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Giving Up The Life

Dec. 03, 2007
Dec. 03, 2007

Table of Contents
Dec. 3, 2007

SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
SI Fantasy Plus
PRO FOOTBALL
PRO BASKETBALL
COLLEGE FOOTBALL
Paul Allen

Giving Up The Life

I was born the youngest of four, an attention-seeking missile, half boy, half caffeine and a leading cause of teachers' facial tics. But I always had one clear dream—to work at SI.

This is an article from the Dec. 3, 2007 issue

So why now, after 23 years, am I quitting?

I mean, we're talking more than 850 bylines—which is funny, because I never thought I'd get to 10.

I came to this job 100 feet over my head and with no snorkel. I was 27 and terrified of being fired. I'd gobble aspirins and down them with coffee until my stomach blew out and dumped me into the hospital. Twice.

I learned to control my fears with biofeedback—making one giant breath last 30 seconds,puffing my cheeks out on the exhale until I turned slightly purple. I looked like a nauseated puffer fish. When I made my first TV appearance, on a SportsCenter segment in 1988, my stomach was all knives. We were supposed to golive from my living room in two minutes, enough time to take a couple of 30-second breaths to calm down. I was in the middle of my second when my then wife ran in, horrified.

"You're on the air!"

My earpiece had failed. The host had asked, "Rick, is your book an indictment of college football?" Cut to me, peering into the camera and suddenly inhaling mightily. But the host thought I was thinking hard about his question, so he waited. Then the slooooow exhale. Still waiting. Purple. Surely, the answer was coming now? Nope. Another suck-in.

"Well,"the host deadpanned, "we know he's alive. We can see him breathing."

Eventually, I switched to decaf and realized how much fun this job could be. I got to smoosh cars in a monster truck, mush dogs in Alaska, crush balls with Tiger, chase Lance, face Ryan and race everything from a blimp to Indy cars.

One time I picked up the phone and heard, "Hold for the President, please." One of my pals, no doubt. "The president of what, the Kiwanis?" I sneered. Only to hear a gravelly voice on the other end go, "What? No, it's Bill. Bill Clinton. We're just laughin' our asses off over here over whatchu wrote!"

Best moment ever?In a men's shower. Hours after he led his Denver Broncos to a stunning win over Green Bay—ending his run of Super Bowl humiliations—I could hear John Elway whooping and hollering, alone in the shower. "You know what?" I said to the old towel guy sitting on the bench next to me. "That's the sound of redemption. That's primal joy, man." He shrugged and said, "Nah, we ran out of hot water."

Still, the big names and big events weren't the best part of the job. The best part has been my e-mail inbox. I seem to have become the national clearinghouse for stories about people overcoming disease, war or tragedy to achieve great things—tales of courage and resilience that would melt an executioner's heart.

I could tell only a fraction of those stories, but the ones I did write have stayed with me. Youmay read them once and forget about them, but I hear from my columns all the time. They call, they write, they tell me that their lives just keep getting better.

Just one example from this year: Do you remember Sean Cronk, the kid in Everett, Mass., with cerebral palsy who could barely dribble but could make tons of free throws in a row (SI, March 5, 2007)? He finally got into a game and won a playoff with one. Well, he's going to go to college, thanks to the guy I wrote about the very next week—billionaire Kenny Troutt, who flies his sixth-grade Dallas AAU basketball team in private 737s. Troutt called Sean's mom and said,"Anywhere Sean wants to go, I'm paying." So Sean is going to junior college in the fall, with plans to transfer to UMass. Nice.

My favorite column, though, was not about one person but millions—the impoverished Africans who benefited from Nothing But Nets, the antimalaria campaign you and I started with the help of the United Nations Foundation (SI, May 2006). Every week I hear about another kid donating his bar mitzvah money, a Brownie troop sending its lemonade profits, a family choosing nets over Christmas gifts. We're at $16 million, and much of that has come in twenties and fives and even rolls of quarters. Nobody does teamwork like sports fans.

Anyway, it's been my privilege to write for this elegant magazine and its wonderful readers. Now I'll find out if my little voice can carry in a whole new way. You can reach me anytime at RickReillyonline.com, and beginning June 1, I'll be starting a new job, which includes writing a column and working in TV. Of course, when I told my son Jake that, he said, "Dad, it's not gonna be high-def, right?"

Right. And I promise not to turn purple, either.

TALK BACK If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com.