Famed Sportswriter Tries Hand at Poetry

Word Count

Peoria native Rick Telander turns ‘fever dream’ into “Sweet Dreams’"

By Phil Luciano
Book Cover for Sweet Dreams’ by Rick Telander


In the longest project of Rick Telander’s career, the renowned sportswriter aims at a new audience:

Kids. Specifically, sick kids.

Man holding a bookFor nearly 30 years, the Peoria native – whose professional resume includes stints at ESPN, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Sun-Times – has been working on a bedtime book that seeks to soothe ailing children. The result is the vivid and visceral Sweet Dreams: Poems and Paintings for the Child Abed.

It’s not for sale yet. However, thanks to donors, copies soon will be given to children connected to Ronald McDonald House Charities in Peoria and Chicago. Meantime, Telander is dreaming big: He wants to get a book into the hands of every child whose family stays at any of the 350-plus Ronald McDonald House Charities across the globe.

“That’s my goal,” said Telander, 73. “Why not?”

He has a long track record of setting the bar high, then hopping over it. So why not, indeed?

At Peoria’s Richwoods High School, Telander was an all-conference quarterback. A football scholarship brought him to Northwestern University, where he rode the bench until coaches put him at defensive back, where he made All-Big Ten his senior season. In 1971, he was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs but got cut in training camp.

Still, he stuck with sports. He freelanced for Sports Illustrated before becoming a senior writer in the 1980s. He later appeared on ESPN on “The Sports Reporters” and other shows. In 1995, he joined the Chicago Sun-Times, where he continues to write a sports column. His work has earned him multiple national sportswriting awards.

Meantime, he and wife Judy raised four daughters. During his meager free time, Telander wrote eight books, including Heaven Is a Playground, later adapted into a movie and named one of the “ten best sports books of all time” by Playboy Magazine.

But the ninth book? It’s been not only a labor of love, but of time – thanks to a long-ago fever dream.

“I started this book, unwittingly, almost three decades ago when I was lying in a hospital for two-and-a-half weeks, hooked up to multiple tubes, eating nothing, so nauseated from an infected appendix and intestine that I couldn’t tolerate reading, watching TV, listening to music, or even staring at the wallpaper,” Telander said. “All I could do was make up things in my head. That’s when I wrote the first few poems for this book.”

After Telander got discharged, he decided to continue to write similar poems, aiming for an audience of ailing youths.

“I wanted to collect them into an illustrated book for children who might be sick in bed, or taking a nap, or simply going to bed for any reason, he said. “Preparing for sleep and listening to — or reading —bedtime poems, I have always believed, are two of the most soothing and pleasurable things kids can do all the way to adulthood.”

With everything else going on in his life, Telander had a slow go with the writing. But it gave him time to research and approach just the right artists to illustrate one poem apiece. With each illustrator, he would have detailed and ongoing conversation, to make sure their visions converged.

“I love art,” he says. “I’ve always painted, since grade school. I still paint.”

In the end, he crafted 42 poems, matched to 42 artworks. Four countries are represented among 40 artists, along with two vintage works by unknown illustrators. The collected works are ready to head to the printer.

“It took almost 30 years, but here we are,” Telander said.

Book Illustration of a dog.

Sweet Dreams will be available to the public this summer. He has no idea if he or the artists will make any money – the profit would be split among a great many hands – but he isn’t worried.

“I never did this for the money,” he said.

Rather, he is more focused on pushing an idea he long has discussed with the artists. He wants to get a book to every kid touched by Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC), which provides free meals, lodging and other support to families and guardians of hospitalized children. 

Telander said a book means more to a child than just reading stories online. Each RMHC book would include a fill-in-the-blank: “This book belongs to _____.”

“It’s yours forever,” Telander said.

Thanks to underwriters, about 1,000 books are being distributed among the five RMHC sites in the Chicago area. Also, following a donation from WTVP, 200 copies will be shared with the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Illinois at 401 NE Monroe St. in Peoria.

“We were very touched that Rick reached out to us about his book, Sweet Dreams, said Abby Koester, development director for Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Illinois. “This is a great opportunity to provide another layer of comfort to our families. This book is an opportunity for families to bond through literacy, art and imagination. The poems and illustrations are beautiful and inspiring. We’re honored that he thought of us and our families.”

Telander said the effort won’t stop at Peoria and Chicago.

“This is just the start,” he said. “I’m hoping for donors who believe in literacy and the comfort you can get from a book.”

Telander hopes to get copies to kids connected to the 350-plus sites in 62 countries – with translations.

“Something that started so long ago as a fever dream in a hospital bed has become a reality that hopefully will help many kids and families in their times of need,” Telander said.

For Ronald McDonald House Charities, copies of “Sweet Dreams; Poems and Paintings for the Child Abed” can be purchased at the printing cost. To help this effort, potential underwriters can contact Rick Telander at rftelander@aol.com.


Phil Luciano  

Phil Luciano is a senior writer/ columnist for Peoria Magazine
and content contributor to public television station WTVP.