A People with Passion series
August 18, 2011: Rick Telander
If you know Chicago sports and Chicago sportswriting, chances are you know Rick Telander. After a four-year football career at Northwestern University, Telander became one of the nation’s best-known, most-respected sportswriters in 1976 following the publication of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Heaven Is a Playground, a book that began in 1973 as a feature for Sports Illustrated. He rejoined the Chicago scene in 1985 as a member of the wonderful Sportswriters On TV program, and then came to the Sun-Times as a columnist in 1995.
In this People with Passion interview from August 18, 2011, Rick talks with Jack about the effects of reading Dr. Seuss as a boy, his love of adventures, how not to be a cynic, and the beauty of sport at the highest level.
As I was learning to read, Dr. Seuss blew my mind. It was the first time that I felt an adult understood what a kid might like. Nobody else did. You’re reading Dick and Jane, “See Spot go,” this boring shit that would make anybody fall asleep in school, and then you read Dr. Seuss and it’s like, “This is so cool, man. Give me another book!”
This guy was awesome. Yertle the Turtle, The Cat in the Hat, Bartholomew Cubbins and the Oobleck. I wish I could name all the ones I had, but I had to get them out of the library because we didn’t own very many books then. If you got one, it would be a big present. I’d go to the library quite often and get a lot of Dr. Seuss books. The idea that adults understood kids – some adults, one adult – made me realize that there was a possibility of understanding what other people might like outside yourself. And if you wrote about what you liked, maybe somebody else would like that too, and you’d get that moment, that greatest moment that any reader feels, that little smile on your face as you say, “Yeah, that writer said something exactly the way I would have said it if I could have just thought of it.” I feel this bonding, this connection that is so cool that we’ve all felt. It’s wonderful.
One of the big lessons you learn as a writer is how to keep your audience in mind. It seems like whenever you start to slip away from that, there’s somebody in life – either it’s a reader, an editor, one of your buddies – who says, “Who are you writing for?”
Did reading Dr. Seuss and knowing “This is an adult writing for kids,” did that influence your perspective on how to reach your audience and how to keep your readers in mind?
You know, it might have. I’ve never put that much thought into that part of it, but I think it’s probably true. I also thought that if this is an adult writing this stuff, he’s got to be writing it for himself too. It was the first time I realized that an adult could think like a kid, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with continuing to think like a kid. Not childishly, but childlike. I think that has to do with the delight that he took in words…
I don’t want to write and not have somebody read it. I just don’t. Emily Dickinson didn’t mind. I find that fascinating. And I can understand it. You want to express yourself so deeply that you don’t care if other people are reading because you need to get that out. Where that creative process merges with journalism is the key area to me. If you can find that place where you’re expressing yourself and you’re really getting out what you have inside of you, whatever that animal is, and you’re doing it with facts, and you’re doing it with the ability to have other people come along and enjoy it, that to me is the epitome, the glory of good journalism.
Plus the adventure of it. I was always an adventure guy. I love adventures. I wanted adventures. I went on adventures. I climbed trees. I read The Wind and the Willows. Toad and his buddies getting in their motorcar and taking off across the countryside was fascinating to me. The adventure. The travel. The journey.
There can be great adventure in journalism. Just as there can be great adventure in sitting alone in a chair and writing, letting your mind travel. I wanted my body to travel too. Being able to write about adventures, you have everything. You had the adventure, and then you had the ability to communicate it. What could be better? That was the genesis – that’s how it started.
I kept a diary starting from when I was maybe fifteen. I’d like to find some of those. And I did keep one all through college, and then when I was hitchhiking. I kept diaries. I had one – but I wasn’t one of these guys sitting at home dying to write. I was fidgety. I wanted to be out doing stuff.
Did you write at all at the Daily Northwestern?
I wrote a couple of columns at the very end of my senior year when I was done playing sports. David Israel was there, he was the sports editor – he’s an old friend of mine – and we’d shoot the shit. I said, “Dave, can I write something for the Daily Northwestern?” I was very intimidated, because I had no training. And he said, “Yeah.” I wrote them in long hand, and he typed them. (Laughs.) So he probably has, somewhere, the first things I wrote for publication. I wrote maybe three, four, five columns in the Daily Northwestern. That was the first time I ever got published, and I couldn’t even look at them. I was like, (makes disgusted sound). That’s the other thing – this aversion to my own words once they’re written. I don’t know what it is. I don’t like to read ‘em.
