Tributes: Reilly 'truly one of a kind'

Updated: June 10, 2014, 6:53 PM ET

Rick Reilly, Gene WojciechowskiTom Rinaldi/ESPN Rick Reilly, shown with Gene Wojciechowski, plans to spend time playing golf instead of covering it.

Editor's note: We asked people from the sports world what story in Rick Reilly's 36-year writing career they remembered the most and why. The answers show something of the hearts of those who responded, as well as some of Reilly's greatest efforts. Like you, over the years, they cried, they laughed and they were amazed at the people he introduced to us. 


Colin Cowherd

Host, "The Herd with Colin Cowherd," ESPN Radio

Fear and love bring out the best in writers and Rick is no different. The piece on Jim Murray provided a glimpse into Rick's deep admiration toward his idol. Conversely, the piece on his alcoholic father was a voyage into Rick's childhood. The fears of a little boy and hearing those metal golf shoes on the house steps. The darkness of childhood and how it affects us and never leaves. I cried reading it. That's powerful and that's rare. That's Rick.


Peyton Manning

Quarterback, Denver Broncos

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning was caught using profanity by lip-readers in one of Rick Reilly's pieces.

Rick's "silent treatment" article is one that sticks out to me when I reflect back on what he has written over the years. Only Rick Reilly would think of watching football with a couple of professional lip-readers. I probably wish I wasn't one of the quarterbacks that he watched play that day and was not proud of the language that the lip-readers saw I was using in that game. As I said in the article, I knew my mom was going to be disappointed when the story came out. But it was a pretty clever idea for an article by an outstanding writer.

It was just one example of the creativity that he always had in his articles, and it's a reason why Rick Reilly is truly one of a kind as a writer.


Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine

His feature on Dale Murphy was ridiculously sublime. Rick had just come to SI, but I instantly knew that we had just hired one of the finest sports writers in America.


Gene Wojciechowski

Columnist, ESPN.com

When the cynicism of sports weighs you down like cinder blocks tied to your ankles, read this column about a father who found strength in his son. It gets me every time.


Andre AgassiAP Photo/Marcio Jose SancheAndre Agassi, with son Jaden Gil, appreciates his choice for best Reilly column now that he's a father.

Andre Agassi, Rick Reilly
Courtesy of Cynthia ReillyAndre Agassi and Rick Reilly

Andre Agassi

Retired U.S. tennis player, eight-time major champion

I always loved it when Rick would write outside the box, give you something other writers might not try. He did a hilarious, touching one about his son. I loved it.

Now that I'm a parent, it rings truer than ever.


Steve Rushin

Sports writer, author

My favorite column of Rick's is this 1998 piece on Hirofumi Nakajima, "The Black Hole of Kofu," who at the time was the world champion of competitive eating. I had the privilege of joining Rick as he interviewed Nakajima on the rooftop of an office building in Kofu, Japan, and what I witnessed there were two voracious omnivores who were the best in the world at their respective crafts. One used a fork, the other a pen, but they had the same ambition in life: to leave a clean plate.


Shelley Smith

Correspondent, ESPN "SportsCenter"

I've known Rick forever it seems. One of the first issues I worked on at Sports Illustrated was with him in Japan, examining the culture of sports there and all its quirks and passion. We also examined a lot of sake bars! Probably my favorite column of his came from August 2003, when he took on the NCAA on behalf of Rick Majerus. Majerus was many things, but he was many, many things to his players. Being penalized for taking Keith Van Horn to dinner at 3 a.m. ... after Van Horn's father had died and Majerus had to tell him the news. Rick took on the NCAA in a way that really foreshadowed the events happening now. He called them on their hypocrisy and lack of common sense. And it told us much more about Majerus, the compassionate man he was.


Christine Brennan

Columnist, USA Today Sports

Rick deftly captures the disgust so many of us felt during [Barry] Bonds' phony run to Hank Aaron's home-run record. I love the line about what Bonds' personal trainer would want from him after spending 10 months in jail for refusing to testify against him: "Florida."


Jim MurrayAP Photo/Jack DempseyThe obituary and feature pieces on sports writer Jim Murray, left, received the most mentions as favorites.

John Anderson

Anchor, ESPN "SportsCenter"

My favorite Reilly column -- easy -- is "Finest Man I Ever Knew." It's Jim Murray's obit, one great writer remembering another. Fortunately they both chose to play in the sports sandbox and now and again wrote about sports.

The piece is part humanity and decency and excellence and funny and sad and entirely brilliant. Comedy and tragedy. The candle burned at both ends. Rick's depth is all there.

When my father passed away last November, 14 years after "Finest Man I Ever Knew" was written, I borrowed (stole? lift, cleaned and placed?) the line and the premise to write and give his eulogy.

