About a year ago, we tried to secure Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander for an interview. Sent him questions, the whole thing and … nothing. Guess he didn’t like them. So after the whole Jay Mariotti brouhaha exploded last week, we gave it another shot. And his answers are below. Read them closely folks, for there’s more between-the-lines goodness in the first few answers than in the Mariotti one. Also, he has some interesting thoughts on the demise of SI. Telander is a rare breed among sports writers – a former athlete. In addition to SI, he’s written for ESPN and he penned Heaven is a Playground, which likely sits on the shelf of any basketball junkie.
Q: You’re one of the few journalists who played a sport in college – football at Northwestern. Was that a difficult transition, from being an athlete who speaks to the media, to the opposite? Do most athletes realize you used to be one of them? What is their reaction when they find out? And the obvious one – do you feel that perhaps you have a better understanding of what the athletes have gone through more than journalists who haven’t been on scholarship?
The biggest difference for me is that I believe I often do know what it was like for the athletes I interviewâ€”the pain, the rapture, the stupidity, the intensity, the recklessness, the passion, the drama. I intercepted two passes against Rex Kern at The Horseshoe in front of Woody Hayes and 80,000 people, and I also got beat for the game-winning TD in the East-West Shrine Game by Mel Gray on a bomb from Dan Pastorini and had photos of my sorry, beaten ass on the front page of the Bay Area newspapers the next day. So I recall the ups and downs, the thrill and shame.
Yet I don’t think I excuse bad or juvenile or cruel behavior just because a guy is a jock. Still, I know how obsessed they must be with their sport and its narrow focus if they plan to succeed. Back in the day, when I looked younger and was younger, some athletes were aware I was a jock, (now, who knows? I don’t walk up and tell them) and remember me playing defensive scout team for Joe Namath at Jets practices (while writing a book) and playing hoops with Kellen Winslow and working out with Tony Mandarich and doing a lot of catching with Dwight Clark. I played hoops with about all the hoops-playing Chicago Bears through the 1990s. (Neal Anderson was maybe the best, Maurice Douglass was fast, the Fridge was gentle, even at 375, and Urlacher is a freak.) I enjoyed that stuff, because I love sports and competition. I’ve never been a collector or a big fan or wannabe general managerâ€”I always preferred to play in my own games as a kid, whatever they were. I never have been a guy who can rattle off stats or jersey numbers or the like. I’m sure loving to play helps me break guys down and talk man to man. Dan Marino and I hit it off well through the years, and part was because I had been a high school quarterback and then a Big Ten DB, and he could tell I understood what he was saying, even though I was nowhere near him in anything. Tony Dorsett and I clicked. Walter Payton was a hoot, especially the day he was ripping saplings from the ground, barehanded, at his new estate, and I tried it and couldn’t even get the small trees to move. Jim Kelly and I played backyard hoops at his house after a night out drinking, back when he was with the Houston Gamblers in the USFL and we ended that hot, miserable contest in a tie. To this day, bitch!
I’m late-50′s now and my knees are shot, though I will still play about anything with anyone anywhere at any timeâ€”except golf (though I love Tiger, Rocco, Shark) and ice skating, which I can’t do. I was a state champion swimmer in Illinois as a kid, so I can talk well with Olympic swimmers and the like. How many people can vividly recall what crowd cheering sounds like underwater?
I went to Northwestern on a full rideâ€”my folks paid not a nickel, and that was hugely important for meâ€”so I know what a sport is like when it’s a high-pressure, all-or-nothing job, and the horrible heartbreak of injury, defeat or – worst of all – being benched. That is like dying. That is non-being. To talk to an overmatched pitcher after he has blown a game and is certain to be sent to Triple-A, and maybe never come backâ€”I mean, you better have some empathy in your heart, dude. Jock or no jock. To talk to a cornerback after he has given up the Rose/Fiesta/Sugar Bowl-losing touchdown? Please. Understand that if he had a gun, he would shoot himself.
Q: Because of your size, do you feel as if athletes are more or less likely to stand up to you if you wrote something critical or unfavorable about them? And while we’re on the topic, any memorable run-ins with athletes on or off the field that you’d like to share?
