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When Rick Telander was growing up in landlocked Peoria, Ill., he imagined the sea to be something delightfully mysterious. He first saw salt water during a family vacation in Panama City, Fla. when he was five years old. "I went galloping into the Gulf of Mexico as fast as I could," says Telander. "I hadn't been in the water for more than 20 seconds when I ran into a Portuguese man-of-war. Suddenly the sea became very real to me." Young Telander spent the ensuing week in bed nursing his wounds.
Like Melville's brooding Queequeg, Telander might have taken that encounter as an ominous warning to keep both feet planted firmly on dry ground. The happy fact that he did not has resulted in Biting the Hand That Feeds Them, which begins on page 44.
It is worth noting that the idea for this week's aquatic adventure did not originate with Telander. He dived in only after two other writers had passed up the project. "My body is sacred," said one. "I make it a habit never to swim with sharks."
When Telander arrived at the New England Aquarium in Boston, he had no time to develop similar misgivings. He was hustled into scuba gear and dropped into water that was infested with sharks, barracudas and moray eels. "I didn't even have a chance to look into the tank beforehand, which may have been a blessing," he says.
There are no doubt times when even Marlin Perkins or Jacques Cousteau takes pause from subduing yaks or wrestling giant squid to give serious thought to a career in, say, real estate. Telander had just such a moment when he came eyeball to eyeball with a voracious shark. "My first thought was to get out of there by the fastest means possible," he says. "But I quickly overcame that urge and began to approach the whole thing with a feeling of resignation. I decided that if I'm going to die for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, I might as well do it at the bottom of a fish tank."
Having survived his watery ordeal, Telander, who this month becomes one of our special contributors, is back in Illinois, growing a beard and writing a book on Joe Nama. Doing research last autumn while the Jets were suffering through one of their worst seasons, Telander found himself pressed into service as a wide receiver in practice. "Three of their regular players were hurt, and they needed bodies," says Telander, a second-team all-Big Ten defensive back at Northwestern and the Chiefs' eighth draft pick in 1971.
"With the Jets I found out that I couldn't fool around because the coaches would yell at me," he says. "After they started losing, I quit hanging around at practice. All the losing got to me, just as it got to the members of the Jets. When I left I was convinced that there were a number of players who thought I was just some guy trying out for the team."
All of which makes Telander sound like a refugee from the gang wars in West Side Story. He has been demoralized by the Jets and nearly eaten alive by the Sharks—to say nothing of being cut by the Chiefs.