This is an extended story from ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 2 Music Issue. Subscribe today!
ON THE TITLE track of his 2012 album, New Direction Home, Mike Reid sings of a young man who "takes out a guitar, plays a chord nobody's heard."
He's not a young man anymore, but nobody has ever played the chord Reid has. Not with these notes: son of a railroad worker from Altoona, Pennsylvania; heavyweight champion wrestler and All-American defensive tackle at Penn State; 1970 No. 1 draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals and an All-Pro in '72 and '73; classical pianist invited to play with the Utah, Dallas and Cincinnati symphony orchestras; writer of more than 30 top-10 country and pop hits, including Ronnie Milsap's "Stranger in My House" (1983) and Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" (1991); singer of his own No. 1 country hit, "Walk on Faith" (1990); inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame (1987) and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (2005); composer of musicals, dance and chamber pieces, an opera, even a musical adaptation of poet Billy Collins' "The Night House."
Never one to rest on his laurels (or trade on his NFL fame), Reid, 67, is now at work on the revival of The Ballad of Little Jo, an award-winning musical he first wrote with librettist Sarah Schlesinger in 1997. That's why he's spending part of January at a rehearsal space at New York University. At one point, as the chorus sings the opening number, "Train to San Francisco," he suggests the sopranos switch from A to F, and the soaring result has the people in the room smiling and nodding their heads. They couldn't care less that Reid was once one of the most feared defensive linemen in the NFL.
That previous life ended in the spring of 1975, when 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.'"
Reid never looked back. His journey took him from rock to folk to country, from Rockies ski resorts to Los Angeles studios to Nashville, Tennessee. "Besides the opportunity to tell a story," he says, "what I found most appealing about Nashville was the sense of creative community." After providing a string of hits for Milsap in the early '80s, he found himself in high enough demand that his wife, Susan, could quit her job as a waitress. And his own singing led to two albums for Columbia, a couple of appearances on Austin City Limits and this review by Alanna Nash in Entertainment Weekly: "You can't imagine a contrived bone in his body, and his overall performance matches what he calls his songwriting credo, 'Simplification to the point of elegance.'"
A British music magazine, Mojo, once made "I Can't Make You Love Me" No. 8 on its list of the 100 Greatest Songs of All Time, and the royalty checks are still rolling in, thanks to all the cover versions, most notably by Adele and Bon Iver. Not bad for a song that began as a bluegrass tune.
"It really belongs to Bonnie," Reid says. "I found that out when my wife and I were watching George Michael's Unplugged on MTV. He introduced the song by saying, 'This is a song made famous by the great Bonnie Raitt and written by ... well, actually, I'm not sure who wrote it.' Sue was steamed, but I thought it was funny,"
Reid is tremendously proud of their two children, Caitlin and Matt, and indeed, the young man he's writing about in New Direction Home is Matt, who's also pursuing a career in music. The album, recorded for the small Off Row Records label and available on iTunes, is a welcome-back gift for the faithful who missed Reid's evocative, raspy voice and his mastery of the keyboard. "It wasn't written with any commercial aspirations," he says. "I just wanted to do something for myself and the people I love.
"At my age, I kind of enjoy the obscurity. Nowadays, I get my thrills from going into the locker room at the YMCA and hearing somebody hum one of my tunes."
Reid once wrote a football opera, Different Fields, with Schlesinger, but he has left his former life behind for the most part. He would much rather talk about Wallace Stevens or Louis C.K. or The Music Man or Joseph Campbell than he would about the current state of the NFL.
But he can't get the game entirely out of his system. "I would pay to see Aaron Rodgers," he says. "Now there's a maestro."