Rick ends the column by quoting Murray: "Writing a column is like riding a tiger. You'd like to get off, but you have no idea how."

Well, Rick jumped off Tiger after L'affaire Eldrick. Now I'm glad he's found a way off the column, too.

Dave Barry

Author; columnist, The Miami Herald

Well, it's not really a column, but Rick's piece back in the 1980s about Jim Murray is one of the finest profiles I've ever read. Rick has always been funny, but underlying the humor is the meticulous craftsmanship of a great writer. Also, he's tall, which really pisses me off.

Patrick Stiegman

VP/Editorial director, ESPN Digital and Print Media

Impressionable sports writer makes impractical ask: Would the writer of the greatest piece ever about the greatest sports writer ever consider offering an aspiring writer in Wisconsin some career advice? "King of the Sports Page" was RR's tribute to Jim Murray, 1986, Sports Illustrated, and as influential on me over the years as Murray had been to Reilly. I let Rick know that in 1993, and begged for input on some now long-forgotten, overwritten column that was unworthy of a diseased yak, in Reilly parlance. Still ... he made the time, handwritten, SI stationery, more inspirational than he could know, "Great potential, my friend. Cut out half the jokes, and I'll see you at the Super Bowl."

Many Super Bowls, many laughs, many philosophical debates and many memorable columns as Rick's friend and editorial director of ESPN digital and print content later, I'm reminded of this line from that iconic 1986 profile. "This is how it is now for Murray," Rick wrote. "He is in that the-legend-walks-and-talks-and-eats-breakfast stage. The Last King of Sportswriting, boys, sitting right over there."


Greg NormanDavid Cannon/Allsport/Getty ImagesUsually, it's the winner you remember but at the 1996 Masters, Greg Norman lost big.

Bill Simmons

Editor-in-chief, Grantland.com

Did you know Reilly's terrific piece about Nicklaus winning the '86 Masters and his unforgettable Jim Murray feature ran the same week in Sports Illustrated? Don't ask me why I remember this. Still, his deadline piece about Norman's '96 Masters implosion remains my favorite Reilly piece. Great ending. Poor Greg Norman.

Bob Costas

Studio host, NBC Sports

While there are countless articles and columns to choose from, the one that keeps coming to mind is the brilliant piece written on deadline, after Greg Norman let the 1996 Masters slip away. It is equal parts excruciating and empathetic -- perfectly capturing the anguish and absurdity of that unforgettable Sunday at Augusta.


John Hassan

Senior deputy editor, ESPN.com

As Rick's editor for the last four years, I not only knew the column topic and his approach to it each week, I knew the details and responsibilities of his work life. Rick told me about this young girl Chy Johnson and her special relationship to her high school football team. Good column. But Rick was on the road at the time, appearing on "Monday Night Countdown" to introduce his weekly piece and then heading off to shoot another one. The travel was relentless for him from late August to December. Still, he found the time to get to Queen Creek, Arizona, and deliver one of his best human interest columns. He hit the road, reported it out and wrote a gem in a very small window.


J.R. Moehringer

Pulitzer Prize-winner for newspaper feature writing; novelist

Favorite Reilly? Of course I'm partial to the one I picked for last year's "Best American Sports Writing," the one about Chy Johnson, a handicapped girl in Arizona, who was being bullied at her high school, until the star quarterback stepped up. Carson Jones invited Chy to eat lunch every day with him and his bros -- problem solved, faith in humanity restored. But the one I think about most often is the column about Korinne Shroyer, an eighth-grader who committed suicide, and Len Geiger, the man who inherited her lungs. The scene when Korinne's mom asks if she can put her hands on Geiger's chest, so she can feel her daughter breathe again ... I think it was Jimmy Breslin, or Jimmy Cannon, one of those old Jimmys, who said of an athlete: "He had a year you could retire on." That was a column you could retire on.


Marge SchottTom Hauck/Allsport/Getty ImagesRick Reilly had a talent for capturing big personalities, like that of former Reds owner Marge Schott.

Peter King

Senior writer, Sports Illustrated

The Marge Schott piece, May 1996. The detail was so vivid, and the writing so pristine and beautiful. I used to work in Cincinnati, and my last story before I left was about Schott when she first came to prominence as the Reds' owner. She was an earnest nut, and Rick captured her so perfectly. I'll really miss pieces like that from him.


Rick Telander

Senior sports columnist, Chicago Sun-Times

The one that did it for me was his feature in SI on Mexican wrestlers, the ones who wear masks and are fat and just are trying to get by. His brilliance and humor and economy of words are what blew my mind. He made this silly thing something you had to know about, had to finish. That you learned from and enjoyed immensely en route. It almost made you cry by the end. And I'm serious. You have to be a writer to appreciate what Reilly does -- how he gets a hundred thoughts out of one phrase, how he doesn't say what the emotion is, only hints at it, and that's enough. What a gift. What a blessing to our team! What a leader.


