For years, Rick Reilly owned the back page of Sports Illustrated. His column, which predated the current Point After, was called Life Of Reilly, and the short pieces were always either funny ("Ten Travails of Tiger Woods," for example, this before Tiger actually had any travails) or feel good ("The Biggest Play of His Life" about the high school football captain who came out of the closet to unanimous team support). Sometimes they were both. Sometimes SI gave Rick more space than the back page and his essays were allowed to be funny and feel good and something more, as on March 31st, 1997, when Reilly wrote "Need a Fourth?" about former NFL star O.J. Simpson, suspected murderer of the mother of his children and golf addict, post-acquittal, now banned from his tony country club, hanging around the Rancho Park Public Golf Course in Los Angeles, trying to scare up a game. “Three players will be waiting for the fairway to clear,” Reilly wrote, “ waiting to hit their first drives of the day…when the starter will crackle over the public address system, “Sending a single to join you.”
With a few notable exceptions, in University English and Literature Departments in America (which have ceased to be about English and Literature at all) anyone who is knowledgeable or enthusiastic about sports is widely pitied. It is okay to utter a sentence like “Manchester United can beat Arsenal to get back on top” or anything else sporty that can be said in a British accent. In some academic circles it is even okay to like the Boston Red Sox, or at least it was, until they began winning, and spending more money than God on players, and changing their image from long suffering symbol of the striving proletariat masses into a super efficient cog in the machine of the Man. But if you actually own season tickets to the Denver Broncos. If you make it a point to go to Phoenix for Cactus League baseball every spring break. If you once got your nose broken by a punch delivered by a young man in a Saint Louis Blues cap when you were both sitting behind Patrick Roy’s goal in the third period of a late season home game that had playoff ramifications for your Colorado Avalanche, just because you tried to school him in away-fan-etiquette, it is best to keep that information out of the mail room chatter.
According to Reilly, in 2007, O.J. Simpson was a pleasant, if emotionally charged presence on the public course where he played at least one round a day without fail, described by the plumbers and contractors who welcomed him as a fourth as polite, gentle, and warm. He got no preferential treatment there; if he wanted a tee time his options were to call the computerized system at 5 a.m. a week before and be put on hold for over an hour, or just show up and put his name on the singles list. When Reilly asked one of guys who wound up playing with O.J. semi-regularly, ad salesman Ken Smitely, what his wife thought of him playing with the Juice, Ken thought for a moment and said, “let’s put it this way: Your wife isn’t going to like every friend you have.”
When I have tried to explain my love of sports to my creative writing colleagues, (and only, ever, to the ones I genuinely like) I use all the predictable arguments. Copious amounts of narrative tension. Multiple layers of understory. Ever changing probability and outcome. Think Bob Costa’s coverage of the Olympics. Think of the 1997 Broncos, who entered the playoffs as a wildcard, and beat team after team in a series of away games that led to them besting Brett Favre’s Packers in Super Bowl thirty-two. Think of Favre, the heavy favorite, unable to overcome his life-long hero worship of Elway, and Elway, winning his first Super Bowl in this storied career’s penultimate season after three Super Bowl losses in the days when he was younger, stronger, healthier, but not nearly as smart. Think of A-Rod, who got paid more money this year than the entire Houston Astros baseball team NOT to play baseball. People who hate sports believe them to be simple. Sports can be a lot of things, many of them unsavory (violent, greed-driven, sexist, racist) but if you take the time to know anything about them, simple is one thing they are not.
