Suniland Optimist, a Pop Warner team for 13-14 year-olds, finished 10-2 this season, just shy of the championships. “I won’t tell you we got screwed,” says the team’s coach, laughing. “But . . . " It is amusing, almost, that every level of play--even Pop Warner--offers life’s same wild caprice.
Mike Reilly, Suniland’s first-year coach, has had worse luck, of course, and at higher levels and with more disastrous results. Before returning to Miami and the South Dade Pop Warner Football League, Reilly had a bad string of it here while playing for the Rams. Like the way he ended a promising career by falling off a roof and wrecking his back. That’s just plain bad luck.
Here’s how that happened: He was house-buying and he wanted just one more look-over and nobody was home, it was raining, so he climbed up on the roof for a peek into a second-story window and slid right back down. Did he get screwed, or what? He probably did.
Even Reilly will tell you, though, that sometimes you make your own luck, bad or good. Maybe it’s not his fault that Suniland failed to make the championships, or that he’s not starting at linebacker in the National Football League. Still, it’s his fault that kid was killed. No question. Five years later, he still hasn’t found a way around that one. “I deserved all I got,” he says.
It got very little attention in the area, possibly because he wasn’t quite a Ram when it happened. It was 1982, Rams training camp. Reilly was just an eighth-round draft choice out of Oklahoma. Few but a beat reporter would have recognized Reilly’s name on the police report. Anybody who knew him, how he got around a bottle of beer, might have predicted he’d eventually find his way on one, though.
The fact is, Reilly had been in trouble before. While at Oklahoma, he found more than his share. Before his junior season, he was twice arrested on driving-while-intoxicated charges, once compounding the trouble by taking on the arresting officer. In midseason he was charged with assault and battery after a brawl at a wedding reception. Drink may have been involved.
Something about beer, lots of it. Looking back, even as far as his high school days, Reilly thinks his chemistry just wasn’t up to handling it. “I was a good drinker in the sense that I stayed until the end of the party. But a bad drinker in that I turned into a mean, nasty son of a bitch.”
The thing is, Reilly never had just one or two beers. “When I did drink, I did it to extremes. If I had two, I had 20.” With 20 beers inside a person that turns nasty with any alcohol at all, why, you’d be surprised at the opportunities for trouble.
“You ever been to Oklahoma? All those people wearing cowboy hats, spitting tobacco? All they had to do was say anything, one thing.” Or perhaps it was up to Reilly to say that one thing. Reilly had lots of scrimmages Barry Switzer never heard about.
Done in college, the major downside being a bloody nose or an occasional arrest, this is considered all in good fun. Reilly managed to star on the football field, his consumption of both beer and cocaine notwithstanding.
“One brings you up, the other brings you down,” he says. “Of course, it wasn’t an everyday thing; don’t get that impression. Just a phase, one that some don’t come out of.”
Reilly wasn’t quite out of it, showed no signs of leaving, even as a fledgling Ram. His team had just scrimmaged the San Diego Chargers and some of the players were to repair to the Rams/NFL Alumni picnic. It was his first chance to drink with all the veterans, not that he was drawn into a drinking binge.
“I was going to drink no matter,” he says. He admits he “partied pretty good,” but still doesn’t think he drank that much. Yet his blood alcohol level after the accident was .23, well above the .10 needed for conviction of driving under the influence in California.
Then again, Reilly is a poor defense witness. Even now, after all the retellings, he is unable to clearly reconstruct the accident. “I just remember, ‘Look out, Mike, look out’ and the next thing I saw was smoke coming out of the car. I just remember wandering around after that.”
He does, however, remember seeing the boy lying on the ground, and he remembers that he yelled at people to get away from him. He figured, since there was no blood, the boy had internal injuries. He was right about that. The boy, 17-year-old Zachary Thomas of Chino, died two hours later.
The memory of that, as recalled through an alcoholic haze, does not prompt a killing remorse in Reilly. Maybe if he remembered it better. “Maybe if it were more vivid,” he suggests. “I don’t know. The next day I knew I’d screwed up--bad. But it was something that was weird. I never got down on myself. That might sound bad but, I had been coaching Little League boys since I was 12, and I hadn’t planned on taking a life.”
He took responsibility for it, though. He pleaded no contest to all charges and, after a season at linebacker with the Rams, accepted a one-year sentence at a minimum security jail facility in Orange, a sentence that allowed him to practice but not play for the Rams. He made a financial settlement with the victim’s family. And even after the sentence was served, he took an additional one-year suspension from the NFL.
Anything that happened after the fatal accident goes beyond bad luck. This trouble he plainly deserved. Had earned it. Even the back injury is recalled without any bitterness. It was time to begin a new life, anyway, while he still had time.
He returned to Florida, quit drinking and has worked at a lettering and T-shirt business his father had started. He has been coaching the kids, too. “They’re ready to start trying life out and I’m there to tell them what roads to take,” he says.
Reilly admits he is an alcoholic, although it is hard for him to believe. “I’d sit alone sometimes and it would just make me mad, that I could handle so much physical stuff but couldn’t handle a beer.” At least once this disbelief got the better of him. “I slipped up once about three years ago, nothing major, but I had to see if it was still bad medicine. It was poison.”
It’s tough, but he has some help. The kids he coaches, he says, “keep away the competition--the bars, the trouble.” Remind him, possibly, that the youth around us requires a responsibility on all our parts. Remind him he wasn’t so responsible once.
But he is not killing himself over his past. Suniland Optimist might go 13-0 next season. He might not drink again, or at least take another life. That’s something.
“The way I was going,” he says, “It could have happened a long time ago. It could even have happened again.”