I’m decent-sized, but I’m not hugeâ€”6-1 Â½ (shrinking), 200 poundsâ€”so most guys will look at me as somebody who might be agile but not a brute, wiry but not Jose Canseco, and maybe they’ll have to strangle me or grapple with me for a spell or squeeze my head until it pops to subdue me. I’m about the size of a lot of baseball players, golfers, tennis guys, wide receivers, etc. (Nobody’s as big as linemen or Lennox Lewis or Shaq.) I think athletes can tell by my body language that I feel it is very important to stand in front of the people I write about, even after extreme criticism, and be held accountable. I think they can tell I’m not running away, whether that’s stupid or not. I believe the code of manhoodâ€”being reasonable, fair, strong, sympathetic, independent, and, if needed, present and accounted forâ€”is critical. How can we ask of our athletes that which we won’t perform ourselves?
Last year I had a verbal run-in with Olin Kreutz. (And Lovie Smithâ€”another matter, but a related matter.) I had called the center a “serial jaw-breaker” in a column because I was pissed off at the treatment I and other writers were getting in the Bears locker room from guys like him, and it was a fact he had broken two players’ jaws with punches during his career. Yet I admire and respect Kreutz, a Bears team captain, a ferocious, dedicated football man, and in time we worked everything out. My statement had hurt him, I learned. Words have power. I apologized, to a point, told him why I was pissed off and how ignorant I thought the players were in this instance, and he quit with the nonsense he was doing and was rather generous, to be honest, though there wasn’t like a Disney-esque character change. I saw him recently at a mini-camp, and we talked about his native Hawaii, old injured NFL players (a fund to which he secretly has given money), and big-wave rider Laird Hamilton. Did this all happen because I understand jock-dom, respect it, and Kreutz knows I played? I think that has something to do with it. But being a man and acting decently toward others is not the exclusive province of anyoneâ€”big, little, athletic, dork.
I’ve had episodes with Albert Belle (who hasn’t?), Steve Carlton (just nuts and scary to a new kid), and old Cardinal George Hendrick (a pretty decent guy who explained politely that he didn’t want to talk, and why). I had some of my worst moments with Bill Walton, back when he was a rookie and I was fresh out of college. He has changed so much, it is unbelievable. But back then he stuttered terribly, ate nuts and berries from a bag, wore a pony tail, weighed about ten pounds, was immature as can be, and his teammates hated him. There are jerks everywhere, and a locker room is not a fun place to be. But we writers must go there, into the belly of the beast. Otherwise, we’re just bloggers in basements.
Q: You’ve worked for two the two largest entities in the sports journalism field – SI and ESPN. Can you compare and contrast what they were like? Was one more memorable than the other? If you had the choice of going back to one or the other at this point in your career, which would it be?
I worked at SIâ€”from 1973 to 1998 in some capacity–when it was the monster, the greatest sports publication on earth. And I watched it be ever-so-slow to change, and always come late to the advancing world of technology and Internet and cross-pollination. And way back, Time Inc. sold itself to Warner Bros. for inexplicable reasons, except to make Steven Ross hundreds of millions of dollars. Then it did the mating dance with AOL – again incomprehensible. Whatever. In 1990 I wrote a treatment for an S.I. TV show to utilize writers and the fabulous photographers employed thereâ€”wanted to call it, “The Cover of Sports Illustrated,” or something like that, use our own people, make us all leaders in the field, cutting edge each week, and managing editor John Papanek thought it was a good idea (John would become a key figure at ESPN), but publisher Mark Mulvoy said it would “cannibalize” the magazine. So that was that.
Cannibalize. Imagine. Is there anything else these days?
ESPN started out rough and ready and hungry, and never got satedâ€”and you may not know it, but a lot of the same people worked at both placesâ€”Pap, Steve Wulf, Chad Milman, Steve Fine, Steve Rushin, Rick Reilly, etc. etc. I had a contract with ESPN from 1998 into the 2000s, and I still write for both magazines upon occasion. I was one of four authors who wrote the cover story for the debut issue of “ESPN, the Magazine,” and then wrote several more cover stories. I love Sports Illustrated, and still have friends thereâ€”Rob Fleder, Terry McDonnell, David Bauer, Heinz Kluetmeier, many of the writersâ€”but I wish SI had fought harder when it was on top, and not grown complacent or listened to bean-counters from other disciplines.
Q: We heard about an SI tale where you worked a hobo into your Super Bowl game story, only to have editors force you to change things as you were checking out of your hotel. True? False? This sounds interesting, to say the least.
