A legend moves on, and we are lesser for it

I’ve been influenced by many great writers over the years. It’s important to note that I wrote “influenced” there, because I can’t say with a completely clear conscience that I was ever able to pick up any of their talent or secrets.

As a kid, I was fortunate enough to find the Washington Post on our doorstep every morning, and I was treated to the words of Thomas Boswell, Shirley Povich, Bob Levey, Dan Jenkins and many more. My father, as crazy a sports fan as myself, always got Sports Illustrated delivered to the house, and those pages contained some of the best writing in the world, and I include any genre you could imagine.

Of course, I was reading those items simply for pleasure back then, as I never imagined I’d be doing this for a living. No, no, no. I was going to be the starting catcher for the Baltimore Orioles, or a firefighter, or an official bikini inspector. Hey, I saw it on a T-shirt on the Ocean City boardwalk once, so it must be a real thing, right? I mean, they wouldn’t falsely promote something that...

But I digress.

Regardless, I did indeed find myself gravitating toward a life of the written word, and one of the writers I most admired as a young reporter was Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly. He often wrote these amazing wrap-ups of golf tournaments that made me stop and re-read certain paragraphs because of the beauty of his words. I was truly moved as a reader of Reilly’s work, both for the sheer emotion one could feel from the power of his prose, and the technical perfection of his writing skills.

In 1997, Sports Illustrated put Reilly’s column, “Life of Reilly,” on the back page of the magazine, a spot he would hold until he left for ESPN in 2007. That piece was a regular conversation-starter for my father and I over the years, as Reilly mixed social issues, humor and, sometimes, indignant rage, into his column for a wild ride each week.

And, yeah, we were not alone in enjoying his work. He was voted NSSA National Sportwriter of the Year an astounding 11 times. In 2009, he was the winner of the Damon Runyan Award for Outstanding Contributions to Journalism.

As I mentioned earlier, Reilly often had a bit of a chip on his shoulder when it came to certain issues. I will always remember a column he penned about a con man who took advantage of former Baltimore Colts great John Mackey, as the legendary tight end was suffering from dementia in his later days. He also got himself in the spotlight a bit when former baseball great Sammy Sosa said in an interview that he’d take a drug test if someone offered him one, in light of accusations that Sosa had been taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Reilly showed up at a Cubs game and offered to drive Sosa to a local lab to take a test. Sosa reacted by yelling profanity at him.

When Lance Armstrong was taking heat for alleged performance-enhancing drug use himself, Reilly adamantly defended him and labeled those accusing Armstrong as haters who just wanted to take down a good man to make themselves feel better about their own lives. When Armstrong himself admitted cheating in 2013, Reilly crushed him in an article, saying he had spend 14 years “polishing a legend that turned out to be plated in fool’s gold.”

Perhaps Reilly’s greatest contribution to the world has been his “Nothing But Nets” program. Following a trip to Africa, Reilly was so moved by the rampant cases of malaria killing people across the continent that he started a program where people could buy an anti-malaria net for African children at a cost of $10 each. He wrote his column about it, and steered people to a website where they could make a donation.

I made a donation about five minutes after I finished his column. To date, his effort has raised approximately $45 million, according to numbers provided on their site earlier this week.

Over the past several years, Reilly has been a constant target by Internet trolls, who suggest he has been “mailing it in” the past few years. Perhaps he has lost a step over the years, as all of us do, but Reilly one step slower is still better than most at full speed.

On Tuesday, ESPN.com published Reilly’s last column, as he is stepping away from print work to spend more time with his family and do more traveling. He will continue to provide some commentary for the network, but at his own schedule. He’s earned it.

Enjoy your new lifestyle, sir. And thanks for the memories.