Exit Sandman: Yankees Closer Mariano Rivera On the Cover of This Week’s Sports Illustrated

39COVv21Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is the template for what it means to be a pitcher, a teammate and a friend, says senior writer Tom Verducci in the cover story for this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, on newsstands Wednesday.  “Closing time for the game’s greatest closer has arrived,” Verducci writes. And as Rivera—baseball’s alltime leader in regular-season and postseason saves—ends his iconic career, Verducci presents an oral history of Rivera with commentary from coaches, teammates, opponents and fans whose lives Rivera has touched. The Yankees’ closer appears on SI’s cover for the fourth time, with the billing “Exit Sandman.”

“Probably not since Koufax have we seen anyone leave the game with so much respect,” says Joe Torre, Rivera’s manager with the Yankees for four of his five World Series championships. (PAGE 36)

Former Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, a teammate of Rivera’s from 1997 to 2011, reflects on how good Rivera always looked, even when they were in the minors. Posada says, “He was always very tailored—even in the minors. We would blouse our pants, but he would always look perfect in his uniform. His jeans were perfectly tailored and he was always very well dressed. He would wear these leather sandals from Panama—I remember because he has ugly feet. Don’t tell him I said that. Now he gets manicures and pedicures.” (PAGE 38)

Orioles manager Buck Showalter, the Yankees’ manager from 1992 to ’95, admits that he wasn’t sure about Rivera’s future when he saw him throw in spring training in 1993, the year after Rivera had elbow surgery. That would change. Showalter says, “His hand and fingers were born to pitch. He has really long fingers and the perfect wrist; he can’t move his hand much side to side, but it’s very flexible up and down.” (PAGE 38)

Rivera and Derek Jeter played in a combined 26 All-Star games and 10 world championship rings. However, after a tough start to both of their careers, the Yankees sent both of them back to the minors on June 11, 1995. Jeter:  “We were devastated. You can say depressed. Once you come here, you never want to go back. . . . It wasn’t exactly current times back then, you know what I’m saying? We had the Boss then. You don’t do your job and he’ll trade you in a minute. Kids have it easy nowadays. Seriously. It’s so different now.” (PAGE 39)

Joe Girardi, Yankees manager, and Rivera’s teammate from 1996 through ’99: “In all the years I caught him, he never threw a ball in the dirt. I don’t ever remember having to drop to my knees to block a pitch in the dirt. I know he never threw a wild pitch that bounced. His control is that good.” (PAGE 39)

Mike Borzello, Yankees bullpen catcher from 1996 to 2007: “In 1996 he became the setup guy, and John Wetteland, our closer, started talking to him every day. Wetteland knew Mariano would take over for him the following year. The closer doesn’t usually take the next closer under his wing. Wetteland did, and Mariano did [the same] with every other reliever that came through.” (PAGE 39)

Joe Torre: “I’m not sure how long my tenure with the Yankees would have been if not for Mo pitching the seventh and eighth innings in 1996. He allowed me to manage just six innings of a game.” (PAGE 40)

Rivera has pitched in 96 postseason games and lost just once: Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against the Diamondbacks. Luis Gonzalez dumped a broken-bat single over Jeter’s head, barely onto the outfield grass, to drive in the winning run. Gonzalez: “I was very fortunate to get that hit off one of the best of all time. I think a lot of relievers would have been crushed by that loss. With Mariano, that was just a small bump in the road that didn’t slow him down any.” (PAGE 40)

Phillies righthander Roy Halladay says that Rivera taught him how to throw a great cutter at the 2008 All-Star Game. “The biggest thing was his finger placement and how his thumb was under the ball,” says Halladay. “I was throwing a cutter, but it was inconsistent. Once he told me about the thumb, it became a big pitch for me.”

