It's the subject's considered opinion that this story would be
more appropriately placed in a music magazine, under the byline
of a music writer who had stumbled upon the astonishing fact that
years ago, the subject had made his living by bushwhacking
quarterbacks and throttling ballcarriers. That opinion isn't
without merit. Football has receded so far into Mike Reid's past
that it no longer even appears as a pinpoint in his rearview
mirror, having been obliterated by the miles of an ongoing
musical journey. Consider: The number of former NFL Pro Bowlers
who can identify Wallace Stevens as a major American poet would
be small; the number who have read Stevens's Thirteen Ways of
Looking at a Blackbird would be smaller still; the number who
have used the poem as a centerpiece for a critically acclaimed
piece of chamber music is a set of one.
It's not true that Reid, who after the 1974 season walked away
from the Cincinnati Bengals and a potential Hall of Fame career
as a defensive tackle, had to be dragged kicking and screaming
into cooperating for this story; he merely screamed a little.
At 54 and in decent physical shape despite "garden variety aches
and pains from his football days," the 6'3", 230-pound (25 pounds
lighter than in his last year with the Bengals) Reid is a wary
and restless soul, suspicious of those who dwell on his athletic
past, fed up with, as he says, "the mythologization of the pro
athlete," conditioned to brood about his projects, which include
composing a musical that could make him the toast of Broadway.
(Oh, how he'll hate that expression.) He's a man of strong
opinion and fluctuant disposition, a man whom, as poet Thomas
Gray put it, "melancholy mark'd for her own."
Yet, there's something serene about him, too, something that
makes you want to stay close by as he blows off steam, so you can
watch him cool down and say, in the tone of one accomplished in
self-deprecation, "Am I a pain in the ass or what?" Because, when
it comes down to it, the essential fact of Reid's life is this:
It contains far too much happiness to make him justifiably
miserable. He has a wonderful and supportive family (wife of 21
years, Susan; son, Matthew, 17; and daughter, Caitlin, 13); a
solid group of friends (songwriters, music producers, no former
footballers) that congregate at a terrible Thai restaurant in
Nashville, where Reid lives, because, he says, "we don't deserve
anything better"; and an unquenchable thirst to explore the
deeper parts of his soul through music.
Reid composes and agonizes--not necessarily in that order--in a
tidy studio-office that's a quick down-and-out pattern away from
his suburban home. Most mornings he's there by 6:30, making
coffee and pacing before finally sitting down behind an
electronic keyboard. The studio is cool and dark. A scented
candle sends out the bouquet of inspiration, a small serenity
fountain bubbles a tuneless melody. "I'm facilitating
peacefulness, man," he says to a visitor he has welcomed (sort
of). "It's either that or kill you."
A few plaques bear testament to his success as a commercial
songwriter, but not much else indicates that the occupant has
written more than 20 songs that went to No. 1 on the country
charts; that artists as diverse as Anita Baker, Bette Midler,
Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers have gone to market with his
tunes; that I Can't Make You Love Me, his ballad that appeared on
Bonnie Raitt's Luck of the Draw album, will be raising goose
bumps for the next 100 years; or that he was ASCAP's songwriter
of the year in 1985. A small poster on a wall advertises The
Ballad of Little Jo, the musical, staged in Chicago last year,
for which Reid composed the score, but there's no sign of the
review by The New Yorker's John Lahr proclaiming it "the best
piece of musical storytelling I've seen in a decade." Of course
nothing indicates that the occupant played football. A good
indicator of Reid's priorities is this: Two letters from composer
Stephen Sondheim occupy an honored spot on his bulletin board,
while a photo of Reid sitting with Mickey Mantle is consigned to
the small pantry, hanging hard by the coffee machine.
Reid's current project is composing the score for a Broadway
production of Shane, the celebrated 1953 Hollywood western. He
and lyricist Sarah Schlesinger (with whom he collaborated on
Little Jo) were hired last fall by the hottest man on Broadway,
Rocco Landesman, lead producer behind The Producers. Landesman
saw Little Jo, and, like the Bengals scout who watched Reid
nimbly fly by blockers on his way to winning the Outland Trophy
as the nation's best interior lineman at Penn State in 1969,
signed him up. "Mike is an incredibly talented composer who had
an idea for [Shane] from the beginning," says Landesman, who
hopes to have the show onstage in late 2002. Reid's interest in
the project is easily explained by the title character, a rugged
and mysterious loner who lives on the fringes of society.
Reid is writing much of Shane in his head during solitary walks
around Radnor Lake, a nature preserve near his house, "hearing
the sounds of the show, trying to get into the skin of the
characters." You can extend the Reid-Shane comparison a bit, but
not too far, for one could hardly imagine the character Alan Ladd
plays on the screen sitting at a piano, spinning out songs and
one-liners, winning over the hearts and minds of lounge lizards
all over the land. That's how Reid began his life after football.
Reid was a two-time All-America at Penn State and a force from
the beginning of his career on the left side of Cincinnati's
defensive line. "Of all the great players I've had here, Mike
Reid remains near the top," says Penn State coach Joe Paterno.
"He was so athletically gifted, I'm not sure he couldn't have
played fullback for me, too."