The hobo tale is true. I can’t blame SI for taking the fellow out of my Super Bowl story, but it’s unfortunate, and I think they made a mistake. Plus, I was bleeding from the eyeballs and hadn’t slept for maybe 36 hours by the time I got the edit news and sat back down and re-wrote the story. My hobo was something. We had traveled before, through Wisconsin and Minnesota and Iowa, when I picked him up on a deserted stretch of country highway near the Mississippi River while I was working on a piece for SI about the “Cheese League” of NFL summer camps, the Packers, Bears, Saints, and Vikings, all of whom trained up yonder. His name was John Francis O’Connor – “The Sidedoor Pullman Kid” in hobo parlance, or just “Sidedoor”â€”and he was in his late-70′s then, had an ancient tattoo on his forearm of the Cracker Jack Kid, and was just a terrific road partner. He would go on to be voted the Hobo of the Year in the hobo festival in Britt, Iowa, a year or so later. We ate cheese curds, stopped in road houses for beer, talked about stuff from his early days. He wintered in a tiny apartment in Arizona, but all summer long he hopped freights to places unknown. Had done it for over 60 years. I took a shine to him, because I had hopped freights during and after collegeâ€”to Wyoming and California and New Orleans and even Mexico one timeâ€”and I loved nothing more than the look and smell of the country when observed from a rolling box car clattering down the tracks. I took Sidedoor to LaCrosse, among other towns, with me, and introduced him to Joe Montana at the Saints training camp – “A regular Joe,” Sidedoor summed up laterâ€”and he also met Gino Torretta and a few of the Vikings. A couple years later he hopped on a Greyhound bus and rode three days straight from Phoenix to visit me and sleep on my floor at a Miami hotel during the Super Bowl.
But in that SI story he had befriended 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, and I remember the two of them hanging poolside at some luxury team headquarter hotel â€”Eddie in his bathing suit, Sidedoor in his traveling clothes, jeans and flannel shirt, salt-stained train capâ€”shooting the breeze with Eddie about Montana and trains and freedom, and I guess, a little football. Fellow SI writer Mike Silver loved Sidedoor, and one time, five of usâ€”me, Silver, Sidedoor, Chad Millman, and Candace Putnamâ€”all from SIâ€”drove 150-miles down to Key West from Miami during Super Bowl week and had a blast, all in one crazy 12-hour period. We roamed around, and almost got into a brawl with some drunken lunatic shrimpers at the Red Door Tavern next to the Bull & Whistle on Duval Street. Sidedoor was ready to do his part. But we survived.
Maybe having a hobo share the spotlight with the NFL super stars was too much for the readership of SI, or at least the editorsâ€”and I guess that would be my error in judgmentâ€”but I still would have liked to see the story run. Sidedoor died this springâ€”eulogized as “the last of the Hobo kings,” at age 90. I feel bad that I didn’t learn of his funeral until after it had occurred. I would have been there. What an American hero. My man.
Q: What’s the worst part of working in the Chicago sports market? The best? Where do you think Chicago sports fans rank in terms of passion, compared to cities like Philadelphia, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York? If a city like St. Louis supposedly has the most savvy fans, and Philadelphia has the angriest, and Los Angeles has the most indifferent … how would you label Chicago’s fans, and why?
There is no downside, except the United Center parking lot in winter. Chicago’s fans are there year after year after year. The Bears are the unifying factor, but the Cubs are insane – the reason being that every young person who moves to Chicago, moves to the North Side-somewhere in Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Lakeview, Wrigleyville, Evanston, Bucktown, near DePaul – always the North side. Sox fans need re-gentrification of Bridgeport and whole South Side – maybe Olympic Village can help, if Chicago gets it – to build new fan base. Old Sox fans are dying off.
Chicago fans are the most fun-loving and forgiving.
Q: We must ask about a colleague of yours, Jay Mariotti, whom you’ve been feuding with for a few years. Were you guys ever friendly? Is detente possible? And before the recent dust-up with him, which resulted in two of your columns getting spiked, had you previously had any columns spiked in your tenure at the paper?
I was hired away from Sports Illustrated in 1995 because Mariotti had been suspended by the Sun-Times and was out of the paper. I was told by then-sports editor Rick Jaffe, “He will never be back. Never.” That’s why I took the job. He got an attorney, got busted down to reporter and somehow came back.
It’s not a feud. A feud implies an argument. I haven’t talked to him in years. Beyond that – and I’m sorry about this, because I like to be open and honest – some matters need to be cleared up and I must say no comment. The only other spiked columns I’ve had in 13 years were a couple about which I agreed I missed the mark – or at least understood the editor’s point.