Halladay adds: “What he did for me was unbelievable. That to me is what great players do: They leave marks on the game, an impression that is about who they are and not just about their numbers and accomplishments. My favorite players of all time have done that—left a mark based on their character: Derek Jeter, Chase Utley and Mariano Rivera.” (PAGE 42)

CC Sabathia, Yankees lefthander: “This is what I would tell people about Mariano: Believe everything you hear about him, because it’s all true. You always hear nobody can be that nice, nobody can be like him, nobody can shrug off wins and losses the way he does. . . . It’s unbelievable. I never met or played with a guy like that. If you want to be a better player or a better person, you watch him.” (PAGE 42)

Dr. Fran Pirozzolo, psychologist, Yankees mental-skills coach from 1996 to 2002: “I have worked with elite performers ranging from Navy SEALs, U.S. Secret Service, NASA astronauts, to athletes. Mariano Rivera may be the single most impressive performer and leader I have ever known. He is the exemplar that I point to when I discuss the mental attributes of champions.” (PAGE 42)

In his last season, Verducci writes that in ever road season Rivera wanted to meet “behind-the-scenes” people who had dedicated their lives to baseball or had known illness or tragedy. On May 11, Rivera met with Ryan Bressette and his family in Kansas City. Bressette, a Royals clubhouse attendant from 1981 to ’94 dealt with tragedy when a flight-status display board fell on his family in the Birmingham, Ala., Airport. His 10-year-old son, Luke, was killed, while he, his wife, and son Sam all suffered serious injuries. Rivera met with the family and fulfilled a promise to Sam to give him the ball from the last out of the game. Ryan Bresette says, “This is something I haven’t told too many people. When Mariano came over to me, I stuck out my hand to shake his hand, and he gave me a hug, pulled me close and whispered in my ear, ‘You’re a stronger and braver man than I ever could be.’ ” (PAGE 43)


Sports Illustrated Investigative Report “The Dirty Game” Set to Launch Tuesday, September 10, at 9 a.m. ET

The rapid ascent of the Oklahoma State University football program into a national powerhouse is examined in a five-part series to run across SI’s platforms

38covV24_Promo“The Dirty Game,” a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED special investigative report that looks into the transformation of a struggling college football program into a national powerhouse, is set to launch tomorrow morning on SI.com. The series is the result of a comprehensive 10-month investigation into the Oklahoma State University football program. It includes independent and on-the-record interviews with more than 60 former OSU football players who played from 1999 to 2011, as well as current and former OSU football staffers.

The findings will be presented in a five-part series across SI’s family of platforms, beginning with Part 1 (money), which launches on SI.com tomorrow at 9 a.m. ET and is this week’s magazine cover story, on newsstands and tablets Wednesday. Additional live coverage can be found on SI Now, SI.com’s live daily talk show (weekdays at 1 p.m. ET) and across SI’s social media outlets.

After 11 losing seasons in 12 years, OSU turned itself into one of the top programs in the nation. Since 2002, OSU has had 10 winning seasons, earned its first Big 12 title and went to its first BCS Bowl. The report reveals that OSU went to extreme measures to build a winning program, with an increased willingness to cut corners and bend rules. The transgressions began under former coach Les Miles, who was the head coach in Stillwater from 2001 to ’04 and is now the head coach at LSU, and continued under current head coach Mike Gundy, who was promoted from offensive coordinator in 2005.

SI executive editor Jon Wertheim, SI assistant managing editor Hank Hersch and SI.com executive editor B.J. Schecter oversaw the investigative report, which was written and reported by senior writers George Dohrmann and Thayer Evans.

“We wanted to take a comprehensive look at a big-time program, particularly one that made a rapid ascent,” says Wertheim. “There’s obviously a steady drumbeat of scandal in college sports – improper benefits here; a recruiting violation there – and plenty of rumor and hearsay about the unseemly underbelly. For this piece, we were more about venturing inside the factory and seeing how the sausage is made.”

