Long time Sports Illustrated columnist and ESPN commentator Rick Reilly is retiring from the business at age 56.
Reilly didn’t invent the human interest sports story, but he may have perfected it. His “Life of Reilly” columns at SI were full of ordinary athletes performing with incredible handicaps. He wrote of their families, their teammates, and their communities with love and respect.
And man, could he write. Reilly and P.J. O’Rourke are the reasons I decided to try my hand at writing so late in life. Reilly had an ability to boil down the essence of a story until nothing but shining truth remained.
Reilly reminisced about some of the people he wrote about along the way at ESPN.com:
I’d notice how Michael Jordan never appeared before us until his tie was tied, his $3,000 suit buttoned, his silk pocket square just so. From him, I learned professionalism.
I watched safe after safe fall on John Elway’s head — Super Bowl losses, divorce, the loss of his twin sister and his beloved dad — and yet he refused to allow himself one ounce of self-pity. From him, I learned grit.
I’d see how Jim Murray would get up out of his chair in the press box to greet each of the dozens of people who just wanted to shake the great sports writer’s hand, even though he could hardly see his chair, much less their hands. From him, I learned humility.
I wrote about the teammates of high school cross country runner Ben Comen, who would finish their 3-mile races and then double back out onto the course to run with Ben and his limping cerebral palsy gait. From them, I learned love.
I discovered the athletes of Middlebury College, who would pick up a severely handicapped fan named Butch, load him into the car and take him to every game, where they’d provide a hot dog, a Coke and a buddy. From them, I learned service.
Never let anyone tell you sports doesn’t matter. Never let them tell you it’s all about the wins, the losses and the stats. Sports is so much more than that. It’s your grandfather and you and the way a Sunday Bears game bonds you like Super Glue. It’s what you ask of yourself to break four hours in the marathon. It’s the way your softball buddies can still laugh about you hitting the ump instead of the cutoff man 30 years later.
From his perch at SI, Reilly brought readers into the world of sport like no other writer of this or any other generation. Using the drama and sweep of sports to tell the most intimate of stories was inspired writing and the fact that he could pull it off most of the time speaks to his talent and his heart.
Reilly has not been forthcoming about his plans for the future except to say he’ll be living in Italy. His fans will look forward with anticipation for whatever genius flows from his pen.