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Don't ever let anyone tell you it's 'just' sports

Originally Published: June 10, 2014
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

ReillyCourtesy Cynthia Reilly The end of a career in sports writing for Rick Reilly has led to a time of reflection.

I am the son of a drunk, a man who was much too concerned with where his next whiskey was coming from than where I was going.

He didn't discipline me. Didn't advise me. Didn't father me. Hell, most of the time he didn't even know where I was. And my trembling mother was much too terrified of him and his sloppy temper slamming home to worry about what I was doing.

So when I got a regular byline in the town paper before my 21st birthday, I was as wild and unruly as the mop of hair on my head. I had a voice and a license to use it, but not one lesson in how. I hurt people just to make a name for myself. Just because I could.

My first beat was the Colorado women's basketball team and I came out slashing. Until, one day, a retired coach named Sox Walseth came up to me. His hair was white, with matching caterpillar eyebrows, and he wore a cardigan. He put a hand on my shoulder and said, "Son, you're not going to get very far writing articles like the one you did today. These people shouldn't have to read the cheap shots you're taking at them. You can do better than this."

I looked right back at him, stuck out my bottom lip, and began to cry.

I was so starved for a father that this man I hardly knew was suddenly thrown into the job. I'm sure he was as confused about what was happening as I was, but he took me to his chest and hugged me.

As I sit here and write my last column as a sports writer, I see now how that moment changed my life.

Until then, I'd never thought about what it was to be a good man. Had no clue. Never considered it. But when I looked around, I saw that sports was full of men and women like that -- disciplined, molded and dedicated to their teammates as much as they were to themselves.

I see now how I was raised by sports, how it became my second family, and how I learned at its feet every day.

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.

Eventually, my father sobered up and I grew up. I came to understand the chance he'd given up and the one I'd been given. Sox Walseth died 10 years ago, but I hope he saw. I hope I did better.

So why leave the best job in the world after 36 years? To see what else is out there. To learn new lessons from new teachers. To live in Italy, make amends to my piano and never have to care about groin pulls again. True, I'm only 56, but I always did prefer writing short.

To borrow from Peyton Manning, it's been my privilege to be your sports writer. If I'd have known so many people would reach out and say so many kind things, I'd have quit years ago. To be told by a young journalist that you were the reason she got into the business; to be told by a grieving son that you made his dying mother laugh; to be told by a reader that a column you wrote changed the direction of his life? It swells the heart.

You've been better to me than I deserve. No writer in history is more flawed than me, but it was never for lack of trying. It was always in my attempt to get to the truth, or to make it fun, or to make it add up to something meaningful to you.

Life's circles are funny, aren't they? This Sunday, the U.S. Open golf tournament wraps up, but for once, I won't be there. Instead, for the first time in my life, I'll be home with my kids on Father's Day.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com