Parts 2 — 4 of the report continue on SI.com this week and the series culminates in next week’s SI issue and on SI.com. In addition, SI.com will feature videos of former Cowboys talking about their experiences in Stillwater. SI Now will have live coverage and reaction throughout the week. The series will run as follows:

•    Part 1: Money (On SI.com Tuesday, 9/10 and in the 9/16/13 SI issue): SI finds that OSU used a bonus system orchestrated by an assistant coach whereby players were paid for their performance on the field, with some stars collecting $500 or more per game. In addition, the report finds that OSU boosters and at least two assistant coaches funneled money to players via direct payments and a system of no-show and sham jobs. Some players say they collected more than $10,000 annually in under-the-table payouts.
•    Part 2: Academics (On SI.com Wednesday, 9/11): Widespread academic misconduct, which included tutors and other OSU personnel completing coursework for players, and professors giving passing grades for little or no work, all in the interest of keeping top players eligible.
•    Part 3: Drugs (On SI.com Thursday, 9/12): OSU tolerated and at times enabled recreational drug use, primarily through a specious counseling program that allowed some players to continue to use drugs while avoiding penalties. The school’s drug policy was selectively enforced, with some stars going unpunished despite repeated positive tests.
•    Part 4: Sex (On SI.com Friday, 9/13): OSU’s hostess program, Orange Pride, figured so prominently in the recruitment of prospects that the group more than tripled in size under Miles. Both Miles and Gundy took the unusual step of personally interviewing candidates. Multiple former players and Orange Pride members say that a small subset of the group had sex with recruits, a violation of NCAA rules.
•    Part 5: The Fallout (On SI.com Tuesday, 9/17, and in the 9/23/13 SI issue): SI finds that many players who were no longer useful to the football program were cast aside, returning to worlds they had hoped to escape. Some have been incarcerated, others live on the streets, many have battled drug abuse and a few have attempted suicide.


Pirates Star Andrew McCutchen on Cover of This Week’s Sports Illustrated

37COVv18_PIR_PromoTo a generation of Pittsburgh fans, September has always been about school, football and the irrelevance of the Pirates. But with the franchise’s 20-season losing streak ending last night, senior writer Lee Jenkins says in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED,  on newsstands now, that a reawakened baseball town is asking: Are yinz ready for October? Pirates’ All-Star centerfielder and MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen is featured on a regional cover of this week’s SI. His first SI cover appearance marks the second time this season the Pirates have been featured on the cover.

Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, the son of former Pirates pitcher Tom Walker, grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Gibsonia and is part of what locals call the Lost Generation – anyone born in Pittsburgh after 1984. “It was the Steelers, the Penguins, Pitt, Penn State—and then the Pirates,” he says. “Going to the ballpark was never an activity for a group of friends. It was lost.” (PAGE 61)

Jenkins takes readers through the heart of Pittsburgh and its diverse fans, all of whom are ready for fall baseball. “Meaningful baseball after Labor Day,” says local pastor Scott Stevens. “That’s all I ever really wanted.” (PAGE 59) Linda McGary, whose family has had season tickets since the 1940s, will finally count all the way down to a winning season. Seeing her playoff invoice made her “realize that we’re getting close.” (PAGE 60) Jim Coen’s sports merchandise store once carried no Pirates jerseys—and no one complained. Now the Bucs and the Steelers split his sales 50-50.

“The Pirates were something you never thought about,” says Ike Taylor, a Steelers cornerback since 2003. “You never paid any attention to them. Now I go home at night and I watch the Pirates on TV. I’m on the bandwagon. I’ll tell you what I want to see: middle of October, us in a game at Heinz Field, them in a playoff game next door.” (PAGE 61)

Since 2008 the Pirates have spent more money on the draft than any other team, and after some growing pains, the Pirates’ investment, says Jenkins, has paid off. In 2010 the Bucs lost 105 games, 90 in ’11, and last season they were a respectable 79–83. TV ratings jumped 20% last year; this year they’re up another 15%; and the Pirates are on pace for the second-highest attendance in club history.

