The Message

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."

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."

Kobe delicti: Blaming the media for the September 1 collapse of the criminal charges against Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant is tantamount to arguing that film critics will be at fault if Garfield: The Movie doesn't win next year's Academy Award for Best Picture. The case was tenuous from the get-go, and the unfathomably inept way Eagle County officials and prosecution representatives handled the press only magnified these weaknesses. It was incredibly apropos, then, that even the toss-in-the-towel announcement was botched. The Rocky Mountain News reported that at 4:40 p.m. on surrender day, Krista Flannigan, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, sent out notices of a press conference set to start in twenty minutes. Denver stations reacted by cutting live to the courthouse in Eagle, but at the appointed time, cameras were left to focus on groups of reporters wandering around, looking confused. Almost half an hour later, a court official revealed that an impromptu hearing had been called, evidently so that District Judge Terry Ruckriegle could give Hurlbert and his compatriots one last spanking.

Thank you, sir! Could you give them another?

The long-overdue plug-pulling spurred analysis from a flock of legal eagles. On one side of the fence, former Denver DA Norm Early, appearing the day after on The Fan, came across as a sympathetic supporter of the woman who said Bryant raped her. At the other extreme, Craig Silverman, on his new KHOW show, portrayed her as a clinically insane hosebag, giving listeners a taste of the tack Bryant attorneys Hal Haddon and Pamela Mackey probably would have taken had a trial actually happened. Of those in the middle, the standout, predictably, was CBS's Andrew Cohen, who presents information in an understandable, easy-to-digest fashion and lets audience members make up their own mind. How novel.

The chances of much more exposure for local barristers on the Kobe beat appear to be waning. A settlement in the civil complaint targeting Bryant will most likely be announced after the passage of just enough time to give attorneys on either side plausible deniability against accusations of improper deal-making. After that, counselors hungry to get their mugs on national TV must wait until the next salacious Colorado scandal strikes -- probably about four days later.

Tidy is as tidy does: Talk about spreading the wealth. The epic cleanup operation at the Rocky Mountain News headquarters, mentioned here last week, concluded on September 1, but winners weren't announced until two days later, perhaps because there were so damn many of them. Hector Gutierrez, Brian Crecente, Sarah Huntley and John Ensslin took the top prize, a paid day off, with eleven staffers earning an "Eagle condo weekend," ten receiving Rockies passes, four bringing home Heaven Help Us! tickets, and more than twenty getting five free books apiece. (Some of the tomes may have been confiscated from the tops of file cabinets, as warned in an August 30 memo from managing editor/contest proctor Deb Goeken.) Finally, five special plaudits were dispensed, the most amusing of which was the "Only Person to Find Something Dead Under Her Desk Award," bestowed upon Sue Lindsay.

So that's where Jimmy Hoffa was hiding...

Less deserving of kudos was the Rocky's September 3 cover, a jaw-droppingly partisan layout that featured a glamour shot of George W. Bush beneath a banner reading "I believe...," and puffy excerpts from his speech at the Republican convention. Sure, ad dollars are difficult to come by these days, but are times so tough that the Rocky had to sell page one? And how much did the Bush campaign pay for it?

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts