June 20, 2023

From the Vaults: Rick Reilly


     Over a period of thirty years, I was an avid reader of Sports Illustrated.  When they became yet another publication that slimmed down from a weekly to a monthly format, their features changed radically enough for me to let my subscription lapse.  From 1997 to 2007, the first article I read in every issue was Rick Reilly’s Life of Reilly opinion piece that always occupied the last page of SI.  Yes, I have shared how I tend to read newspapers and magazines from the back to the front, but in this case, I gravitated to Reilly’s column because it was always great.  It was the first signed opinion piece in Sports Illustrated history and it transcended ‘sports’ – Reilly told stories of human interest wrapped around his sportswriting excursions.

     Born in Boulder, Colorado on February 3, 1958, Reilly graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder, and lives there today in his semi-retirement.  I hadn’t thought of him since I let my SI subscription lapse so when I spotted his book on sale at the local St. Vinnie’s store, (Hate Mail From Cheerleaders – and Other Adventures in the LIFE OF REILLY from the Pages of Sports Illustrated (2008, Time Inc. Home Entertainment)), I couldn’t resist.  Okay, it is a bit dated – it came out with an introduction written by Lance Armstrong four years before the United States Anti-Doping Agency investigation concluded he (Armstrong, not Reilly) had used (and denied using) performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career and fell from grace in the world of sports.  A collection of 100 of his backpage articles between 2003 and 2006, Hate Mail became a New York Times best seller and reminded me why I always read his stuff first.

     In this day of YouTube clips, Tik-Tok cutesy videos, and sponsored content being streamed out of everybody’s assorted electronic devices, it was refreshing to reacquaint myself with Reilly’s ability to transform the alphabet into such an artform.  In the book’s Acknowledgements, Reilly recounts his journalism professor at UC-Boulder taking him aside one day “[sniffing] You’re better than sports.  To her, I’d [Reilly] like to say, emphatically, ‘Phillllbbbbbbbtt!’”  Personally, I have nothing against those who like their entertainment dished out in soundbites and video clips, but the next time someone asks me why I still read real newspapers and magazines, I am going to say, “Rick Reilly.”

     Reilly moved from SI to ESPN in 2008 where he continued his presence as the ‘last page guy’.  He retired from his regular feature gig in 2010 and now exclusively does on-air essays on ESPN from live sporting events like Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the British Open.  In fact, the day I found his book, he popped up on one of those shows where the talking heads endlessly debated some important sports topic in need of total dissection like, “When will the Arron Rogers’ trade be completed?” (although I can’t recall exactly what his take on their big topic of the day was)*.  Golf would seem to rank high in his semi-retired life – he has penned at least six golf theme titles going all the way back to 1996’s Missing Links.  Not everyone loves Rick’s writing.  An article in Basketball Jones claims he missed the joke in a piece he did about LaBon James under the heading ESPN’s Rick Reilly Apparently Mistakes Satire for News.  The BJ’s article begins, “ESPN’s Rick Reilly doesn’t quite get the joke and would very much like you to explain it to him . . .”. 

     There is no way I could do justice to why I like Reilly’s work because I lack his knack for stringing words together while telling stories inside of sports topics.  Instead of relating a bunch of little snippets from the 100 essays in this book, I am going to share one in its entirety.  If you aren’t a Reilly lover, this won’t change your mind.  This, for me, is just an example of how one can teach lessons about the wider world under the guise of ‘sportswriting’.  This originally ran in the June 20, 2005 issue of Sports Illustrated entitled Strongest Dad In the World:

     “I TRY TO BE A GOOD FATHER.  GIVE MY KIDS MULLIGANS.  Work nights to pay for their text messaging,  Take them to swimsuit shoots.  But compared to Dick Hoyt, I suck.  Eighty-five times he’s pushed his disabled son, Rick, 26.2 miles in a wheelchair but also towed him 2.4 miles in a dinghy while swimming and pedaled him 112 miles in a seat on the handlebars – all in the same day.

     Dick’s also pulled him cross-country skiing, has taken him on his back mountain climbing, and once hauled him across the U.S. on a bike.  Makes taking your son bowling look a little lame, right?

     And what has Rick done for his father?  Not much – except save his life.

     This love story began in Winchester, Mass. 43 years ago, when Rick was strangled by the umbilical cord during birth, leaving him brain-damaged and unable to control his limbs.

     “He’ll be a vegetable the rest of his life,” Dick says doctors told him and his wife, Judy, when Rick was nine months old,  “Put him in an institution.”

     But the Hoyts weren’t buying it.  They noticed the way Rick’s eyes followed them around the room.  When Rick was 11 they took him to the engineering department at Tufts University and asked if there was anything to help the boy communicate.  “No way.” Dick says he was told.  “There’s nothing going on in his brain.”   “Tell him a joke,” Dick countered.  They did.  Rick laughed.  Turns out a lot was going on in his brain.

     Rigged up with a computer that allowed him to control the cursor by touching a switch with the side of his head, Rick was finally able to communicate.  His first words?  “Go, Bruins!”  And after a high school classmate was paralyzed in an accident and the school organized a charity run for him, Rick pecked out, “Dad, I want to do that.”

     Yeah, right.  How was Dick, a self-described “porker” wo never ran more than a mile at a time, going to push his son five miles?  Still, he tried.  “Then it was me who was handicapped,” Dick says.  “I was sore for two weeks.”  

     That day changed Rick’s life,  “Dad,” he typed, “when we were running, it felt like I wasn’t disabled anymore!”

     And that sentence changed Dick’s life.  He became obsessed with giving Rick that feeling as often as he could.  He got into such hard-belly shape that he and Rick were ready to try the 1979 Boston Marathon.

     “No way,” Dick was told by a race official.  The Hoyts weren’t quite a single runner, and they weren’t quite a wheelchair competitor,  For a few years, Dick and Rick just joined the massive field and ran anyway, then they found a way to get into the race officially:  In 1983 they ran another marathon so fast they made the qualifying time for Boston the following year.

     Then somebody said, “Hey, Dick, why not a triathlon?”

     How’s a guy who never learned to swim and hadn’t ridden a bike since he was six going to haul his 110-pound kid through a triathlon?  Still, Dick tried.

     Now they’ve done 212 triathlons, including four grueling 15-hour Ironmans in Hawaii.  It must be a buzzkill to be a 25-year-old stud getting passed by an older guy towing a grown man in a dinghy, don’t you think?

     Hey, Dick, why not see how you’d do on your own?  “No way,” he says.  Dick does it purely for “the awesome feeling” he gets seeing Rick with a cantaloupe smile as they run, swim, and ride together.

     This year, at ages 65 and 43, Dick and Rick finished their 24th Boston Marathon, in 5,083 place our of more than 20,000 starters.  Their best time?  Two hours, 40 minutes in 1992 –  only 35 minutes off the world record, which, in case you don’t keep track of these things, happens to be held by a guy who was not pushing another man in a wheelchair at the time.

     “No question about it,” Rick types.  “My dad is the Father of the Century.”

     And Dick got something else out of all this too.  Two years ago he had a mild heart attack during a race.  Doctors found that one of his arteries was 95 percent clogged.  “If you hadn’t been in such great shape,” one doctor told him, “you probably would’ve died 15 years ago.”

     So, in a way, Dick and Rick saved each other’s life.

     Rick, who has his own apartment (he gets home care) and works in Boston, and Dick, retired from the military and living in Holland, Mass., always find ways to be together.  They give speeches around the country and compete in some backbreaking race every weekend, including this Father’s Day. 

     That night, Rick will buy his dad dinner, but the thing he really wants to give him is a gift he can never buy.