Jenkins caught up with former Pirate Sid Bream, who is best known for his years as an Atlanta Braves first baseman and the player who scored the winning run for the Braves in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS against the Pirates. That year was not only the last time the Pirates made the playoffs, it was also their last winning season. “The agent for 20 years of losing,” says Bream, who lives just outside Pittsburgh, about his score. “I want more than anyone for them to break the Bream Curse. I pray that they’re the ones celebrating this time.” (PAGE 58)


This Week’s SI Regional Cover Story: Can Anyone Roll the Tide? A Guide on How to Beat Bama

37COVv20_BAMA_PromoThe Alabama Crimson Tide are expertly coached, stacked with future NFL talent and confident of running the table, but opponents who are smart, willing and armed with the right personnel can take eight simple steps to beat the two-time defending BCS champs, writes Lars Anderson in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.  Alabama wide receiver Christion Jones, who scored three touchdowns last Saturday against Virginia Tech, is featured on a regional cover of this week’s SI. ***Click here to read the entire story on SI.com.

Anderson spoke with a few rival coaches, ex-Alabama staff members and some former Tide players—who spoke on the condition of anonymity—and many thought Alabama would lose at least once this season. “You have to play a near-perfect game, but they have some vulnerable points,” says a coach. “This giant can be slayed.” (PAGE 34) Based on inside information from these former coaches and players, SI put together an eight-step, how-to guide for any team hoping to keep Nick Saban’s Alabama team out of the national championship.

Step 1: Have a quarterback who can make plays with his feet and complete at least a few intermediate and deep throws

Anderson notes that of the five teams that have beaten Alabama since 2010, four had quarterbacks who were dangerous on the ground as well as through the air: LSU’s Jordan Jefferson in 2010 and ’11; Auburn’s Cam Newton in ’10; and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel last season. “Even when you’ve called the right defense and your defense does everything right, that kind of quarterback can still beat you by improvising,” said Nick Saban in the summer of 2011. “It’s the stuff you can’t really plan for that always brings a high level of concern. I mean, it can drive you crazy as a coach.” (PAGE 34)

Alabama faces Manziel and the Aggies on September 14.  Anderson discovered that Saban has continually reminded his players of what Johnny Football did last fall: During the spring and summer a video of the loss played on a loop in the Tide’s weight room. “Coach Saban always got really worked up over those fast, shifty quarterbacks,” says a former Alabama player. “If a guy like Cam Newton got out of the pocket, our linemen would get tired as hell chasing him around, and it basically took away the physical advantage we had over their offensive linemen because we’d get gassed.” (PAGE 34)

Step 2: Challenge the inexperienced defensive backfield

“The weakest position group is going to be the secondary,” says a former Alabama staffer. “It’s imperative that you take advantage of those kids back there. Nick personally coaches the defensive backs and the playbook is incredibly complicated. So I can almost guarantee you that you’ll see a lot of confusion . . . . I’d call at least two, maybe three deep balls a quarter. Let’s see if those kids are ready.” (PAGE 35)

Step 3: Counter Alabama’s D by spreading the field and playing fast

“Instead of having a play come at them every 40 seconds,” says a coach, “you need to snap the ball every 15 to 18 seconds. You gotta get those big boys up front tired.” Anderson adds: “Saban has complained that the hurry-up offense is dangerous—he says it leads to more injuries—but rival coaches believe that argument is a smokescreen aimed at concealing Saban’s real concern: It doesn’t give him time to substitute defenders and call the coverage he wants.” (PAGE 37)

Step 4: Slow Alabama’s rushing attack

Since 2008, the Tide are 53–0 when they rush for more than 150 yards. “The fundamentals of tackling change when you go from trying to tackle a wiggle guy like T.J. Yeldon to a bulldozer like Derrick Henry,” says a coach. “The key is to not let either of them get in the open field, and the best way to do that is bring an extra safety into the box, play eight close to the line and dare them to throw. Because if they get the running game going, the game is over.” (PAGE 37)

Step 5: Contain Amari Cooper

Anderson says that the most explosive player on Alabama’s offense is sophomore wide receiver Amari Cooper. His 11 receiving touchdowns last season broke a school record that had stood since 1950. “I’m going to play umbrella coverage on him,” says a coach. “I’m going to roll up a corner to Cooper at the line of scrimmage and put a safety behind him. On the other side I’m going to take a chance and go man-to-man with no safety help against [wide receiver] Kevin Norwood or whoever is playing there. You just always must know where number 9 [Cooper] is located.” (PAGE 37)