"What I remember most was that if the offense gave Mike just the
narrowest gap for the smallest amount of time, he was on that
quarterback in a heartbeat," says Tommy Casanova, a three-time
Pro Bowl safety who was Reid's on-the-road roommate from time to
time. "He was absolutely a Hall of Fame-caliber pass rusher and
great against the run, too."
Several theories have been offered over the years to explain why
Reid--an undersized but cat-quick left defensive tackle who was
All-Pro in four of his five NFL seasons--suddenly told the Bengals
he was walking away. It has been said that he was worried he
would injure his hands and be unable to play the piano--not true.
It has been said that he had grown disenchanted with the violence
of the game--not true. It has been said that three knee operations
(two on his left, one on his right) had severely slowed him--only
partly true. Reid, expressing the hope that it "doesn't sound
like pretentious horses---," takes his best shot at an
"I loved football in almost a mythic way," he says. "For me the
game wasn't grounded in reality. It was about the uniform you put
on that turned you into a warrior. It was about the mythology of
the battle, the victory, the defeat, the struggle. I looked at
the game in almost dramaturgical terms, and the more I realized
that it was a business without a mythic component, the less I
wanted to play."
Besides, he had something else to do. For five years after his
retirement Reid hit the road, performing in coffeehouses and
roadhouses, building up a reputation as a singer-songwriter and
somewhat of an ivory-tinkling jokester. He may have been a
novelty act at first--"People wanted to come in and hear the
Singin' Tackle," he says--but he got asked back because he was an
accomplished and entertaining musician. One night in 1978,
honky-tonk legend Jerry Jeff Walker heard a tape of Reid's
Eastern Avenue River Railway Blues. Walker recorded it on his
next album. Soon after that a Nashville music publishing company
offered Reid $100 a week to write songs.
So it wasn't the lure of rhinestones or The Grand Ole Opry that
brought Reid to the country music mecca; it was the opportunity
to work in a songwriting environment. "This is a community that
has always held a beautifully crafted song, any kind of song, in
high regard," he says. Indeed, though Reid has had his share of
country hits (he broke through in '83 when Ronnie Milsap recorded
his Inside, and he won a Grammy for another Milsap-recorded tune,
Stranger in My House, that year), he has reached a far wider
audience than most Nashville songwriters. He wrote I Can't Make
You Love Me with three vocalists in mind: Midler, Raitt and Linda
Ronstadt. Raitt turned it into a classic that has sold more than
six million copies as a single.
In the early 1990s Reid toured behind his own albums, Turning for
Home and Twilight Town. He's fond of pooh-poohing his vocal
abilities--pooh-poohing being one of his favorite activities--but
he has a terrific voice, a lyric baritone. When he got off the
road, Reid was restless to push his musical envelope, the natural
course for someone with such diverse influences. As a kid he had
listened to the Righteous Brothers and the Ronettes, yet he
recalls a singular moment when, as a 13-year-old, he had the
"rattling experience" of hearing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. In
college, as others were listening to Hendrix and The Byrds,
Paterno's 1969 music-major co-captain was holed up in his single
room immersed in the works of the 20th century Russian composer
When Reid, by then a Bengal, finally got into Dylan and the
Beatles, he played them obsessively, yet maintained his lifelong
affection for American composers such as Samuel Barber, Aaron
Copland and Walter Piston. Over the last several years Reid has
created an astonishingly diverse body of work: a piece called
Quilts for the Tennessee Dance Theater; various chamber
performance pieces that include a vocal element; a collection
called Prairie Songs for string quartet and chorus; a one-act
opera, Different Fields, that includes the haunting Bright
November Morning; Little Jo; and, now, Shane. "What's unusual
about Mike is his ability to take the drama that's in a
three-minute song and apply it successfully to the drama, the
opera or the musical," says Michael Ching, creative director of
Opera Memphis, with whom Reid worked in writing Different Fields.
"Mike has also shown that people shouldn't be pigeonholed, that
athletes aren't soulless automatons and that classical music
isn't just for geeks."
In a sense that's what Reid has been fighting to prove his entire
life. He frets that some in the musical world still consider him
the eternal Singin' Tackle, while some in the sports world still
consider him the flake who jumped off the glory path to pound on
a piano. "He's got to get over that," says Landesman, "because
everyone in our business realizes he's a serious musician. He
shouldn't care about the others."
To a degree, though, Reid's desire to prove his worthiness, to
constantly reinvent himself as a writer, is what has made him
successful. Deep inside his restless soul, he probably knows
that. As his candle burns and his keyboard sends out a quiet hum
of energy, Reid ponders the road he has taken. "I can't say for
sure if football was good for me," he says. "I have some great
memories, particularly of playing for a man like Joe Paterno. But
what I do know is that the constant in my life has been music.
Music has made my life infinitely better. Music is what it's
always been about. That will never change."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE MCNALLY Noteworthy Reid has won a Grammy and is working on the score of his first Broadway musical.
B/W PHOTO: LANE STEWART Fast cat An Outland Trophy winner with the Nittany Lions, Reid used his quickness to become a star for the Bengals.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE MCNALLY Those Nashville blues He's restless, irascible and prone to melancholy. All in all, it's a good life.
In college Joe Paterno's co-captain was holed up in his room,
immersed in the works of Shostakovich.
He frets that some still consider him the Singin' Tackle. "He's
got to get over that," says Landesman.