Last month, after 23 years at Sports Illustrated and 7 at ESPN, Rick Reilly wrote his last column. I devote this post to him, unashamedly stealing some of the concept from the style in which he wrote a beautiful note to his wife in the 19 December 2000 edition of Sports Illustrated.
I heard about Rick Reilly’s retirement as I was looking for something else online, and suddenly thought “What can I say to him?”
I mean, what do you say to the man whose writing you first discovered when you were a teenager, the text jumping off the page as a perfect example of entertaining, engaging and precise prose? For his impression on you was immediate – the first of his pieces that you read, a feature on Patrick Ewing, is still the best example you’ve ever seen as to how to write an article on someone who doesn’t allow you access for an interview.
What do you say to the man who had what you came to believe was the Best Job In The Universe, writing a weekly column for the backpage of Sports Illustrated? The man whose writing would consistently be the first thing you’d read when you collected your favourite magazine from the local Canberran newsagent each week? Whose versatility you are inspired to try to emulate 20 years later while writing a sports-blog for family and friends, despite knowing you don’t have one-fifteenth of his talent?
What do you say to the man who wrote so many stunning columns that you shared with your high school English classes during your teaching career that they knew him by name? Who you introduced so many of your Aussie mates to that two of them thought the best gift to purchase you for your 21st birthday was a signed book from the man himself?
What do you say to the guy who wrote one of the most memorable pages of writing you’ve ever read – the incomparable ‘Funny You Should Ask’, in which amongst other brilliant moments, he tells his son:
“See, grown-ups spend so much time doggedly slaving toward the better car, the perfect house, the big day that will finally make them happy when happy just walked by wearing a bicycle helmet two sizes too big for him. We’re not here to find a way to heaven. The way is heaven.”
What do you say to a man who wrote hilarious columns on deadline (like that one on Jean Van de Velde’s meltdown at the British Open), who made it cool to write about inspirational “little guys” (like that incredible coach who died at in the Littleton school shooting), who made important points in the way you dreamt of writing (like that time he took on deer hunters), and who wrote features that are regarded amongst the greatest in sports history (like that cover story on Marge Schott)?
What do you say to the man whose use of metaphor and simile was, at times, beyond compare?
And what, exactly, do you say to the man who first angered you when he wrote the forward to The Best American Sports Writing 2002, in which he provided advice for wannabe-sports-writers? In his piece, he quoted Oscar Wilde as having said “Never write a sentence you’ve already read.” It was a well-made point, except that he had already written exactly the same piece of advice in the forward to his collection of columns entitled The Life of Reilly. What do you say to the man who appeared to have such little respect for we devotees of sports writing?
What do you say to the man whose writing you stopped reading as it became repetitive and formulaic during the mid-2000’s? Whose career you suddenly wanted to ignore, as if you could pretend his career had finished, in the same way as you spent many years pretending that Kevin Spacey’s career ended at American Beauty?
What do you say to the man who became a laughing stock later in his career? Who had articles written not only about how he recycled his own previous work and became an average writer, but even about how insanely often he used repetitive references to teeth in his columns?
What do you say to someone who allowed one of America’s most suspect athletes – Lance Armstrong – to write the forward for his last collection of columns? Someone whose own father-in-law argued that Reilly misquoted him and then refused to correct the record, on an issue which made his father-in-law feel like he’d been portrayed as racially inappropriate?
What do you say to someone who has come to the end of one of the most inspiring and disappointing careers ever experienced by a sportswriter?
It just hit me. This.