Rick Telander played for Northwestern’s football team from 1968 to 1971 but is more famous for what he did after he left the gridiron. He joined Sports Illustrated as a sports writer in 1973, wrote the bestseller Heaven is a Playground in 1976 and went on to have an illustrious career that featured many successful books, more reporting and writing for SI and his current job as a columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times.
We sat down with Telander to discuss his memories of his time at Northwestern, his career that followed and what he expects will happen to college football this season.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Inside NU: What were your playing days at Northwestern like?
Telander: I went to high school in Peoria and got recruited as a quarterback, but I knew I wasn’t going to play quarterback because even though I was a good quarterback, I wasn’t a good thrower. I only played the position one year, and my coach only put me there because we didn’t have anybody else who could do it. So after being on the freshman team the first year [at Northwestern], as a sophomore in 1968 I was a wide receiver, a bomb squad guy. Didn’t get to play a lot, caught three or four passes the whole year. Then came junior year, and for whatever reason, coach [Alex Agase] decided to move me to defensive back, and I didn’t say anything about it. Stuck there for the next two years, then got drafted by the Chiefs in the eighth round of the NFL Draft. Made it through training camp, but then got axed pretty early, which was actually a blessing in disguise.”
INU: Do you think that being a student-athlete at in college helped you in covering college athletics as a reporter and writer later on?
Telander: It helped me immensely. It’s not that others couldn’t do it, or that you have to have played the game to cover it, but just to know the little details about the game can help with understanding a player, knowing what that player is doing and has been through even if you don’t see it. It’s a common touchstone of having played the game, which, no matter how much it changes, it can’t change too much. So, yeah, I think it helps a lot.
INU: Is it true that coming out of Northwestern you wrote all your stories by hand rather than typewriter?
Telander: That’s absolutely true. I wrote my first book, Heaven is a Playground, longhand on 600 pages with a pencil, and I still have it. I wrote my second book on the New York Jets [Joe Namath and the Other Guys] that way too. Typing was hard, man. You had to deal with a typewriter, and you had to hit those things really hard. My first stories for Sports Illustrated, even in a press box, I sometimes wrote by hand. I would then give it to this kid Lance, and he would go run it through a Western Union thingamajig and then get it to New York. I couldn’t type then, and theoretically, I would say that I still can’t because anybody can do it on a keyboard.
INU: Even though you were a football player at Northwestern, a lot of your career has been spent covering basketball. In the past you’ve said that you’ve always had a fascination with basketball. What about the sport makes it special to you?
Telander: What makes basketball special is the ease with which it can be played. By yourself, one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three, five-on-five, full court, half court, any place and everywhere. I’ve also always like the team aspect of basketball. In most sports, you do one thing or the other. In baseball, nobody pitches except the pitcher. In football, nobody throws except the quarterback, but in basketball, everybody does everything. You all pass, dribble, shoot and have to defend. There’s no designated hitters, or offensive and defensive players, and that’s what I think is very cool about that.
INU: In a piece for Sports Illustrated a few years ago, you said this about Northwestern, “Am I supposed to plant the purple flag and stand by it? It’s a wonderful university and has greater responsibilities. Maybe I just hold it to a higher standard.” What did you mean by that?
Telander: I do hold Northwestern to a higher standard. We all know that it’s a different university than the others in the Big Ten. [It’s a] small, private, and really elite in terms of education. People almost always need some kind of assistance, and that’s the thing that’s most important with this — the students you’re with. That’s what I thought about when I sent my four kids to college. One went to the Ivy League, one went to University of Richmond, which is a good school, but it really doesn’t matter where the hell you go. The education is there. But at Northwestern, there’s the benefit of already having sifted through [the applicants] and taking the top students. The people you’re with, in general, are over-achievers, and whatever they’re doing, they’re going to work hard to achieve it, and that pushes you to work hard too. So yes, I do hold Northwestern to a higher standard.
INU: In another old story for SI, when asked if you’d want to go back to the New York playgrounds for a writing opportunity, you said that you wouldn’t want to do the same story but that you might be interested in doing a version of Heaven is a Playground in a foreign country. Do you still have motivation to do that, especially with the increased popularity of basketball in countries outside of America?
Telander: If the opportunity presented itself and somebody said, ‘Hey, Rick, you want to go to Ghana,’ or some other undeveloped country like that especially in Africa, then I’d consider that. I would also want to write about a place where the players aren’t that skilled. Rafe Bartholomew wrote a book about basketball in the Philippines, and even though most people there are shorter [on average], they really love basketball. I thought that was really cool. But who knows, maybe there’s something in Antarctica with the first full gym in the polar ice caps? I’d want to write about that.”
INU: There’s a lot of concerns about the pandemic and how college sports (particularly football) will be able to go on this next academic year. Do you think that college football should be played this fall given the situation?
Telander: That is a question that I wish I had an answer to. Nobody should risk their life, but I was also thinking, what if COVID is just going to be a part of our daily lives from now on? We’re counting on a vaccine, but we don’t know if that will happen. Maybe we just have to live with it. Maybe some teams will just have to say that 20 players on their roster can’t play this week because they’re all in quarantine. I mean, I wish I could give a quick answer, but it seems like young people don’t get it that badly. We don’t know so much of this stuff, but it is true that 18-to-22-year-olds have a low mortality rate. I read a statistic, I think from Johns Hopkins, that said only 125 out of the 120,000 deaths in the United States have been 15 to 24-year-olds. If that’s the really the case, then I’d say we should play. I’m not comparing it to the flu, but we’ve come to live with the flu every year, and that kills 40,000-50,000 people every year, and no one freaks out about it. If I had to make a decision for tomorrow, I don’t know what I’d say, I honestly don’t. Overall, I think my response would be that they should try to do it, but they should be ready to pull the plug at any moment.
INU: If you could give one piece of advice to current student-athletes, especially Northwestern athletes, what would it be?
Telander: You only get one chance to do this. There’s no other chance. Maybe you play in the pros, but that’s not much of a career anyways, so you should just go all out and do it. But also, as you’re doing that, always keep your health in mind. I’ve got real memories of little things that happened to me in football that I still deal with 50 years later, and I deal with them every day. So do it and go all in, but also take care of your health and mind, and remember that football isn’t going to last. Do it, but but make sure you get an education, and that doesn’t even mean go to class. I didn’t go to class a whole lot, but I figured out how to get a really good education by reading all the books and writing all the papers.