     “The thing I’d most like,” Rick types, “is that my dad sit in the chair and I push him once.”

Postscript (added in his book)”  This is another one that people seem to have taped up on their refrigerators or their desk lamps.  Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.) liked it so much he read it into the Congressional Record.  Video of Team Hoyt on YouTube is now burning its way around the internet.  People forward it to me with a note that says, “Dude, you’ve got to read this.”  And I write back, “Dude, I wrote it!.”  The Hoyts are still rolling, but the way.  Last I checked, they’d entered 911 different events.  They admit the number is more but they’re too busy to update the total.  Too busy,  Ain’t it great?”

     Reilly’s final print essay was published on on June 10, 2014.  ESPN further announced that he would continue with them in a television-only capacity on their SportsCenter and Sunday NFL Countdown shows.  During his career, Rick has been voted the National Sports Media Association (NSMA, formerly the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association or NSSA) National Sportswriter of the Year eleven times.  Only the late Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times collected more NSMA hardware (14).  In 2009, Reilly also joined a notable list of writers who have won the Damon Runyon Award for Outstanding Contributions to Journalism. 

     The trouble with writing about events from previous decades, one must sometimes backtrack a bit to add context.  With that in mind, I will need to add my own Postscript to this FTV to bring everyone up to speed on some of the information above.

     First we should address Lance Armstrong.  Reilly had long defended Armstrong when he was accused of using performance enhancing drugs mostly because his own reporting turned up no evidence to prove the allegations.  When Armstrong finally admitted he did indeed use the drugs after many years of denial (he confessed in January 2013), Reilly wrote, “Armstrong had spent 14 years polishing a legend that turned out to be plated in fool’s gold.”

     As for Team Hoyt, through March 2016, they had competed in 1,130 endurance events including 72 marathons and six Ironman Triathlons.  They ran in 32 Boston Marathons with their last one together in March of 2014.  They had been about a mile from the end of the 2013 race when two bombs exploded near the finish line.  A bystander with an SUV transported them back to their hotel and neither were injured.  From 2015 to 2019, dentist Bryan Lyons took Dick’s place on Team Hoyt but unfortunately he died in June 2020 at the age of 50.  Rick’s mother passed away in 2010 and Dick died in his sleep on March 17, 2021 at the age of 80.  Rick Hoyt succumbed to complications with his respiratory system at his assisted living home on May 22, 2023.  Rick was 61 at the time of his passing.  More information about Team Hoyt and their foundation at

     One last nugget – the title of Reilly’s book as he explained it in the Foreword:  “Hate Mail from Cheerleaders.  When, I first started writing the Sports Illustrated column every week, I did one on cheerleading.  I said, ‘Cheerleading isn’t a sport!  There are 10 or 11 sports for girls at every high school.  If you want to play a sport, get in between the lines and play a real sport!  But wearing a circle skirt and a tight sweater and facing away from the field going ‘2-4-6-8’ is not a sport.’  Well, this went over like anthrax brownies.  We broke a record for hate mail on it, but hate mail from cheerleaders really isn’t bad at all.  It’s sort of like getting pelted with rolls of scented Charmin.  It’s always on pastel paper and usually includes a picture of the squad, and they write, ‘I hope you die’ with a little hear over the i.”  And now (if I may be so bold as to borrow a catch phrase from another American treasure, Paul Harvey), you know (at least part of) the rest of the story.  

     *This article was begun before the great Aaron Rogers Trade Drama was resolved on April 25, 2023.  Thankfully, Wisconsin sportswriters can now begin talking about next season without branching off into yet another round of ‘will he go, won’t he stay, where will he go, what will they get for him’ (etc, etc, etc) drama that has permeated all things Packers for the last two years.  Seems a strange legacy, to follow the Brett Farve trail to New York, but I will not say any more than that.  I won’t even speculate if Aaron will also end up wearing purple after the green. I would, however, be interested in reading Reily’s take on the whole story.


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