O.J.’s life, in 1997, however, was oddly pared down. He couldn’t get a job, a book deal, endorsements or public speaking gigs. His house was in the process of being sold and he was considering moving to Florida, but Florida didn’t much want him either. In one of the most brilliant moments in the essay, Reilly called him “a human unplayable lie.” Juice described himself at the time as having zero net worth, making “just enough money to play new golf balls. “If I didn’t have golf,” he told Reilly, “I’d be in Bellevue.” So he teed up, once, sometimes twice a day, and passed a little more time flirting with twenty-somethings in the Rancho bar. One young woman told Reilly that O.J. asked her if she believed in “love at seventh sight,” and she said “ O.J., if I went out with you, my parents would kill me, my girlfriends would kill me, and then you’d kill me. And then where would I be?” Everyone was relieved when O.J. laughed. According to Reilly, the former running back was even known to tell the occasional O.J. joke on himself. His favorite: “O.J. and AL Cowlings are in the Bronco, and O.J. is pissed. He goes, ‘I said Costa Rica, mother ----! Not Costa Mesa!’”
Rick Reilly, who has published ten books of essays and been voted National Sports Writer of the year eleven times still gets asked—to his constant irritation--when he is going to get out of sports and write about something that matters. At Invesco Field at Mile High, when the Broncos play—well anyone, really, but lets say the New England Patriots, and Tom Brady hurls a pass thirty yards in the air to his big tight end Gronkowski, and Gronkowski takes his eye off the ball for only a second and the ball tumbles to the field on a third and eleven, uncaught, and the announcer says, “And Tom Brady’s pass to Rob Gronkowski is…,“ 75,002 people will shout, in unison, “IN-COM-PLETE!” I don’t know too many situations where you could get 75.002 people to do anything simultaneously—though plenty of nefarious possibilities (HEIL HITLER!) jump quickly to mind, and while it would be cool if instead of IN_COM_PLETE they said, ADDRESS CLIMATE CHANGE or FEED THE HUNGRY, the sheer force and volume and regularity (every time an opponent drops a pass) of the chant means that at least to some people, sports matters a great deal.
“If you can talk sports,” my father used to tell me, “you can talk to just about anyone.” And while my decision to pursue a career in the arts has proven plenty of exceptions to that statement, I can attest to the truth of it in this slightly amended form: “Since I can talk about sports, I have something to talk about with all the people with whom I don’t have something else to talk about.” To this day, one of my greatest pleasures is to go into a sports bar and make everyone I am talking to forget I am a girl.
When Reilly asked OJ, back in 1997, how he felt about spending his days with a “bunch of plumbers with loops in their backswing and Pabst Blue Ribbon in their golf bags,” Juice said, “Its my life now. It could be worse.” And he was right, it could and would be worse. Significantly. Currently, the 1968 Heisman Trophy winner is serving a 9-33 year sentence in the Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada for kidnapping and assault he committed in 2008 when one imagines, daily golf on a public course had stopped being enough.
What makes an essay stay inside a person—with uncanny accuracy—for sixteen years, especially a person like me who reads constantly? Precision, humor, the unexpected turn, the suggestion of depth under a rich, well made surface. Rick Reilly’s "Need a Fourth?" has become part of my inner lexicon for all of these reasons, and also because I love the super sly way it gets at the heart of what it means to be an American. And by that I don’t mean O.J.’s super-funded acquittal, or his series of mistakes in Vegas that followed. I’m thinking instead of those good old boys out on the browning, poorly trimmed public course, guys who work hard for forty or fifty or sixty hours a week for an indecent wage and finally make it to the first tee and look up through the coastal fog to see the disgraced hero who is about to join them, a bunch of guys, who Reilly points out, “if given the choice between playing and not playing…would tee it up with Mussolini.” Soon the four of them will be talking about three woods and nine irons, the hole in one somebody shot straight out of the bunker on 13, that time they got to play Spanish Links at Pebble Beach and their wives went along and filmed the whole thing. “From what I’ve seen of him, I don’t think he could take the mother of his children.” Smitely told Reilly one day after O.J. shot a 76. And on one March morning, in 1997, maybe sports could be as simple as that.
Pam Houston’s most recent book is Contents May Have Shifted, published in 2012. She is also the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, the novel, Sight Hound, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton. She is Professor of English at UC Davis, directs the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers and teaches in The Pacific University low residency MFA program and at writer’s conferences around the country and the world. She lives on a ranch at 9,000 feet in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.