By Gerry Wood
Updated January 28, 1985 12:00 PM
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In 1969, when he was invited to play Anton Rubinstein’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in D Minor, as a guest performer with the Utah Symphony Orchestra, Mike Reid seemed to be straying beyond his proper field. That field was inside Penn State’s stadium, where the 6’3″, 260-pound defensive tackle was earning All-America honors and the Out-land Trophy awarded to college football’s best lineman. “He’s the only long-haired pianist in the world with a shaved head,” cracked one sportswriter, suggesting that the then skin-topped collegian belonged more in football pads than on a piano stool.

Cincinnati Bengal coach Paul Brown agreed and drafted Reid in the first round in 1970. For the next five years the burly Altoona, Pa. native anchored the Bengals’ defensive line, earned two trips to the Pro Bowl and in 1973 helped lead the team to the NFL playoffs. Then, at 27, Reid forsook his $90,000-a-year salary to pursue a career in music. 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.”

For the first few years off the gridiron Reid worked the clubs in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas—not as a classical pianist but as a country music player and singer. In 1980, after modest success as an opening act for name performers such as Richie Havens and B.B. King, he gambled on a move to Nashville to start a career as a full-time songwriter.

The move paid off. Reid’s Inside, recorded by Ronnie Milsap in 1983, soared to the top of the country chart. More Top 5 hits followed in short order: Stranger in My House and Still Losing You, also sung by Milsap; To Me, recorded by Barbara Mandrell and Lee Greenwood; and the ballad I Never Quite Got Back. The output helped Reid win a 1984 Grammy for Stranger, and Nashville insiders predict he could walk off with Country Songwriter of the Year honors at the ASCAP awards later this year. “He’s a one-in-a-lifetime kind of writer,” praises Milsap, a Reid convert who included three of his tunes on his latest LP.

Reid’s history in music has been more oblique than an open-field run. He first followed rock ‘n’ roll originals like Danny and the Juniors (“a great, severe impact”) and the Ronettes (“I was a sucker for the Phil Spector Wall of Sound”), then took up classical music at 13 when he was “overwhelmed” by hearing Beethoven’s Fifth. Smitten later by Rachmaninoff, Liszt and Samuel Barber, and armed with a football scholarship to Penn State, he decided to major in music. Later, during his off-seasons as a pro, he performed as piano soloist with the Cincinnati, Dallas and San Antonio symphonies.

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.

A decade later Reid still looks more like a piano mover than a player, and he keeps his trimmed-down 215 pounds fit with daily morning workouts. Afterward he leaves the two-bedroom Nashville home he shares with wife Susan, 29, and son Matthew for the four-minute drive to his office on nearby Music Row. His work now is “a treasure in life,” he says happily, disclosing that he recently cut a demo tape and hopes to land, a recording contract of his own. “I don’t for one second regret having played football,” Reid insists. “But my football experience didn’t teach me to believe in myself. And that’s what you need as a songwriter. You need to believe that, dammit, someday it’s all going to become clear and come together.”