If you know anything about Rick Telander, you know that, while away from Sports Illustrated, he was a must-read sports columnist for the Sun-Times for more than 30 years. You may know that before that, he played football at Northwestern University and also studied English literature and poetry.
Some may remember him as the “youngster” on the always memorable “Sports Writers on TV” sports talk show. He has written many books; One of them was the 1976 book “Heaven is a Playground”, which was adapted into a movie in 1991. It was also named one of the top 10 sports books of all time by Playboy magazine and was called “the best basketball book I’ve ever read” by a former ball-playing president named Obama.
But the most devoted fans and even some close friends will be surprised to discover that Telander is also a poet, and the proof comes in a fascinating new book, “Sweet Dreams: Poems and Pictures for Child Abed.”
“I guess I don’t really consider myself a poet,” Telander told me earlier this week. “Maybe I’m just a sportswriter with a poet’s heart.”
The book was born a long time ago, out of a terrible time, or as Telander puts it more specifically, “born out of a fever dream in a hospital bed.”
He explains that nearly 30 years ago he was hospitalized for weeks with an appendix and intestinal infection. He couldn’t eat. He could not watch television or read a book. To ease her pain, she began searching for solace in her mind, and this came to her mind with poems inspired by one of her favorite childhood books, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses,” particularly a poem about a sick little boy. “Counter Panel Country” begins…
When I’m sick and I lie in bed,
I had two pillows on my head.
And all my toys were lying next to me
To make me happy all day.
He left the hospital healthy and with pieces of poetry. Eventually he wrote them down and put them aside, and the press of real life took over. But over the decades he would occasionally return to the poems, revising and adding to his growing pile. A few years ago he came up with the idea of pairing his poems with the works of artists. “I love art,” he says. “I have always painted since primary school.”
He knew many local artists and approached some of them with his idea. Many responded enthusiastically, especially after they and Telander began collaborating and sharing ideas. A few artists turned him down, but more often one artist would recommend another.
The book contains 42 poems paired with 42 works of art. This is an international meeting with four countries represented and an understandably strong local contingent. I know more than a few people. One of them, Tony Fitzpatrick He has a striking poem titled “Night Owl,” and he tells me, “I was struck by the empathy and insight Rick had, especially regarding illness and especially sick children. His generous spirit shapes all of these poems; “The instinct to protect and bring wonder to children’s lives is nothing short of heroic.”
You may know the names and work of other Chicago-area artists such as Mark McMahon, Franklin McMahon, John Rush, John Sandford, Jill Thompson, Mark Sauck, Peggy Macnamara, Samantha DeCarlo, Douglas Klauba, Nick Bubash, Jozef Sumichrast, and more. and Ed Paschke. (Some did not live long enough to see the book finished.)
And then there is Tim AndersonHis extraordinarily colorful work adorns the poem “Seasons”. “What really impressed me was Rick’s enthusiasm for this project,” he says. And the artist’s understanding. It didn’t hurt that I remembered him from long ago at Northwestern, when he was a member of the Del-Crustaceans (the now legendary, still active group). I saw them play.”
The art comes in many different styles, including oils, acrylics, watercolors, colored pencils, pen and ink, and collage. Some feature children and feature lots of animals (birds, butterflies, dinosaurs, dogs, tiger and more). The poems are fairly short, none taking up more than a page, and are good, aimed at a 3 to 6 year old audience but fun for older readers. It’s all expertly brought together by local artist and designer Al Brandtner, for whom Telander receives the most praise. “Without him, nothing would have happened,” he says.
Telander told me that some publishers had turned the book down. He tells me something I haven’t “told anyone”. said. “I made the small figures on the cover and inside cover pages. I also have a ‘secret’ illustration there under a pseudonym.”
This new poet/artist and his wife, Judy, have long lived in the North Shore suburbs, where they raised four children, three daughters (Lauren, Cary, and Robin) and son Zack, all now grown and living on their own.
He read to them all when they were children and said: “Of course, they seem to like this book too. I guess you count my eight children, as do my eight grandchildren, though they seem to prefer listening to me read the version on Audible.
There is a common axiom attributed to the prolific poet/novelist/critic Robert Graves: “There is no money in poetry.” (It concludes: “… but there is no poetry in money either.”) Indeed, no one expects to get rich with this $19.95 book (from Skyhorse Publishing), and that was never the intention. A few of the artists received nominal fees for their work, mostly to cover material costs. Telander enjoys talking publicly about his book “Saturday Story Time” Jan. 27 at 10:30 a.m. at the Bookstore in Winnetka. Now I know what you’re waiting for.
Okay, here’s a short poem from this sports writer with the heart of a poet.
It’s called “Night Journey”.
One night my father took me in his arms,
When I’m tired and want to sleep.
He buttoned me up his jacket
And he walks on the lightless and steep road.
He held me towards him with his arm;
The cold wind tore apart the sky,
It was resistant to the storm,
And I became its beating heart.