It was considered very weird back then. Now everybody tweets. I was, in a way, one of the original tweeters in that I wanted to write about the team. I asked our coach if I could write about the team during the season, and he said absolutely no way. None. God no. Wouldn’t be allowed to say anything about anything. It would have been heresy. I was still on scholarship, but I was writing about football and my experiences at Northwestern. I think a lot of players thought, Kind of weird. I didn’t get any encouragement – I’ll put it that way. People might say, “I saw your column in the Daily Northwestern.” “Yeah?” And that was the end of the conversation. Not like, Boy are you a writer, man. You’re gonna win a Pulitzer. (Laughs.) Nothing like that. Even though they might have been pretty good. I read one of them ten years ago and it wasn’t bad. But that’s looking back on it forty years later.
I figure if I’m a sportswriter, I had better respect the game, and I had better respect the athletes, because if I don’t then I’m just a complete cynic. You don’t want to cover politics if you absolutely hate politics. I like seeing the human side of people, the good side of people if it’s there. The thing that’s happened in my career – I started writing, and people didn’t know what had happened in the game. They hadn’t seen the game, they hadn’t heard the game, nobody knew about the game that I was describing or where the event was coming from. Now they know more about the game than I do because they can be more wired in.
It’s a real disadvantage to be at the game now. A real disadvantage. You can have high-definition TV the size of a wall, you can be online, you can be tweeting, you can be picking up all the tweets from players, fans, you can get all the interviews in the locker room, you can get all the replays. You get everything. Back in the day, there was a lot more describing of what happened, and telling people what they haven’t seen. Now, since they’ve seen it all, we’ve had to go to another mode, and that’s more analysis – a lot more analysis – what we think about things. I’ve become a lot more opinionated. I’ve had to. We’ve all had to if you’re in this business, because we have to offer something that the reader hasn’t seen or heard, which is very little.
In the old days, it would be me writing about this Miami scandal, telling them everything that happened and being really detailed. I gave them some details today, because people ultimately get overwhelmed by information, and now they want a synthesis. Back in the old days you weren’t giving them the synthesis, you were giving them the broader view. So if that synthesis and being more opinionated means that sometimes you’re being more aggressive and in attack mode, then I think that’s the way it is. I don’t need to tell them about the beauty of a 430-foot home run. In the old days, you used to do that.
But you still do that. I’m reminded of a column you wrote after the Devin Hester – Adrian Peterson game in ’07. Hester had the punt return and 81-yard touchdown catch, Peterson killed us with 224 and three scores. The Bears lost on a last second field goal, and you wrote, you know, “Throw out the scores. This was one for the ages.” I felt like you were really tapped into the majesty of what we all had watched – you weren’t thinking about the standings or the numbers.
No. And I don’t know if people liked that. See, that’s the thing. I figured a lot of people would say, “Oh come on. I don’t like that. What are you talking about?”
It’s funny you bring that up – I feel compelled to talk about things when I see them as being transcendent. After all, if you’re covering music and you hate every singer, and you hate Jim Morrison because he was a drug addict, and you hate Amy Winehouse because she killed herself, and you’re never going to listen to the actual song or the music and you don’t feel some splendor there, then why are you in it? You’re just a complete cynic.
The beauty you see on the field and in the swimming pool and all the different sports is magnificent. It’s why they carved statues in the old days honoring athletes. They brought in the discus thrower – it’s beautiful. The physical body is beautiful. And sport is a beautiful thing. Teamwork is a beautiful thing. And then afterwards you can say, “Well, this guy is the biggest jerk in the world.”
I mean, Carlos Zambrano has thrown some of the most beautiful pitches I’ve ever seen. And you can talk about that up to a point, and then you have to move on. But I never forget that these people are better at this than you or I or all the other critics. I always have that little credo that, “It’s easy to sit back and criticize. It’s very hard to be in the arena.” The real authority comes from those who have chosen to risk everything by being out there. Everybody’s a critic. Safest thing in the world.
I think the actual idea of the sportswriter or sports columnist will disappear. We have the citizen journalists, and they can synthesize their own thoughts almost as well as we can now, we journalists. A radio host has his format because he’s got radio airwaves. We still have a printing press at the Sun-Times. But other than that we have nothing that nobody else can’t have. We don’t. You want to broadcast? You want to do a blog? You want to have a podcast? Do it. You can print your own books, and if you want to be online and write about the same column that I’m going to write for tomorrow, you can theoretically reach everybody in the world.
