It's the subject's considered opinion that this story would be more appropriately placed in a music magazine, under the byline of a music writer who had stumbled upon the astonishing fact that years ago, the subject had made his living by bushwhacking quarterbacks and throttling ballcarriers. That opinion isn't without merit. Football has receded so far into Mike Reid's past that it no longer even appears as a pinpoint in his rearview mirror, having been obliterated by the miles of an ongoing musical journey. Consider: The number of former NFL Pro Bowlers who can identify Wallace Stevens as a major American poet would be small; the number who have read Stevens's Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird would be smaller still; the number who have used the poem as a centerpiece for a critically acclaimed piece of chamber music is a set of one.
It's not true that Reid, who after the 1974 season walked away from the Cincinnati Bengals and a potential Hall of Fame career as a defensive tackle, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into cooperating for this story; he merely screamed a little. At 54 and in decent physical shape despite "garden variety aches and pains from his football days," the 6'3", 230-pound (25 pounds lighter than in his last year with the Bengals) Reid is a wary and restless soul, suspicious of those who dwell on his athletic past, fed up with, as he says, "the mythologization of the pro athlete," conditioned to brood about his projects, which include composing a musical that could make him the toast of Broadway. (Oh, how he'll hate that expression.) He's a man of strong opinion and fluctuant disposition, a man whom, as poet Thomas Gray put it, "melancholy mark'd for her own."
Yet, there's something serene about him, too, something that makes you want to stay close by as he blows off steam, so you can watch him cool down and say, in the tone of one accomplished in self-deprecation, "Am I a pain in the ass or what?" Because, when it comes down to it, the essential fact of Reid's life is this: It contains far too much happiness to make him justifiably miserable. He has a wonderful and supportive family (wife of 21 years, Susan; son, Matthew, 17; and daughter, Caitlin, 13); a solid group of friends (songwriters, music producers, no former footballers) that congregate at a terrible Thai restaurant in Nashville, where Reid lives, because, he says, "we don't deserve anything better"; and an unquenchable thirst to explore the deeper parts of his soul through music.
Reid composes and agonizes—not necessarily in that order—in a tidy studio-office that's a quick down-and-out pattern away from his suburban home. Most mornings he's there by 6:30, making coffee and pacing before finally sitting down behind an electronic keyboard. The studio is cool and dark. A scented candle sends out the bouquet of inspiration, a small serenity fountain bubbles a tuneless melody. "I'm facilitating peacefulness, man," he says to a visitor he has welcomed (sort of). "It's either that or kill you."
A few plaques bear testament to his success as a commercial songwriter, but not much else indicates that the occupant has written more than 20 songs that went to No. 1 on the country charts; that artists as diverse as Anita Baker, Bette Midler, Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers have gone to market with his tunes; that I Can't Make You Love Me, his ballad that appeared on Bonnie Raitt's Luck of the Draw album, will be raising goose bumps for the next 100 years; or that he was ASCAP's songwriter of the year in 1985. A small poster on a wall advertises The Ballad of Little Jo, the musical, staged in Chicago last year, for which Reid composed the score, but there's no sign of the review by The New Yorker's John Lahr proclaiming it "the best piece of musical storytelling I've seen in a decade." Of course nothing indicates that the occupant played football. A good indicator of Reid's priorities is this: Two letters from composer Stephen Sondheim occupy an honored spot on his bulletin board, while a photo of Reid sitting with Mickey Mantle is consigned to the small pantry, hanging hard by the coffee machine.
Reid's current project is composing the score for a Broadway production of Shane, the celebrated 1953 Hollywood western. He and lyricist Sarah Schlesinger (with whom he collaborated on Little Jo) were hired last fall by the hottest man on Broadway, Rocco Landesman, lead producer behind The Producers. Landesman saw Little Jo, and, like the Bengals scout who watched Reid nimbly fly by blockers on his way to winning the Outland Trophy as the nation's best interior lineman at Penn State in 1969, signed him up. "Mike is an incredibly talented composer who had an idea for [Shane] from the beginning," says Landesman, who hopes to have the show onstage in late 2002. Reid's interest in the project is easily explained by the title character, a rugged and mysterious loner who lives on the fringes of society.
Reid is writing much of Shane in his head during solitary walks around Radnor Lake, a nature preserve near his house, "hearing the sounds of the show, trying to get into the skin of the characters." You can extend the Reid-Shane comparison a bit, but not too far, for one could hardly imagine the character Alan Ladd plays on the screen sitting at a piano, spinning out songs and one-liners, winning over the hearts and minds of lounge lizards all over the land. That's how Reid began his life after football.
Reid was a two-time All-America at Penn State and a force from the beginning of his career on the left side of Cincinnati's defensive line. "Of all the great players I've had here, Mike Reid remains near the top," says Penn State coach Joe Paterno. "He was so athletically gifted, I'm not sure he couldn't have played fullback for me, too."
"What I remember most was that if the offense gave Mike just the narrowest gap for the smallest amount of time, he was on that quarterback in a heartbeat," says Tommy Casanova, a three-time Pro Bowl safety who was Reid's on-the-road roommate from time to time. "He was absolutely a Hall of Fame-caliber pass rusher and great against the run, too."
Several theories have been offered over the years to explain why Reid—an undersized but cat-quick left defensive tackle who was All-Pro in four of his five NFL seasons—suddenly told the Bengals he was walking away. It has been said that he was worried he would injure his hands and be unable to play the piano—not true. It has been said that he had grown disenchanted with the violence of the game—not true. It has been said that three knee operations (two on his left, one on his right) had severely slowed him—only partly true. Reid, expressing the hope that it "doesn't sound like pretentious horses—," takes his best shot at an explanation.