Rick Reilly, one of the greatest sportswriters of all time, is hanging it up after 36 years in the business. In his final ESPN column, which was released Tuesday, Reilly said that he was raised by sports – that sports taught him everything.
What did he mean by that?
“Well, I was the son of a drunk who only cared about where his next whiskey was coming from and didn’t care where I was going,” Reilly said on The MoJo Show. “He never knew where I was most of the time. And my mother was just so terrified of when he would come home and what he would do next. It was always going to be a lamp getting broken or a nose or something.”
“So I didn’t get fathered,” Reilly continued. “I didn’t get disciplined. I didn’t get advised. So when I got a column at age 20, I was just as out of control as the hair on my head. I was just unruly. I had this voice. I could really write, but I had no idea how to use it.”
When Reilly was covering the University of Colorado, however, a coach took him aside and told him he was ripping people without just cause. These are good people trying their best, the man said, and you can do better.
“I started crying,” Reilly said. “It occurred to me that I need someone to father me.”
So Reilly began looking toward coaches, athletes and teammates and seeing how they behaved.
“I had no idea how to be a good man, but I learned it from sports,” Reilly said. “Guys like Michael Jordan who would never be interviewed until his tie was tied or his pocket square was just so. Or John Elway, who, no matter how bad it got – no matter how many ways he failed – he always said, ‘Well I’m going to try better next time. I’m going to get them.’”
“I just learned so much from sports,” Reilly continued. “As I got older, I realized there was so much more to sports than just the score. It was about people and what they could teach you and what they did – rising up and being there for each other. That’s kind of what the column’s about.”
Brian Jones asked Reilly what Barry Bonds taught him.
“Barry Bonds taught me how not to be a teammate,” Reilly said. “How to seclude yourself from your teammates, hide in the corner with your nutritionist and your trainer and your own P.R. guy and not show up for your own team photo.”
“That’s a good point. I learned how to behave and how not to behave. Because I had this voice, I finally started figuring out who was real and who was doing the right thing and who wasn’t.”
Guys like Charles Barkley, Steph Curry and Jim Nantz were. Guys like Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Lance Armstrong weren’t.
Neither was Tiger Woods, who might have been the greatest athlete Reilly ever covered. According to Reilly, Woods has horrible manners. He doesn’t pick up checks, he doesn’t tip, he swears in front of kids, he doesn’t stop to chat with fans and every joke is dirty.
“He’s out for himself,” said Reilly, who recently released Tiger: Meet My Sister…: and Other Things I Probably Shouldn’t Have Said. “I have both praised Tiger Woods’ incredible will to win, but I’ve also criticized his amazing lack of good behavior. Sometimes I’ll nail a guy when he deserves it, but I also praise people when they deserve it.”
Reilly did both for Lance Armstrong, who lied to him for 14 years about his cheating. When Armstrong finally came clean, Reilly called him out in a column. He also saw Armstrong a few weeks ago in person.
“I was really disappointed to see how happy he was,” Reilly said.
Although Reilly will be out of the public eye, he’s not exactly giving up writing. He is moving to Florence, Italy, with his wife.
“I’m just going to sit there at a sidewalk cafe and drink wine and write books and laugh at all my buddies having to make deadline,” Reilly said.