If you are looking for great sportswriting today, you either have to sift through tons of chaff to find a grain or two of wheat or you have to dive into the archives. Rick Reilly used to be the featured back page columnist for Sports Illustrated, consistently producing weekly gems containing insight and wit. Now he has some kind of nebulous role at ESPN, a conglomerate that pays him a lot of money to look very awkward on camera during the postgame show on Monday Night Football. Although Reilly is criminally miscast as an on air personality, four years ago I noted that his literary fastball still hums--and I stand by that contention, based on his recent story about Dayton-based Hall of Fame baseball writer Hal McCoy.
I miss being able to just open up a new issue of SI and find Reilly's latest column. Here are two excellent Reilly pearls from 1998:
Speaking of Class to the Class of '98
Reilly offered some words of wisdom to athletes who were about to enter the professional ranks:
"Thank you, graduates. Please be seated. It's an honor to address the
college athletes who are going on to the pros this year. If I may, I'd
like to offer just a few pieces of advice."
"This is the career you picked. If you can't handle public scrutiny or deal with strangers graciously, become a taxidermist."
"Read everything written about you, good or bad. Then forget about it. No
matter what you do, half the people will worship you and half will
detest you. You can't fight it."
"One last thing. Remember when you were a kid? All you dreamed of was playing centerfield for the New York Yankees. Soon, you'll be there. Don't forget to tingle."
Never the Groom, Ever the Best Man
After shooting a 75 in the final round of the U.S. Open and tying for fifth place, Tom Lehman declared that there are things that are much more important than winning a golf tournament: "I think life would suck if you had to be an a------ to be the Open
champion. I mean, if I die and all they write on my tombstone is TOM LEHMAN: A GREAT PROFESSIONAL GOLFER, then I'll have missed the whole point of life."
The best sportswriting is elevated by the spirit that animates one of the four quotes that serves as epigraphs for my websites; Tom Callahan--who wrote two of my favorite articles (The Best the Game Offers and Dr. J is Flying Away) about Julius Erving--provided a great credo for those who love to watch sports, for those who love to write about sports and for those who love to read great sportswriting: "It's not nuclear physics. You always remember that. But if you write
about sports long enough, you're constantly coming back to the point
that something buoys people; something makes you feel better for having
been there. Something of value is at work there...Something is hallowed
here. I think that something is excellence." As Reilly's story about Lehman demonstrates, "excellence" is not only about attaining victory on the field of play but also about attaining balance in one's life.