A story that changed my career

An image of a battered Billy Collins, alongside Luis Resto.
An image of a battered Billy Collins, alongside Luis Resto.

Have no reason to tell this one, save for the fact that last night, while digging through old magazines, I stumbled upon the October 26, 1998 issue of Sports Illustrated …

So, in 1998, I was a scrub at SI. Well, not a scrub. I was a writer-reporter, which mean the higher-ups saw your potential, but didn’t trust you with overly heavy loads. I’d been at the magazine for about 1 1/2 years, and I desperately wanted to show people what (I thought) I could do.

A few years earlier, while writing for The Tennessean in Nashville, I covered a night of low-level “professional” boxing at the local dimly lit arena. It was a bunch of forgettable fighters on the card; entertaining stuff, but far from noteworthy. At one point, a “celebrity guest” referee was introduced to the crowd, and greeted with mild applause. I asked the reporter to my left who this guy was.

“Billy Collins,” he said.

I shook my head. “Who?”

“Billy Collins,” he said again. “He has a crazy story.”

Indeed. Collins, it turns out, had been a long-ago highly regarded boxer who had a moderately successful career. He had a son, Billy Collins, Jr., who excelled as a middleweight in the early 1980s—then had his career tragically cut short. When I asked what “tragically” meant, the reporter told me that, in an undercard brawl at Madison Square Garden, Collins squared off with Luis Resto, journeyman nobody … who battered Collins by taking the padding out of his gloves. Collins’ career ended and he ultimately drove his car off the road.

Whoa. Stuck with me.

So there I was, at SI, looking to move up. I had the Collins saga in my holster, but was petrified of pitching the idea. There were too many examples of the superstar writers receiving plumb assignments pitched by others. The last thing I wanted was Gary Smith or Leigh Montville winning awards for my Billy Collins story.

Hence, armed with a week off and a relatively inexpensive airline ticket, I paid my own way back to Nashville and reported the hell out of Billy Collins. I interviewed the family members, tracked down Resto in the Bronx, found out boxing commissioners and officials and the like. Then—and only then—did I pitch the piece to Bill Colson, the managing editor.

It ran.

I was promoted.

Score another one for hard work.