Skip Bayless, the Mad Monk of ESPN
Credit: Photograph by Andrew Hetherington

Skip Bayless leans in to tell the story. He bows his big shoulders, straining the seams of his muscle tee, plants his elbows on the table at the Ruby Tuesday in Bristol, Connecticut, just down the road from the ESPN studios where he works, and tightens the screws in his jaw. The voice that comes out of him, though, is arid and pinched, as if describing the contents of his desk.

"This was the turning-point moment for me and my father, the summer I said, 'I have to get out.' I was working at Hickory House, his barbecue place, filling a truck with big cookers of ribs. Dad was drunker than usual and abusing me in front of the staff, throwing these scalding-hot cookers at me so I'd burn my hands. 'What're you doing? You want to fight me?' I said, and he goes, 'Yeah. Let's see what you got.' So we go to a back storeroom, and he takes his stance, comes at me with a big old roundhouse. I casually half-ducked it and creamed him with a right, knocked him into a vat of potato salad. He got up spitting fury and said, 'Go home to your mother!' Screamed me out the door yelling that. He died five years later, during my first year out of college. That was the last time we really talked."

>Bayless has been sitting for four and a half hours, telling tales of his Raymond Carver beginnings: the beautiful mother who drank like a fish and had only a nodding interest in her kids; the father who treated him like a party trick, pouring booze down the throat of his preschool-age son for the amusement of his Saturday-night guests; and the decades-long rift between Skip and his two siblings, one of whom is Rick Bayless, the famed chef and impresario of Mexican cuisine. It's a powerhouse story of suffering and resilience, of a man who spun himself out of thin air into a red-hot commodity in sports – first as a columnist, then as a host on talk radio, and, finally, as the 60-year-old star of a breakout television hit, the morning sports debate show First Take on ESPN2. There, his outdoor-voiced views on zeitgeist athletes – Tim Tebow (whom he exalts) and LeBron James (whom he reviles), and Terrell Owens, Tiger Woods, and Chad Ochocinco in years past – have pushed ratings through the roof, provoked untold hate tweets, and driven a fair portion of the national conversation about superstars and their lives. But get him going on his own life, or the meager bits of it not subsumed by watching and judging players, and the air leaks out of Bayless. It's like talking, suddenly, to a hardware salesman, albeit one who knows his way around a punch line.

"So I knew to get out, and that I could get out, despite no sports or college background in my family," says Bayless, who, as a senior at Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City, was writing for the school paper, carrying perfect marks, and catching for the varsity baseball team. To compound his troubles, though, he was playing for a coach who happened to be a lot like his father, "demeaning and abrasive because he could be." In the spring of that year, Bayless decided to strike a blow at one of the overbearing men in his life. Just before his last game, he published a detailed takedown of the coach, a man named Winston Havenstrite, and his "tyranny." The story, outing Havenstrite as a bully and a fraud, was a local sensation and set Bayless' flight path as a rabble-rouser-in-progress. Shortly afterward, he got a phone call at home informing him that he'd won the annual Grantland Rice scholarship, a full boat ride to Vanderbilt University given to the best high school sportswriter in the country. It was revenge and deliverance in a single serving, but Bayless barely shrugs at the recollection. "I left that chaos – Dad running off with Mom's friend, Mom spiraling into alcohol hell – and was gone and done. My sister and brother haven't forgiven that to this day."

"Have you sat with either of them since?"

He slumps in his booth and folds his gunnery-sergeant arms, eyes hooded by his baseball cap. Out of his on-air uniform – the hand-stitched and double-starched shirts – he is ferociously fit for a man his age, as obdurate about the body he's spent 30 years building as he is on the subject of Tebow's glory. Both things are extensions of his self-conception: He's a warrior for the truth, and war is hell. "Without going into details, which I'll keep to myself, I tried to reconnect with each and failed."

And the coach you nailed with that kill shot?

At this, Bayless brightens. "My junior-high coach, a guiding light in my life, ran into him on the golf course a week later. Havenstrite said, 'I want you to tell him something for me: If I ever see him again, I will kill him!'"

"Your first death threat. A milestone."

"I know," says Bayless, his eyes lit up now. "I'd made my first hater in print!"