The Sunday Football-Related Music Post: From Cincinnati to Nashville

mike-reid-200-011411_200x225I apologize for posting about yet another musician who played for one of our rivals, but Mike Reid had the sense to cut his career with the Bengals short. Although it was supposedly to focus on his music career, I’m guessing that the Altoona, PA native just couldn’t live with the cognitive dissonance any more.

Reid’s football career wasn’t particularly short when the average career for an NFL player is something like three and a half years. But for a No. 7 overall pick and two-time all pro (1972 and 1973) it’s a surprisingly short one. Although it is often assumed that multiple hand and knee injuries in the 1974 season made him decide to focus on music, it turns out to be more nuanced than this.

Although Reid made his musical name as a country songwriter and artist, he was an excellent classical pianist, and after majoring in music and graduating from Penn State he was invited to perform a piano concerto with the Utah Symphony. (He also performed with the Dallas and Cincinnati symphony orchestras.)

Just in case you are interested in hearing a bit of the concerto he took on, the following video begins at the piano entrance for the fast movement. (This isn’t Reid playing—I couldn’t find out who it was, actually.) My point is, you have to be really good to be able to play this even reasonably well:

The article linked above was written in 1985, and the author says that Reid “still looks more like a piano mover than a player.”

AP photo

It’s difficult to even imagine how you could keep your hands from getting messed up while playing defensive tackle at a high level, and you can be forgiven for assuming Reid decided to hang up his cleats before it was too late.

ESPN Magazine profiled Reid at the beginning of 2015, and described the meeting at which Reid announced his retirement:

Reid walked into the office of his head coach, Paul Brown, and told him that he was giving up football to pursue a career in music. “I had started dreading game days,” Reid says, “and I cared more about my music. Paul was an Old Testament coach, so he was a little surprised, but he did tell me, ‘We’ll always have a place for you here.'”

As the old People Magazine article linked above noted:

Many Bengal fans “had a hard time figuring out what in God’s name I’d done,” he admits, “but football was never a religion for me. It got to be an environment that I didn’t want to be in anymore.”

In those days football was compensated rather less lavishly. As he told the LA Times in 2009:

“I was the seventh kid drafted in the first round in 1970 and I signed for $22,000. So, there’s your perspective.”

In his final season, Reid notes, he was paid about five times that much, “but it’s not like I walked away from a life-transforming amount of money.”

The salary he left on the table in the mid-1970s was $90,000—a good salary for that day, but nothing like the multiple millions of dollars a top first-round pick would be making. Out of curiosity, I looked up last year’s No. 7 overall pick. Kevin White, WR, was chosen in that slot by the Bears. White signed a 4 year contract with the Bears last May worth $16,563,048. He received a $10,305,852 signing bonus and his entire contract is guaranteed. If my math is correct, that averages out to about $7 million per year, or roughly 100+ times as much as Mike Reid was making on average during his distinguished career.

It took a while for him to get up the courage, but Reid finally packed up and moved to Nashville to work as a songwriter. It didn’t take long for him to make his mark in the industry. One of his better-known songs that nobody know he wrote is “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Bonnie Raitt made it famous—Adele is only one of the many people who have recorded it since then. Here’s her version:

In a live performance where she introduced the song, Adele said it is one of her favorite songs—”I think it’s just perfect in every single way.” She then attributed it to Raitt. Songwriters just don’t get no respect.

Perhaps because of this, Reid did make a couple of albums in the 1990s. He ended up with a hit single, but his solo career didn’t really take off, despite his beautiful baritone voice. Here’s the hit, “Walk on Faith:”

As one might expect from such a gifted and multi-faceted man, Reid’s exodus from football was prompted by much more subtle reasons than the fear he would lose his piano chops. As he told People Magazine for the above-linked article:

Reid’s attitude toward professional football began to change in 1973 when he saw Cincinnati defensive back Ken Dyer suffer a crippling injury during a game. Dyer had swallowed his tongue and lay gasping for breath, but at that time “I thought he was just stunned,” Reid later recounted. “I said to him, ‘Get off the field, you’re gonna cost us a time-out.’ ” When he finally learned that Dyer’s neck was broken, Reid was devastated. “I felt rotten. I said to myself, ‘My God, what has this game done to you when you can’t see your fellow man crying out for help?’ ” The following year a strike by disgruntled players sealed Reid’s future. “Suddenly those emotional ties that get 45 young men through a season were broken,” says Reid, and he announced his retirement.

What had sustained him before this sounds strangely familiar, given some of the topics we have explored on this site. In 2001 he told Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

“I loved football in almost a mythic way,” he says. “For me the game wasn’t grounded in reality. It was about the uniform you put on that turned you into a warrior. It was about the mythology of the battle, the victory, the defeat, the struggle. I looked at the game in almost dramaturgical terms, and the more I realized that it was a business without a mythic component, the less I wanted to play.”

One could almost argue his entire life has a mythic component. As the author notes:

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.

Part of what is so fascinating about Reid is that although he made his career writing country songs, his musical output is much larger than this, including musicals, chamber music, and an opera.

Reid was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005. At the induction ceremony fellow songwriter Don Schlitz spoke about the various genre in which Reid composes, and commented “He’s the most complete writer in our field. He competes only with himself.”

A former teammate felt he could potentially have ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame had he stayed with the Bengals:

“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.”

But one gets the sense that for Reid the game would not have been worth the candle. As he told SI:

I can’t say for sure if football was good for me. I have some great memories… But what I do know is that the constant in my life has been music. Music has made my life infinitely better. Music is what it’s always been about. That will never change.

I want to thank the president of the board of my now-former organization, The Pittsburgh Camerata, for calling Reid to my attention. Arlie Nogay mentioned him after I posted one of the Music and Football posts on the Camerata page, and he indeed proved to be a worthy subject. 



  • roxannafirehall

    Great post. I knew of Mike Reid as a Bengal player and had a vague recognition of his classical training. I did NOT know he went to Nashville and was a great songwriter. I don’t know what else he wrote, but “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is one of the best love ballads ever. I always assumed Bonnie wrote it.

    The kind words by Don Schlitz are more than telling. Don wrote “The Gamblet” a huge hit for Kenny Rogers and “Forever and Ever, Amen” by Randy Travis.

    I love football, but I don’t think Reid would trade being selected to the songwriters HOF over Canton. I know I wouldn’t. Great article, Momma! Five stars.


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