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Sports Illustrated Cover, 2013

MARCH 7, 2013
Sports Illustrated cover by Tim O'Brien, March 2013

In the summer of 1974, my brothers and I were fatherless and figuring out how to be young men, how to go forward in life.  My mom, of course, pulled double duty beginning in those early days and raised us alone.  There were very few adult males left in our life as all my father's friends stopped coming around and I also had very few uncles.  My grandfather was a huge figure in our life but also was our father's sister's husband, our Uncle Eddie.  Ed O'Neil for several years paid attention to us with visits from Chicago, generous gifts and the longest standing gift, years of a weekly magazine sent to Mr. Daniel, Timothy and Jay O'Brien.  Sports Illustrated arrived each week and was a constant reminder of him.  We passed it between us and each followed the sports of our choice.  For my older brother Dan, it was the Cincinnati Reds, the big red machine, and the New York Giants.  My brother Jay was quite young at the beginning of the subscription but soon became a huge fan of the Bruins and hockey.  For me it was boxing.
I read that fall of 1974 of the miraculous Muhammad Ali's improbably victory over the seemingly invincible, George Foreman.  The writing was descriptive and lush, and the photography was compelling.  My bedroom wall was a tapestry of cut out boxing images taped to cardboard pieces tacked to the wall.  I would be inspired to draw boxers and their lean arms and shoulders and determined faces.  I would learn to box staring at the stances of my heroes, Ali, Leonard, Holmes and Hagler.  
Sports Illustrated was the first place I noticed really compelling illustration.  Bart Forbes was a frequent contributor as was Bernie Fuchs and I kind of thought I would like their jobs.  They were sent to places like the Super Bowl, the US Open and was often hired to draw speculative examples of fights that were about to happen.  These oil paintings were amazing.  I cut all of their illustrations out and they were on my walls, my boxing shrine all through my youth.
Ali became my surrogate father figure after beating George Foreman in 1974

A great photo of a great punch in Zaire.

Ali by Bernie Fuchs.

Bart Forbes predicting Sugar Ray Leonard's Jab working on Thomas Hearns

Bernie Fuchs

Bernie Fuchs

Bart Forbes
This is the last relic I have left from my boxing wall in my childhood bedroom. It's shows the best example of Larry Holmes' amazing jab and his biggest flaw in one image. Snapping jab, chin tucked in, forward movement on springy feet. The flaw, well, it's that right hand down by his hip. This would send him to the canvas several times in his career. The man he's fighting here, Mike Weaver took him almost to the distance until Holmes caught him with an uppercut that knocked him out. I saved this image all these years because it is how I see myself when I throw a jab, just with my right hand up.

Joe Louis by Skip Liepke, 1985
Here is a link to Richard Warner's introduction as Art Director at Sports Illustrated in the 80's. He joined SI in the late 70's and in 1985 became only their 4th AD in their history.
The most painful cover I ever saw.

In my career I have had the great fortune of being able to do illustrations on the covers of many magazines.  One time, years ago I was asked to paint Tiger Woods for Sportsman of the Year.  My art lost out to the much deserved illustration of Tiger by Lauren Uram.  Close, but no cover that year (1996).
I have not been close ever since and actually have not even thought I would ever have a chance again.  A couple of weeks ago I was asked, suddenly, to do Sports Illustrated's '50 Most Powerful People in Sports' inaugural issue.  I immediately thought of ALL of my history with SI and how much it has meant to me. I thought of my late Uncle Eddie, and Ali, and Bart Forbes and Bernie Fuchs and Sugar Ray Leonard, and "The Mysterious Case of Sidd Finch"  by George Plimpton, the most successful April Fools prank I ever read. I thought of a story about the light heavyweight, Billy Conn called "The Boxer and the Blonde" by Frank Deford that should be a movie.  I thought of it all.

But then, I had to just do my job.  The assignment was to illustrate Roger Goodell in the pose and on the throne as in "The Game of Thrones" HBO poster.  It's a great image but if not done correctly Goodell would look silly and it would be almost a unintentionally silly image.  So, I approached it as a serious image and shot myself in his place for the body and I selected a good headshot to work from.  This is not always easy and one must not only choose one that has the right attitude, but the right lighting and position.  Finally the throne.  I had to paint it faithfully to pull off the intended double-take when it was on the cover.
I thought perhaps the throne or something needed to be altered in some way to connect his world to the scene beyond just him in the throne.  I chose to add helmets and footballs. I have never received a more enthusiastic sketch approval as far as I can recall.  They were so happy and psyched that I was going to do their idea.
After a weekend of painting, I did it, handing it in and went back to my life.  Too many things can happen in a weekly magazine to bump a cover and this one could easily have been bumped if Goodell provided a photographer access and they shot a great cover image.  Knowing all that, I choose to NOT ponder it actually coming out.  
A couple of days ago I got a tweet from fellow illustrator, John Hendrix announcing the cover.  He did killer work on the same story for a stellar opener.  I saw my cover very small online for the first time,  and did a sort of clenched fist, downward pulled "Yes!" alone in my studio.
Doing the cover of Sports Illustrated means a lot to me.  I love the magazine, appreciate what it gave to me and my brothers growing up.  It introduced me to functioning illustrations, to the story of boxing in the 70's and 80's, and was the elusive cover I thought would never happen.
Thanks to the folks at Sports Illustrated, Adam Duerson and Christopher Hercik, for making this happen and thanks to my Uncle Ed for knowing some boys needed your thoughtfulness.
Cautiously tiled out reference image for part of this illustration. I shot this many times alone to get all the parts right and assembled them to create a more beefy body of Goodell.

This head is painted really small. This is about 100%.

The battle-worn equipment.

The final artwork. Special thanks to the original poster artwork for the source reference for the throne.

Uncle Eddie O'Neil

© 2024 Tim O'Brien