It’s never been available in the history of mankind. That’s how big a change this is. So why do you need somebody who is doing what was being done all the way back to when the first printing press came out, where you had an expert telling you this stuff? I’m no more an expert on this stuff than anybody else. My expertise now, and I’m relying on it more and more, is that I’m old, which is wonderful. I have memories and interviews and files of me sitting down with Roger Maris and Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle in a bar together – you’re never going to get that. That’s the key to my knowledge.
I’m using the techniques and materials that have been there in my business for, I’ve got to say, 200 years. Type, print, paper. And I still feel I’m writing for a paper. I’m not writing for online. I don’t think online. When I start thinking online, I’ll write in a different way, I’m sure.
You know Ebert has done such a great job at giving himself a second life and a new career with the Internet.
Amazing. He was driven to it because of his disability, but he’s like Stephen Hawking. Technology can make you complete, which is the beauty of it. It can help somebody who’s had a stroke. It can give you a voice. Some day it will give you sight. It’s trumping evolution. Babies that are feeble or deformed, they don’t die now. People who are injured or wounded or had a stroke don’t die. In the old days, the lion would get you. And then the lion with the broken leg would get eaten by the hyenas, and so on. In the old days, that’s evolution.
Well, the evolution that’s occurring now is in technology. Somebody like Ebert who wants to communicate has found more ways to communicate than he’s ever had. He lost one form, his voice, but he’s found multiple more in that he can now be a filmmaker, he has a writing voice that can reach anybody, and they even have captured his own voice so that he can speak. My god, the possibilities are endless.
Technology’s working so fast that I try to stop anticipating where it’s going and just do what I do right now without nearly as much thought as I was giving it four or five years ago. Ten years ago. Actually, I was gonna get all the sports columnists around the country together – I had the logo, I bought “Sportswriters.com” – a group that was going to include Mitch Albom, [Mike] Lupica, [Dan] LeBetard, Art Teal in Seattle, [J.A.] Adande in L.A. and Tim Cowlishaw in Dallas – all my friends all over the country, and we would be a sportswriters’ Internet. Exactly what ESPN does now, but I couldn’t figure out the technology – didn’t know how to sell ads, didn’t know how to do that stuff. The idea was there. That was 13 years ago, started working on that.
That’s part of my job now, trying to figure out how to sell ads. Because if I want to sell a freelance series to somebody and I want to get paid on it –
Yeah, that’s the whole deal. Because how are you going to monetize it? Who is going to pay me? Knowing that, I think about it less, and just try to do what I used to do. I’m going to ride this pony until it goes off the cliff, the newspaper business. I’m in it, I can’t change it, I can’t do anything about it. When it goes it goes. I’m just working on writing, probably more than ever. I’m thinking about the process, and instead of trying to figure out the future I’m trying to figure out how to write better every day. I’ve simplified things rather than worrying about where the hell this thing’s going.
I love finding out what I think about something. And I don’t know until I write it. Honest to god. My columns never turn out the way I thought they were going to. And I think, “Why?” Well, one thought led to the next. I love that part of it. I love the idea of translating creative abilities into the printed word. I believe in the printed word, and I’ll go down with it. The coal furnace is gone, the printed word may go. It’s too late for me. I believe in it, I love it. That’s my skill and my craft, that’s my passion.
And I still love the adventure that I find in the world of sports, a constantly renewing soap opera and drama that has at its root the real course of life. The real flow of life. All the good and bad that you find in life, in people, in history, sociology, psychology – it’s all there in sport. Every bit of it. Look at Carlos Zambrano. What else do you need to know? Look at the steroid era. Look at Jackie Robinson. Look at technology. Look at the swimsuits on the swimmers when all the world records were set three years ago. That was all technology. Politics is there. Every bit of it is in sports, and I love that.
I still see that adventure that I wanted when I was a little kid. It’s corny, but you learn something every day. And I love learning. I love reading, and knowledge, and learning. That to me is what keeps me going every day. And it’s fabulous. It’s wonderful. I’m back to an old typewriter and a piece of paper. Let’s see what you can do.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)
 This interview was conducted on August 18, 2011, when it was widely assumed that Winehouse’s death was drug-related. On August 23, her autopsy revealed that she had “no illegal substances” in her system at her time of death.