Step 6: Challenge Alabama’s young offensive line and make AJ McCarron beat you when he’s on the run

Last season AJ McCarron became the first quarterback in the BCS era to guide his team to back-to-back titles. And he did so while throwing for 30 touchdowns behind an offensive line that featured three players that are now in the NFL. “I would give them three or four blitzes that I’ve never used in previous games, just to see if they’re ready for something that isn’t in their game plan,” says a coach. (PAGE 38)

Step 7: Force Alabama to kick field goals

Bama kicker Cade Foster, who was 4 of 9 on field goals last season, has connected on only 13 of 27 (48.2%) in his college career. “It’s clear,” says a coach, “that Nick doesn’t have much trust in any of his kickers.” (PAGE 38)

Step 8: Play to make it to the fourth quarter

In 2012, Alabama outscored its opponents 153–26 in the first quarter. “The opening minutes are all about survival,” says a coach. “Get your kids settled down and then, with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, be within a touchdown. That’s when we’ll find out about Alabama’s nerves.” (PAGES 38-39)


The New Kings of the NFL Featured on a Regional Four-Cover Series of This Week’s SI 2013 NFL Preview

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s 2013 NFL Preview—on newsstands now—breaks down the 2013 NFL season with 68 pages of scouting reports chock full of analysis, stats and conference power rankings for all 32 teams, as well as the annual predictions from TheMMQB.com editor and SI senior writer Peter King. Click here to see King’s 2013 predictions.

Four young quarterbacks who enjoyed breakout seasons in 2012 – Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson – are featured on a regional four-cover series of this week’s SI. Each of “The New Kings” calls to mind a Super Bowl champion. Jenny Vrentas writes on why RG3 is like John Elway; Robert Klemko tells you why Luck is like Peyton Manning; Austin Murphy describes why Kaepernick is like Steve Young; and Jim Trotter writes about why Wilson is like Drew Brees.

WHY RG3 = JOHN ELWAY BY JENNY VRENTAS (PAGE 49)

COV0902sara.eg.rock.okcity.LO.indd“If you’ve got a guy who’s got the talented arm and he can make off-scheduled plays—that gives you a chance to win Super Bowls,” says Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, referring to John Elway (who he won two Super Bowls with in Denver) and his current quarterback, Robert Griffin III. While Griffin’s speed makes him unique among quarterbacks, Vrentas says “he is more than a runner just as Elway was more than a passer.”

Dan Reeves, the Broncos’ coach for the first decade of Elway’s career, sees a similarity in how RG3, like Elway, can scramble, keep an eye downfield and connect on a big pass play. As Elway got older, he came to rely much more on his arm than on his legs. “That’s going to be one of the key things with RG3: Is he going to be able to make that transition?” Reeves says. “He’s fortunate to have a coach that’s had that experience.”

WHY ANDREW LUCK = PEYTON MANNING BY ROBERT KLEMKO (PAGE 50)

COV0902woodstock.LO.inddAfter replacing alltime great Colts quarterback Peyton Manning last year and leading his team to an improbable playoff berth, it’s inevitable that Andrew Luck would draw comparisons to Manning. Klemko writes, “Luck has the arm strength that Manning, now the Broncos’ QB, once boasted, and the same obsession with preparation. But there’s one way in which he’s very different.”

Manning was known to foster tension in practice and be very hard on his teammates. Luck is a different breed. “In practice, he has fun,” says Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who has played with both quarterbacks. “He’s like a big kid out there playing Pee Wee football.” While he is honored to be compared to Manning, Luck does not think he should be after only one season in the NFL. “Peyton set the bar for being a quarterback,” Luck says, “and certainly for being a quarterback in this town. But I do not live in Peyton Manning’s world. I feel like the media has made me out to be more like him than I really am.”

