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Leatherheads, and Rick Reilly worship

John Krasinski (The Office) and George Clooney (Good Night, And Good Luck) pay homage to the roaring 20s and the birth of professional football. Photo: AP


MOVIE REVIEW: Leatherheads (with quick Rick Reilly diversion)

When I was 13 years old, I wanted to be Magic Johnson.

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I'd throw no-look passes that would bounce off my friends' faces, and I'd practice shooting baby hooks in my driveway long after the sun had slipped behind the Rocky Mountains. Occasionally the neighbors complained about the dull thud of the basketball clanging off the rim, but my parents understood. When my father called me, as an eighth grader, to tell me that Magic was about to hold a press conference to announce he was HIV-positive, I wept in my kitchen.

But when I was 17, I wanted to be Rick Reilly. He wasn't Magic Johnson, but he had written about Magic and so many other athletes in the pages of Sports Illustrated in a way that made me understand -- even if I couldn't articulate it yet -- that words, and the way certain people can arrange them on the page, would shape the rest of my life.

There are literally hundreds (maybe thousands) of 30-something men like me, ones for whom Reilly was the gateway drug to The Writing Life. If you were to survey Creative Writing programs across the country, you'd likely discover an inordinate amount of bad fiction inspired by J.D. Salinger, but it would pale in comparison to the amount of clunky prose that has made its way into America's newspapers penned by sports writers who were trying to mimic Reilly's style and cadence.

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I know because I authored some of it. Covering a women's collegiate soccer blowout at age 21 for my local paper in Montana, I summed up a scoring spree by writing that the home team had "found the back of the net more often than a school of nearsighted tuna."

A scrambling quarterback had enough "toe-tapping fakes and jukes to fill the average James Brown concert."

A basketball team in red uniforms that distributed the ball unselfishly was "sharing the wealth in a way that would have made Karl Marx proud."

To me, Reilly was the epitome of cool, a witty, wise-cracking scribe who also understood the power of pathos. (Check out this column he wrote when his mom died. Still one of my favorites.) His gifts had been shaped by digesting countless pages of Damon Runyon and Jim Murray, and I dreamed that mine would blossom by studying him. Guys didn't get beat up in Reilly's stories. They were turned into "six feet of lumps." Athletes who never backed down and fought through pain were "tougher than an eight dollar steak."

"If there ever was a better golfer than Jack Nicklaus," Reilly wrote when Jack won his sixth green jacket in 1986, "then Woody Allen can dunk."

Like all first loves, my infatuation faded with the onset of time. I discovered different writers who stirred different parts of my soul, which was good, because countless newspaper editors had taken the delete button to my Reilly-inspired prose. It's better to tone it down, they explained, than overwrite. Besides, we don't allow similes.

In silence, I steamed. (Like a pot of Chesapeake blue crabs in a restaurant kitchen!!!)

I thought a lot about all this yesterday as I sat, alone, in a dark theater and watched a showing of Leatherheads, a movie directed by, and starring, George Clooney about the origins of professional football. The screenplay was written -- some 17 years ago -- by Duncan Brantley and Reilly when both were working at Sports Illustrated. (Read the SI story that inspired the screenplay here.) Clooney apparently rewrote much of the script, taking his own delete button to much of Reilly's dialog and prose, and was so annoyed that the Writer's Guild of America wouldn't allow him to share a writing credit on the film, he withdrew from the union. 

Despite the rewrites, I can still sense a lot of Reilly in the project. Runyon -- who wrote the short stories that became the inspiration for the Broadway play "Guys and Dolls -- would be proud. When Clooney's character, Dodge Connolly, a grizzled but charming football player who is trying to keep afloat the sputtering professional league, tells sassy reporter Lexi Littleton (Renée Zellweger) that he is kind of a ladies man back in Duluth, Minnesota, Lexi fires back "Isn't that like being known as the world's tallest midget?"

Every sportswriter worth his (or her) salt knows that line well. It sums up our profession in the most lovable, self-deprecating manner we can muster. "World's Tallest Midget" was even the title of Frank Deford's first collection of journalism, a collection that sits on the shelves of everyone from Reilly down to, well, me. 

Set in the 1920s when prohibition drove the night life underground, Leatherheads is full of whimsical exchanges that would probably feel more at home on the stage than on the screen. It's the kind of movie that's clever, yet sentimental. I doubt it will play all that well with a generation raised on snark like Blades of Glory.

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That said, it's a bit too safe at times. It's a good sports film, though not a great one. It entertains, but takes no big risks. Clooney's plan to save professional football involves convincing Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski), a war hero and gridiron star at Princeton, to play for the Duluth Bulldogs, a team compiled of coal miners and factory workers always teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Littleton is the rosy-cheeked, acid-tongued reporter dispatched by the Chicago Tribune to see if there is any dirt underneath Rutherford's squeaky-clean image.

There's a love story, a chase scene, and a few wacky brawls in smoky gin joints. (My favorite scene in the film ends with two bruised and battered parties singing "Over There" around the piano after a drunken melee.) There's a shady rich businessman determined to get his money, an editor demanding that Lexi get her story, and of course, a big football game played in the mud to decide the fate of it all. Randy Newman composes a beautiful score. Reilly even makes a cameo as a radio color man, hiding behind glasses worthy of Jim Murray and a mustache that is classic Frank Deford. 

In various interviews this week, Reilly has said he didn't mind at all that Clooney reworked most of the script that he and Brantley penned, or that the ending was changed. It was impossible to be disappointed, he said, because right in front of him, here were characters he invented, playing in a stadium he conjured up in his head, finally alive on the big screen. It might not have been perfect, but that was OK, because a small dream of his had finally come to life.

I understood the sentiment. A few years ago, I was dispatched by the Sun to Denver to cover Maryland in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament. I have not quite become Rick Reilly -- who was writing for Sports Illustrated by the time he was 27 -- but I am luckier than most. I was having lunch at a bar not far from the Pepsi Center, and I was the only person in the place, until the door opened and in strolled Rick Reilly. He sat down at the bar and ordered a cobb salad. I sat there in silence staring at my chicken sandwich.

I should have walked up to him, offered to buy him a drink, or at the very least, told him how his writing had changed the direction of my life. (Without sportswriting, I never would have met my wife.) But I did not. He could not have lived up to the person I had built him up to be, way back when I was 19 and walking into the student newspaper office with a wrinkled resume in one hand, Sports Illustrated in the other. In a way, that moment was enough. Two sportswriters, wearing similar press badges, killing time in a dark, musky gin joint, waiting for the same game.

Like Leatherheads, it wasn't perfect, but that was fine.

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A small dream of my own had finally come to life.


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