Rick Reilly

If you haven’t yet jumped at the opportunity, take a moment out of your life and read Rick Reilly’s excellent ESPN.com column on the kid who was bullied at school, and the Philadelphia Eagles who befriended him. Truly an excellent piece of writing; Rick at his best.

Ever since he departed Sports Illustrated for ESPN in 2008, Rick has taken a ton of crap for the quality of his material. And, I’ll admit (and I’m willing to bet Rick would admit), it hasn’t all been his best stuff. But what people forget—and what readers definitely forget—is that maintaining one’s fastball, in writing, is really hard. It’s certainly not a matter of talent: I can assure you that Rick, age 52, is as talented as he was at 35 or 40 or 45. No, what becomes more difficult is the motivation; the drive; the passion. Cover sports long enough, the story lines repeat themselves. Over. And over. And over. The kid overcoming the odds. The yin-yang teammates. The big trade. The first-round bust. The woman making her mark in a man’s sport. The fan’s perspective. Profiling a food. Because we are humans confined by the limitations of organized athletics, there is a finite number of things that can happen. A team will overcome the odds. Another team will fail to meet expectations. At the end of the season, there’ll be a large celebration involving bubbly and goggles. Someone will say, “Nobody believed we could do this!” Someone else will say, “We’ve stuck together and fought like crazy.” Before Tiger there was Jack. Before Jack there was Arnold. On and on.

So when you’re Rick, or Steve Rushin, or Jason Whitlock, or Bill Simmons, or Mike Lupica, or Tom Verducci, or Selena Roberts, or Dave Anderson, or, well, any of us, the challenge isn’t staying sharp.

It’s continuing to care, when you’ve witnessed it all before.

People have said, “Why doesn’t Rick write the long features he used to do so well at SI?” I’ve never asked Rick, but I’ll take a guess: Because he doesn’t want to. He mastered that, and desired to move on.

I don’t blame him.

9 thoughts on “Rick Reilly”

  1. Reilly has been terrible for years now though..at some point you need to justify the million-dollar contract you’ve signed and not just pump out smug, self-righteous crap.

  2. Thanks for this, Jeff. Before I started really studying writers, Rick Reilly was the one who made me want to be a sportswriter. I grew up during his heydey as SI’s back-page columnist and read a few of his long-form stories back then.

    It’s been tough for me, watching his writing decline. But this makes sense. Thanks for the insight. I

  3. Jeff, while it’s admirable that you stick up for Reilly; it seems a bit hypocritical.

    Sportswriters, not just you, are among the first people to scream about an athlete “taking the cash” and “not caring” or “coasting”. I mean there are myriad examples of that in today’s sports pages.

    I mean you use this quote: “But what people forget—and what readers definitely forget—is that maintaining one’s fastball, in writing, is really hard.” and you can apply it to any athlete that has literally lost his fastball.

    I’m not about to debate which is harder: being a professional athlete or being a professional writer, one could make cases for both.

    However, it’s a bit odd to read about cutting multi-millionaire Rick Reilly some slack for his terrible output of the past few years while reading about how athlete X should “give his money back” or “just hasn’t lived up to his contract”.

  4. I am 26 and grew up loving sports and writing. For years Rick Reilly represented the perfect intersection of the two. Throughout my teens, I would open Sports Illustrated to the last page each week and I still list Missing Links as one of my favorite novels. The guy was simply great. And then, suddenly, he wasn’t.

    Reading and watching Rick Reilly at ESPN is like watching Willie Mays finish his career with the Mets. It’s simply painful to watch. Rick writes the same formulaic column over and over again (and does it horribly) and his television appearances make for the most painful and awkward television I have ever seen.

    Say what you want, Jeff, but we have watched one of our best writers regress into someone who embarrasses himself every time he puts pen to paper or opens his mouth to speak. Above all, this is just sad.

    He is embarrassing ESPN and himself and treating as fools those of us who used to call ourselves his fans.

  5. One other thing, the last line is kind of a cop-out, don’t you think? Maybe I’m cynical, but the reason why Rick Reilly writes shorter pieces is because it’s easier to write shorter pieces.

    And that’s ok. I don’t think that anyone can ever say that they’ve “mastered writing” until they’re dead. That’s kind of what makes writing so great.

  6. Rick Reilly is the kind of guy who yells things like, “It’s a lousy day to be an atheist!” while watching a known drug-addict hit home runs at a home run hitting competition. And then, as Deadspin is apt to point out, he just recycles some of his old SI columns or jokes and tries to pass them off as new on ESPN a few years later, hoping no one will notice.

    Maybe he’s talented, but the guy’s also a douchenozzle.

  7. Reilly has said several times in interviews that writing those long features was like shaving a few months off his own life, each time. I don’t think there is any question that writing long-form profiles is harder, both in terms of effort and emotional investment in them.

    It’s sort of interesting how Reilly, at least to the Bill Simmons generation, seems so uncool and tired. People my age viewed Reilly the way people now look at Simmons. As someone young, funny, clever and not afraid to shake up the establishment.

    Everyone’s style grows stale with enough exposure. And inevitably, motivation is harder to summon when you’re no longer trying to prove you’re one of the best.

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