WHY COLIN KAEPERNICK = STEVE YOUNG BY AUSTIN MURPHY (PAGE 53)

COV0902merced.kaep.lo.inddColin Kaepernick, a native of Wisconsin, grew up idolizing Brett Favre and admired his supreme self-assurance and inclination to attack. And while Kaepernick’s allegiance remained with Favre and the Packers when his family moved to California when he was four, he became aware of and intrigued by the play of 49ers quarterback Steve Young. “He was different from most quarterbacks, as far as the scrambling, what he was able to do with his legs,” Kaepernick says. “And he went out and won games.” Murphy says he has far more in common with Young than Favre: “Both played in the Western Athletic Conference (Young at BYU, Kaepernick at Nevada); both wound up with the Niners; both became embroiled in quarterback controversies that ended with each rival being traded to the Chiefs (Joe Montana in1993, Alex Smith last March).”

Kaepernick has not had to endure the same trials as Young, who took 10 seasons to make it to the Super Bowl. Yet his rapid rise has not altered his work ethic. “He’s had an outstanding off-season,” Jim Harbaugh says. “Top-notch.” “During OTAs I’d get here pretty early,” says wide receiver Kyle Williams. “This is before our workouts. I see this guy out on the field running 200-yard sprints. Kap works harder than everybody.”

“If you don’t do that,” explains Kaepernick, “people aren’t gonna respect you as a leader, they’re not gonna want to follow you, because you’re not putting in the same work they are.”

WHY RUSSELL WILSON = DREW BREES BY JIM TROTTER (PAGE 54)

COV0902merced.wilson.lo.inddEver since he was a teenager second-year Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has admired Drew Brees. Wilson saw a lot of himself in the Saints’ star – a player who refused to accept critic’s contention that he was too short.  As Trotter writes, “He thinks, throws, talks, prepares and generally carries himself like the former Super Bowl MVP, who is as classy as he is talented.”

When the two quarterbacks met at last year’s Pro Bowl, Brees helped Wilson correct a flaw in his footwork. Yet for all of their similarities, Brees sees a major difference. “He’s more talented than I am,” Brees says. “He’s more athletic. He grasped the NFL game at a faster pace than I did. He has not only great leadership qualities, great charisma, but also the It factor that you look for in a young quarterback. I couldn’t be more impressed. You watch the road he traveled, and you’re happy for him and root for him.”


SI Director of Photography Brad Smith Discusses this Week’s Cover Shoot

35COVv22_Mario_PromoAC Milan and Italy national team star forward Mario Balotelli appears on the national cover of this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. In an exclusive interview with senior writer Grant Wahl, Balotelli, who is called the “most interesting man in the world” on the cover, discusses racism, his off the field antics, his childhood and more. Balotelli sat down for the interview with Wahl in Miami last month and also agreed to take part in a photo shoot.  Inside SI caught up with SI Director of Photography Brad Smith, who was on location at the shoot, to discuss the planning of the shoot, what it was like to work with Balotelli and other behind-the-scenes nuggets.

Why did you do the photo shoot in Miami?
Smith: The cover shoot came about in Miami because AC Milan was in town for the International Champions Cup tournament. We did the shoot at the St. Regis in Bal Harbour, FL, and they were incredibly cooperative. I negotiated with the hotel to use their space, while the writer, Grant Wahl, worked out the details with Mario and AC Milan for the actual shoot as far as time and date.

Tell us about the planning process for the shoot. How did you make Balotelli appear like he was walking on water?

Smith: My idea was to have him walking on water since he’s the perfect athlete for it. He’s larger than life and even the editors and Grant call him the world’s most interesting athlete on the cover and within the story. The hotel also had the perfect pool to do something creative like this. First, I hired local Miami shooter, Jeffery Salter, to photograph it. I hired Jeffery because he knows what we want, and he’s so easy going, which made for a perfect balance to a high profile world class athlete. The first thing Jeffery did was have a Plexiglas table made, for Mario to stand on for the shoot. We placed the table in four feet of water and it took two handlers to swim underneath the table and hold it steady.

Was Mario excited about the idea of “walking on water”?
Smith: I explained to Mario the idea, and when he was ready to step on the table, he told me, ‘If I fall, I’m going to be mad.’ Thankfully, there were no falls during the shoot! I think he enjoyed himself during the shoot, even though it was really hot in the Florida sun. He and the whole AC Milan team were easy to work with.