Q: More troubling for college football: No internet and all those scandals at major programs in the 1980′s, or the current climate, where the internet is really driving immense hate for the NCAA because it is reluctant to employ a college football playoff?
That fans want a playoff has nothing to do with the payers or college, for that matter. Let the players participate in the massive revenue, and then everything’s fine. Or at least, above board.
Q: The baseball Hall of Fame, steroids, and that silly hot dog vendor disguised as a radio host, Mike North. What specifically about baseball players cheating resonated with you in 2008 to get you to abstain from voting? And do you feel you’ll pass the next time around, as well?
We voters — at least 10 years as an MLBW member – don’t have to vote for anyone or anything. Not everybody even casts a ballot. I show my readers what I do each year – hence alarmists seemed to think I had killed Andre Dawson with an axe this year, since I didn’t vote in protest over Selig’s head in sand on steroids. But unsent ballots don’t count against percentage needed to get in. Anyway, the thing that made me mad about North was that he got Dawson on the phone and said, “He screwed you, Hawk, didn’t he! He says you took steroids!!” Dawson, in Florida, was clueless, because he had not read my column, but he agreed with North.
I got Dawson’s number and called him – he was angry, but so was I over this disinformation – and I said, “Did you read my column?” and he said, “No, someone was going to send it to me but I didn’t get it.” So I read my column to Dawson over the phone. “Now I see what you mean,” he said.
Instigators like North who take things out of context and screech are hard to deal with, since you have to set the record straight with facts, again and again. If people can’t understand nuance and hyperbole and symbolism, I don’t think they should read and make judgments.
I voted for Canseco and Caminiti the year previous in obvious protest of the steroid mess. Those two, well … please, I think you get the point. But wouldn’t their busts in Cooperstown be tourist attractions, and history lessons? Don’t know how I’ll vote next time. I always surprise myself.
Q: Is Ozzie Guillen the most compelling athletic figure you’ve covered? And are you more inclined to enjoy writing about a guy like Guillen, or a coach who doesn’t tell it like it is, and use obscenity, and talk about wanting to set his imaginary daughter up with Derek Jeter?
Ozzie is right there with Mike Ditka. They both could be/can be nuts. But they pull no punches and are endlessly entertaining. Ozzie will talk to anyone anywhere anytime in any language, even if he doesn’t speak it.
Q: The Bulls have the first pick in the NBA draft, and the consensus seems to be that Derrick Rose is the guy. But very rarely anywhere have I read about what the Bulls plan to do with Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon, their current backcourt. Hinrich is locked into a big-money deal, and Gordon wants one. They can’t just bury $9 million man Hinrich on the bench, and those three guards are probably too small to all be on the floor for long stretches, especially without a legit low-post scorer, right? And while we’re on the Bulls, how badly did they bungle this coaching search? They have a team that was thought to be a serious Eastern contender going into last season, and the nucleus is the same and they’ll have the top pick, so why take a chance on a guy with zero head coaching ability?
I worry about Vinnie Del Negro as head coach. He’s never smashed a chalk board. Derrick Rose, I hope.
- Roundup: Horrific London Attack, Fast & Furious 6 and Hangover III Arrive, Roy Hibbert Speaks Up
- LeBron James Hits Game-Winning Layup at the Buzzer in Overtime as Roy Hibbert Watched From the Bench [Video]
- Paul George Hit a Ridiculous 3 to Send it Into Overtime After Throwing the Ball Away Moments Earlier [Video]
- Paul George Wore Aqua Pants and a Green, Amoeba-Pattered Dress Shirt to Game 1 in Miami
- Shane Battier Kneed Roy Hibbert in the Balls [Video]
- KC Resident on Roundup: Horrific London Attack, Fast & Furious 6 and Hangover III Arrive, Roy Hibbert Speaks Up
- Big Hoss on Roundup: Horrific London Attack, Fast & Furious 6 and Hangover III Arrive, Roy Hibbert Speaks Up
- scripty on Roundup: Horrific London Attack, Fast & Furious 6 and Hangover III Arrive, Roy Hibbert Speaks Up
- cracker jack on Roundup: Horrific London Attack, Fast & Furious 6 and Hangover III Arrive, Roy Hibbert Speaks Up
- johndewar on Roundup: Horrific London Attack, Fast & Furious 6 and Hangover III Arrive, Roy Hibbert Speaks Up
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.