[+] EnlargeJim and Camryn Kelly
AP Photo/Jill KellyJim Kelly with daughter Camryn at the hospital.

Marv Albert

Sportscaster, CBS Sports

Rick has been one of the premier columnists of his time. Throughout his 36 years and thousands of columns it's difficult to choose just one ... but my choice would be the piece about former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly and his challenges on and off the field.

Rick is so skilled at finding the essence of a story and will either make you laugh ... break your heart ... or both.


Scoop Jackson

Columnist, ESPN.com

Ever felt a writer's heart bleed on a page? This column, "Nothing but Nets," for me, exposed what the DNA of one of the greatest sports writers of our times looked like in print.


John ElwayAP Photo/Tom DiPaceJohn Elway appreciated the way Reilly captured the emotions of the Broncos' first Super Bowl victory.

John Elway

General manager, executive VP and ex-quarterback, Denver Broncos

To me, Rick Reilly is the best at what he does. There's nobody quite like him. My favorite, I guess, is the one he wrote after we won our first Super Bowl, because he somehow managed to capture the true emotions all of us were going through on the most special day in my football career.


[+] EnlargeJohn Elway, Rick Reilly
Courtesy of Cynthia ReillyOver the years, Rick Reilly developed a good relationship with John Elway, who tries to help Reilly out with some makeup.

Adam Schefter

ESPN NFL Insider

"Nobody likes to look into the valley of death and spit as much as John Elway. Nobody is better when the dogs are at his cuffs, the barn is burning and the rent hasn't been paid. No wonder Elway owns three car dealerships in the greater Denver area. Who runs a better year-end closeout drive than he? Eighteen times in his nine-year career he had gathered up his outrageous nerve, magic cleats and nuclear right arm and taken the Denver Broncos from behind in the fourth quarter to win. But surely not this time. Not again."

This was the lead to Rick's story for the Broncos' divisional playoff win over the Houston Oilers in January 1992. At the time, I was a 25-year-old Broncos beat writer for the Rocky Mountain News, in the same press box as the great Rick Reilly. I remember looking over at him as he was typing, wondering what masterpiece he was going to create, while I tried to write something -- anything -- that would be worthy enough of sharing the same press box as one of the all-time sportswriting greats. My story, of course, sucked. His, of course, did not.


Seth Wickersham

ESPN The Magazine

[+] EnlargeDerrick Thomas
Mike Powell/Getty ImagesDerrick Thomas died after a car accident in which he was not wearing his seat belt.

"Two Men, Two Flips of Fate," which detailed separate car accidents involving Isaac Bruce of the Rams and Derrick Thomas of the Chiefs, is my favorite Rick Reilly column because, to be blunt, he handed me my ass. It was 2000. I was a senior at the University of Missouri, trying too hard to emulate my writing idols: Reilly, Rick Telander, Gary Smith and Tom Junod. One problem of many was that their stories seemed so big, so epic, so grand, so beyond anything that could happen in a place like Missouri. Anyway, a few weeks after the wrecks that left Bruce clean and Thomas paralyzed, I covered the Rams at the Super Bowl.

One day I was standing near Reilly -- OK, staring at him -- when he approached Bruce. "Do you ever think about Thomas and say, 'That could be me?' " Reilly asked. Bruce said no, arguing that unlike Thomas, he had invoked Jesus' name as the car flipped. That pissed off Reilly, and what seemed like a spectacle was really a legend doing what he always did: sensing a story that others had missed, making connections that nobody else had made, reacting not as a quote-unquote journalist but as a human.

Later I read his column, which as always was more than just a column. It was a magazine feature, told in 750 words. It was a sports column that had nothing to do with sports. And finally, it was a lesson. A Rick Reilly story had occurred in my backyard and right in front of my eyes -- and I had missed it. I promised myself that it would never happen again. If only it were that simple.


Dan Jenkins

Author

Baseball's "pace of play," or, Why You Can't Watch Baseball.

I choose this one because I wholeheartedly agree with it.


Curtis Strange

Golfer, PGA Tour

As much as Rick took me to task over the years, I'm going to try to be sweet now. Working with him at ESPN, I actually -- believe it or not -- learned to like the guy and enjoy his company.

I'll never forget his story of the USGA official who DQ'd the guy for having his son's friend carry his putter for one hole. Rick couldn't wait to pounce, and rightfully so.


Jim Nantz

Sportscaster, CBS Sports

It's impossible to pick just one favorite column from Rick's incredible career. Years ago when the Golf Channel was first conceived, Rick wrote a masterful piece detailing some potential programming ideas for the fledgling network. I remember being on a plane at the time and laughing so uncontrollably that I got more than a few curious looks from some of my fellow passengers. The line that sent me over the edge was Rick's suggestion for the 11 p.m. nightly time slot -- "Late Night With David Leadbetter."