What else can you tell us from the shoot?

Smith:  There was a secondary pool next to ours, and people from that pool were standing near the low fence taking photos of our shoot. AC Milan representatives were nervous that photos might get out, but the people taking photos were asking us who Mario was. He’s one of the most recognizable soccer players in the world, playing the most popular sports in the world, but you’d have to be a serious soccer fan in the U.S. to recognize him in person. They didn’t know, they just knew he was somebody. I’m sure a lot of more folks will now know him in the U.S. with Grant’s cover story on newsstands. It was a memorable cover, and really fun to work on.


International Soccer Star Mario Balotelli on cover of This Week’s Sports Illustrated

35COVv22_Mario_PromoAC Milan and Italy national team star forward Mario Balotelli is a friend of popes, a lover of pigs and a symbol of an increasingly multiracial Europe. But the lightening rod for attention also has the talent that’s every bit as electric as his personality, says senior writer Grant Wahl in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Balotelli, who sat down with Wahl for an exclusive interview when AC Milan was in Miami last month, appears on the national cover of this week’s SI, on newsstands Wednesday. In the story Balotelli discusses his critics, his celebrity, dealing with racism, his off-the-field antics, his childhood and more. Click here to read the entire story on SI.com.

“I don’t like to talk much, even when people speak bad about me,” Balotelli says. “Inside me, I say, Why do they have to think of me that way? But I know how I am. My objective is not that people follow me, but I’m happy that they do. It surprises me how much children like me, you know? If they look at me as an example, I have a big responsibility.” (PAGE 51)

Balotelli, who was the first black Italian to play in a major soccer tournament, has been the target of bananas and monkey chants from fans in Italy and other countries. “You can’t delete racism,” says Balotelli. “It’s like a cigarette. You can’t stop smoking if you don’t want to, and you can’t stop racism if people don’t want to. But I’ll do everything I can to help.” (PAGE 48) Milan opens its Serie A season this Saturday at Hellas Verona, which has some of the most notoriously racist fans in Italy. “I hope they won’t say anything,” says Balotelli. And if they do? “I’ll try to score with all my power, and when I score then I’ll say something.” (PAGE 51)

While Balotelli has become one of the best young goal-scorers in the world, he also is known for his antics off the pitch. Wahl writes, “Balotelli has joined Diego Maradona as global soccer’s preeminent entries in the Tyson Zone, where athletes can be reported doing things that might be absolutely crazy for everyone else but still ring as potentially true because, well, it’s Mario Balotelli.” (PAGE 49) After three years with Manchester City that was highlighted by many examples of immaturity, AC Milan purchased Balotelli for $29 million in January, and he helped the Rossoneri, his favorite Italian team as a child, rebound from a terrible start and qualify for this season’s Champions League. “I went there as a boy, and I came back to Italy as a man,” he says. (PAGE 51)

Balotelli also discusses his childhood. “Even when I was younger and we were losing a game, I felt inside that I could change the game,” says Balotelli, who started playing soccer at age three in the Italian countryside where he grew up with his adopted parents. “It was a good feeling.” (PAGE 50) He also says he “sometimes” connects with his Ghanaian birth parents, who gave him up shortly after his first birthday, adding that it’s “something I never talk about.” (PAGE 50)

How did he get so good at penalty kicks? At age 12, Balotelli studied highlights of Maradona’s career and practiced the way the Italian star took free kicks and penalties. “And from there I started to shoot penalties like that,” says Balotelli, who’s 24 for 24 on PKs for club and country. “It’s mental,” he says. “You have to be calm and wait for the goalkeeper to move. If the goalkeeper stays, he doesn’t have time to go to one of the corners. If he moves, I see him before. It’s kind of impossible for him. The only two ways I can miss a penalty are if I’m not concentrating or I shoot [outside the goal].” (PAGE 51)

As for next year’s World Cup, Balotelli calls raising the World Cup trophy “more an objective than a dream,” and he says his aspirations include becoming the best player in the world. “I’m working on it,” he says. (PAGES 49-50)


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