The cover of Sports Illustrated is where greatness is confirmed, arrivals are announced and achievements are celebrated. So what types of reactions do we get when our subjects find out that they’ve landed on the cover? In regards to this week’s Oct. 17 issue, Jimmie Johnson said: “It’s a great honor, a huge honor. I’m happy to see our sport getting the respect and awareness that it should among other sports.”
Johnson might also be one of the rare athletes not concerned with the SI jinx, even as he chases a sixth straight Sprint Cup title: “I guess it’s out there for some other sports teams—but in my heart of hearts, there is no way the photo on a cover of a magazine is going to change the luck of a race team. If we lose a championship, it’s because of what happened on the race track—not because of a photo that was on a magazine.”
Here’s what some other recent cover subjects had to say:
- Brad Pitt (Sept. 26, 2011): “I was just happy to do Sports Illustrated. To do something other than the fashion-y things, for something I respect, is much more fun.”
- Dustin Pedroia (Aug. 15, 2011): “It’s exciting. It’s the finest athletes in the world…. I’ll probably get mine blown up. That’ll be pretty cool.”
- Derrick Rose (April 18, 2011): “It’s definitely a big honor to be on the cover of that magazine. Everybody gets Sports Illustrated.”
- Vince Wilfork (Jan. 10, 2011): “It was a complete surprise for us to find out about the cover. As a nose tackle, you don’t expect to have any glamor. This has been a great experience for us. Who knows if it will ever happen again? We never thought it would happen once so we are very thankful. SI has always been the sports magazine, and we are glad to be a part of it.”
- Drew Brees (Feb. 15, 2011): “As a kid in athletics you have dreams about winning a championship, celebrating with your teammates and appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It was part of the idea of what winning meant when you were growing up, and to have appeared on the magazine’s cover is an honor and a memorable moment in my career. The cover from the Super Bowl issue was even more special for my family because I was able to share it with my son, Baylen.”
What happened? We are feeling the final tremors in a seismic sports decade. Let’s skip the predictable rant against performance enhancing drugs (asterisk goes here) and bad behavior. Think Chutes and Ladders: Heroes fell, leagues and franchises rose. More fans, more games, more media, more money. (Any estimate of America’s sports GDP, say half a trillion—roughly the same as Switzerland’s—is boggling, unless you ponder $15.75 for a beer and a hot dog at Yankee Stadium.) And it all got very loud: more broadcasts, more platforms, still more money and still more media. Convergence, lousy with attitude. Soaring platitudes. All was amazing, all was unbelievable. But then, just when you were ready to turn it all off, something would happen, as it always does in sports, and the values would shine through: courage, loyalty, sacrifice, sportsmanship. And you would feel good again, better than good, inspired by our games and the men and women who play them. Ask the people who live in New Orleans, ask the fans who left this note on the wrought iron gate in front of Drew Brees’s house in the Garden District the morning after Super Bowl XLIV: My family lost everything in August 2005. Last night you and our beloved Boys gave us everything back. Thank you….
SI’s cover that week pictured Brees holding his son Baylen high against a confetti-filled night in celebration of the Saints’ victory, and this issue names him Sports Illustrated’s 2010 Sportsman of the Year. No athlete has performed on a higher level or given more heart to his community, where he has acquired the nickname “Breesus” among Saints fans, who refer to him this way without guile. His work and life there since 2006 has been that humbling to the rest of us.
SI senior writer Tim Layden met Brees in the spring of 1999. Layden was SI’s lead college football writer then, looking for the next big thing. Brees was preparing for his junior year at Purdue and looking very much like the quarterback who would drag the Big Ten into the modern age of the passing game. Layden has written four substantial pieces about Brees since that first meeting in a West Lafayette steak house, and he spent three days with him in New Orleans for this week’s story (page 56). “He’s an older, more mature version of the 20-year-old college student I first met,” says Layden. “He’s intensely dedicated to his family, his work and the city of New Orleans, yet I like the word that his father, Chip, a lawyer back home in Austin, used to describe him: playful. That’s Brees: He’s serious with a smile. I went on a school visit with him, and, naturally, word got out that he was there. People drove to the school and waited for him in the parking lot, and as Drew was running to get his ride back home, he stopped four times to sign little scraps of paper. He talks all the time about having fun because life is short,” Layden adds. “Lots of people say that. But Brees really lives it. I’ve never seen a guy manage a frantic schedule more cheerfully.’’