John Skipper

President, ESPN Inc.

I have many favorites but have a soft spot for the column he did on the female wrestler whose opponent would not wrestle her.


Mike Greenberg

Co-host, "Mike & Mike," ESPN Radio

This was the one ["Vision of Happiness"] that moved me most. It captures what makes sports special, and Rick captured it better than anyone else could.


F-14D TomcatNathan Laird/U.S. Navy/Getty ImagesRick Reilly's description of riding in an F-14 gave Gary Smith the shivers.

Gary Smith

Senior writer, Sports Illustrated (retired)

[+] EnlargeRick Reilly
Courtesy of Stuart Ramson/Nothing But NetsRick Reilly, founder of Nothing But Nets, hands out mosquito nets. Numbers like these had Gary Smith reaching for his wallet: In 2010, the World Health Organization estimated malaria caused 660,000 deaths, 91 percent of them in the African region.

We were living in Sydney that year, and so the copies of Sports Illustrated were reaching us late, in heaps of six or eight. That had a way of whittling down the decision-making process for each issue: Just read Rick and the one other piece that might be half as good.

Which meant Rick only in the Sept. 20, 1999, issue because there was no way anything else could be half as good as his story about passing out flying upside down at 600 miles an hour on an F-14 Tomcat fighter jet.

It's my favorite for two reasons. Plenty of Rick's columns made me think ... and re-think. Legions made me laugh. Many mined my anger and even more my tears. The one about the thousands of African children who die every year of malaria for want of a piece of meshed fabric overtop them when they sleep still has me reaching for my checkbook. But this was the only column I've ever read, by anyone, that made me break out in a cold sweat. Then -- as he described a 90-degree turn at 550 miles an hour that made him egress his bananas from that morning's breakfast, his pizza from last night's dinner, his yesterday's lunch ... and his box of Milk Duds from sixth grade -- I laughed out loud. I have never before or since cracked up in a cold sweat.

We did barrel rolls, snap rolls, loops, yanks and banks. We dived, rose and dived again, sometimes with a vertical velocity of 10,000 feet per minute. That's what Navy pilot Chip (Biff) King did to Rick Reilly that day. Which is only fair. That's what Rick Reilly did to us for the last three and half decades.


Stan Verrett

Anchor, ESPN "SportsCenter"

My all-time favorite column from Rick was the one about Bethpage Black golf course. I believe it was in advance of the first U.S. Open there. I'm an avid golfer and Rick's storytelling on what golfers would do to get one of the coveted Saturday morning tee times at Bethpage was hilarious. I've often repeated some of the stories in that column when people mention that course.


Ed Werder

Dallas bureau reporter, ESPN

[+] EnlargeKatarina Witt
Daniel Janin/AFP/Getty ImagesKatarina Witt won Olympic figure skating gold medals in 1984 and 1988.

I had the great fortune of growing up in Colorado and reading Rick and being influenced by him early in my own career as an aspiring journalist. In fact, I was hired at the Boulder Daily Camera, filling a job he previously held. I always marveled at his ability to tell a story and to turn a phrase. I envied -- and still do -- his ability to do both with what seems little effort. I bleed for every smart remark or lyrical effect. I'm also grateful Rick was willing to mentor me to a certain degree. At one point, I asked if he would critique some of my best stories. He did so quickly and in great detail. I treasure them so much that I still have them in the same envelope in which he returned them. Some he liked, some not so much, but he told me, in each case, how they could have been better. He quoted Oscar Wilde!

I have done the same for others, always remembering what it meant that he did it for me.

I can recall more of Rick's brilliant stories than I can my own -- from the Camera, Denver Post, Los Angeles Times, SI and ESPN. I loved his story of penniless ex-Bronco George Herring, and his more recent pieces on Brett Favre and Jim Kelly. But the one story and phrase I will never forget was his SI piece on Olympic gold medalist and natural beauty Katrina Witt, the Bo Derek of sports. Rick captured her perfectly when he described her as being "12-car-pileup gorgeous."

So it is time for someone else to finally have the chance to win National Sportswriter of the Year. And, Rick, if you need any help with TV script writing, I'm willing to return the favor!


Skip Bayless

Commentator, "ESPN First Take"

To me, picking a favorite Rick Reilly column doesn't do justice to his body of work. No columnist I've ever read has been as consistently excellent as Rick has. The truest gauge is, if you start a column, do you finish it? I've never not finished one of Rick's. His ideas, his execution, the underrated interviewing and digging he does -- every column has been memorable. Rick's idols have always been Jim Murray and Dan Jenkins, but neither of those effortlessly gifted greats brought it as often as Rick has.

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