. A bunch of it was cussing out semis, but even that was great."

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."

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.

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."

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."

"It's a six-step program," he says. "One, we're on time. Two, we use our time wisely. Three, we trust and respect our parents and teachers. Four, we trust and respect our teammates and friends -- and to me, every class is a team. Five, we trust and respect ourselves. And six, we get better here."

Principal Shean says Cyphers is as good an exemplar of this last dictate as any at Holy Family. "You hear about synergy a lot, and with Steve coming into our middle school, I've really been able to see in action how powerful that can be. He's got this dynamic energy and such a positive attitude. He's really created his own whirlwind with the middle school, and everyone is so upbeat about the possibilities."

He's also brought along a ringer from the family. Pete Cyphers is a former Grand Junction High School football standout who was serving as assistant quarterbacks coach at nearby Mesa State College when his big brother hooked up with Holy Family. Before long, Pete had become an adjunct to the Holy Family faculty. When he's not schooling QBs at Mesa, he's teaching physical education to students in kindergarten through fifth grade and assisting Steve in his coaching duties.

Pete's support is much appreciated, since Holy Family, with a student body of just 341 (and fewer than 100 students at the middle-school level), is competing against much bigger public schools. "They have the A team, the B team and the C team," Shean says. "We have one team. We're all in it together."

Steve may not be a member of this group forever; he hasn't rejected the possibility of coaching one day at an area high school. But in the broader sense, he has no intention of going very far, no matter how much money he could make if he went back to quizzing sports immortals on ESPN.

"After CU played CSU this year, a good friend who lives in Seattle called me," Cyphers allows. "He said, 'This is the first day of all those college games you used to cover, and I was kind of worried about how you were doing. I thought you might be struggling.' And I said, 'I just watched CSU beat CU on TV, then I went and fed Dad's cows, I got the lawn mowed, and now I'm watching Pete's team play Western Oregon -- and Carolyn and the kids are right here. What am I struggling with?'"


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