Rick Reilly, Polecat, and Me: A Leadville Story
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
Tonight, March 31 the Denver Press Club (DPC) will honor the recipient of the 23rd annual Damon Runyon Award. Each spring, the club chooses a journalist whose vivid writing and storytelling recalls that of Damon Runyon, the legendary newspaper columnist, and reporter. This year, the recipient is David Simon, former Baltimore Sun Journalist and writer of the HBO series “The Wire” and “Treme.”
As the announcement came up on the news feeds this past week, I thought back to the year that I attended the event. So, in tribute to the great storyteller Damon Runyon, here’s a little sports tale about Rick Reilly, Polecat (the-school-bus-driver), and me. It might seem an unlikely combination, but it makes for one hecka of a story.
It was 2009, and the DPC announced that Sportswriter Rick Reilly had won the Damon Runyon Award for Outstanding Contributions to Journalism. For those who may not know, Reilly is a member of the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame. He was voted National Sportswriter of the Year 11 times, spanning a career that began in 1979, taking root in Boulder where he attended The University of Colorado.
Reilly’s a big deal, especially to sports fans, and there are plenty of those in Leadville. So when I had mentioned that I would be attending the event in my new role as the Leadville Trail 100 (LT100)http://www.leadvilleraceseries.com/
Public Relations Manager, sports fanatic and friend, “Polecat” Pollock took interest.
“He’s a good writer,” Polecat stated, handing me his ESPN Magazine that contained one of Reilly’s columns about legendary Broncos’ quarterback John Elway. Maybe I could entice him to write about Leadville, I thought as a read the piece. After all, there were only a few degrees of separation between Reilly and the Leadville races. You see, his good buddy and cycling pro, Lance Armstrong had been defeated in the 2008 LT100 race by not-so-internationally-known cyclist Dave Wiens.
This was Armstrong’s comeback year. Could this David and Goliath story be enough of a lure for Rick Reilly to pick up his pen?
“Do you get to meet him?” Polecat asked. I certainly hoped so, but honestly, I had no idea how accessible this guy was going to be. After all, this is a journalist that USA Today called “the closest thing sports-writing ever had to a rock star.”
That’s why I was a bit surprised when I heard myself say, “Yes, do you want me to have him sign this for you?” I took the magazine, along with the additional burden of a promise to a friend.
Hmmm, I’d better start making a plan, especially since my somewhat late RSVP to the event would most likely have me sitting in the back forty with the “singles,” rather than at one of the Gold Sponsor tables, which were selling for upwards of $5,000 a pop. This Silver City gal was going to have to find a creative way to bring attention to her cause. It had to be something special, something one-of-a-kind, a real attention-getter.
Then it came to me. One afternoon while inventorying the LT100 warehouse of sponsor products provided to racers, my idea blossomed. Among the boxes of Muscle Relief gels, liquid GU, Power Bars, Band-Aids, Breath-right strips and a bunch of old Rolaids, my idea came together. These sports aides would be molded and shaped into one of best Congratulatory gift baskets the sports world had ever seen!
And so the construction of Rick Reilly’s Congratulations-on-the-Damon-Runyon-Award gift basket began. A few glue sticks and craft sessions later, along with a little help from the neighborhood kids, and my creation was finished. Now to see if it would garner the hoped-for results.
After checking into the Denver Marriott, I headed downstairs to the ballroom area to do some intel, you know, get a lay of the land, try to figure out a plan to get this one-of-a-kind gift basket to its recipient.
A quick peak into the ballroom, revealed that not only was my table located in the back forty, it was literally in the last row of an elaborate venue that has a seating capacity of 2,500. And that night, it looked like they’d be using every last chair! The banquet employees were already arranging the place settings. The main stage was sizeable, framed by two gigantic TV screens which would later cycle through a series of corporate logos for those companies that paid for the Gold, Silver and Bronze sponsor levels.
It was definitely a big affair, and starting to overshadow my small, now seemingly humble, Rick Reilly Congratulations-on-the-Damon-Runyon-Award gift basket. Regardless, it was time to make the hand-off and get ready for the evening’s gala.
It was encouraging to see my basket met with such enthusiasm at the Marriott Concierge’s Desk. But as I walked away, it was hard to tell if his interest was genuine, or simply a professional courtesy extended to any guests who show up with a hand-crafted, sponsor-sample bouquet arrangement. Either way, the situation was literally out of my hands, now resting with fate, and a Concierge named Eddie.
I arrived at the ballroom a few minutes before the program started. When I went to take my seat in the very last row, I looked up at the stage and my jaw dropped. Out came the words: “What . . the . . ? I could hardly believe it. Center stage and lit up like a Christmas tree was my Rick Reilly Congratulations-on-the-Damon-Runyon-Award gift basket. I mean, that thing could not have been more front-and-center! Score!
The awards ceremony was a lovely affair, but honestly, I had a hard time focusing as the “rock star of sportswriters” gave his acceptance speech, right next to my basket, beckoning from its podium, and later to become a photo backdrop for many in the room. I literally giggled all through dinner, wondering how in the world my creation had found its way as centerpiece to the event. I mean was it handed off to some banquet captain who took one look at its magnificence and thought, this must be the Runyon Award itself. Or did my well-meaning enthusiast Concierge named Eddie, handle the situation directly after my impassioned speech and $20 tip. I never found out, and to this day, I still don’t know how it happened.
It must be that old magic from The Magic City, I thought as I reached into my purse searching for some post dinner lipstick. Instead, my hands found Polecat’s magazine. Oh yeah, there’s that.
At least now, I felt like I had a good inroad. “Uh, yes, I’m Kathy with the Leadville Trail 100, the group that sent the basket.” But when that time actually came, after waiting patiently as Reilly connected with packs of youth and aspiring journalists, taking the time and energy that any worthwhile leader would, I didn’t that far in my introduction. In fact, once I said the word “Leadville,” Reilly immediately pointed to the basket still on full display.
“Did you make that?” he asked. I nodded yes.
“My wife couldn’t believe it!” So thanks to the woman he calls the Lovely Cynthia – whom I have never met, but is clearly a woman who appreciates a meaningful hand-crafted item – Reilly graciously allowed me a few moments for my LT100 PR pitch. Then I pulled the magazine from my purse.
“Would you mind signing this for a friend?” I asked. Sure, he said quite genuinely. Who should I sign it to? “Polecat,” I said, and without missing a spelling beat he wrote Polecat, at the top of the page with his ever-ready Sharpie. And what should I say? he asked.
What should you say? Wow, I hadn’t even thought about that. Isn’t that your job, as the award-winning writer? Don’t you have some kind of special catch phrases you use during book signings? What should you say? How should I know? All of my creative energy was put into that gift basket, which I have to say, went over pretty well.
Then out of my mouth came the perfect line. Reilly smiled and quickly scripted the phrase, handed the magazine back, thanked me once again for the gift basket and turned to greet other waiting fans.
Mission accomplished, I thought, holding the magazine tight against my chest, gazing up at the basket which was being taken off its place of honor and loaded up on to a bellhop trolley, along with other congratulatory goodies en route to Reilly’s room.
I looked down at the inscription – Score! He wrote: Polecat, Watch all the sports you want! Rick Reilly
And so he does. And so do we, as long as Reilly keeps writing about it.
Congrats to all the Runyon Award winners, from your friends and fans . . . In The ‘Ville.
Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin LLC, a digital media company located in Leadville, Colo. that publishes two news websites: Leadville Today and Saguache Today. She may be reached at email@example.com.