There is no shortage of Frank Deford tributes, both published and on social media, and you wouldn’t see quite this outpouring of love for the man and his work if he were merely arguably the greatest sportswriter of all-time. The depth, breadth, and empathy of his writing certainly deserves all of the lauding it’s receiving in the sports media community, but what’s especially striking is that his profound accomplishments were combined with being what was by all accounts a splendid human.
“Writers have egos — it’s part of what makes them good — I guess Frank had an ego, but you could never sense it in any interaction with him,” says Vince Doria, the former sports editor of the Boston Globe and ESPN’s director of news who was a senior editor at The National, the short-lived daily sports newspaper that Deford spearheaded in the early 1990’s. “He was as sweet and gentle a man as there is. People just were attracted to the guy. Physically, he was this tall, suave intellect with an Ivy League education. Not your typical sportswriter.”
“Yet, he was as accessible, as welcoming, as you could possibly imagine,” Doria continues. “I think people were so struck by the fact that this guy who was a legend was as down to Earth as you could possibly imagine. People wanted to work for him. The people he attracted there — the roster was amazing; yes, people were paid well. There’s no doubt that was part of it — but people left great jobs at great newspapers. It was because of the Frank Deford attraction.”
The legendary sportswriter Dave Kindred, who wrote for The National, also has very fond memories. “He was just an uncommonly decent guy,” he says. “As good as he was, as acclaimed as he was, he never moved with airs about him. He walked among us. He was a giant among us sportswriters, but he never lorded it over anyone. He never big-timed anybody. He had time for everybody.”
“That was his gift as a storyteller too,” Kindred continues. “People liked him instantly, and he was a smart guy. He knew what worked for him and he knew how to get people to talk. He was just a great journalist. More than a sportswriter. Not that I’m denigrating sportswriters, but he was a great journalist. He was a great observer of detail. He had great insight into people’s psyches. But he wrote it all simply. He used probably more clichés in his writing than anybody of great stature ever did, but they always worked for him. They always fit perfectly with whatever the tone of the story was. He didn’t try to wow you. He was not a stylist the way that Dan Jenkins or Jim Murray is, but he was a great thinker and he had great structure to the stories he told.”
Doria and Kindred both have had pieces that Deford wrote decades ago for Sports Illustrated stick with them. For Doria, The Boxer and the Blonde, about the former boxer Billy Conn — “who won the girl he loved but lost the best fight ever” — had impeccable sensibility. For Kindred, it was the story of Bob Knight.
“He did a piece on Bobby Knight, who I had written about more than probably anybody, and when I read his piece he had it just right,” says Kindred. “He had a great knack for taking complex ideas and making them simple. What he did with Knight, calling him the rabbit hunter, was note that he got all the big things right but would get the little things wrong. I also remember him talking about how Knight had a dimple. It was the kind of detail that he would notice and you’d look at Knight in a different way after reading that. After I saw the Knight piece, I ran into Deford and told him I thought the story was great. He said, ‘I think the guy needs help, and I was willing to help him.’ And that was his subtext to the story he wrote. That’s not in the story, but that was why he wrote it the way he did.”
A couple years ago, Kindred recommended that I read the book Deford wrote about his daughter Alex, who tragically died at the age of eight after a battle with cystic fibrosis. I bought it at the time, but have still yet to be able to bear even opening it. “I’m using this word knowingly and intentionally — I think that book was divinely inspired,” Kindred says today. “No one else could have written that book. I suggested that book to dozens of friends and no one could even read it. The mere thought of that was so painful that people couldn’t read it. And here was the guy, to whom it happened, who actually wrote it. If he wrote nothing else in his life, that book will stand for all time.”
One thing that surprised me about Deford was that because his final copies were so pristine I had always assumed he just typed them up that way, that it would all flow out of him in one immaculate draft. Haven’t you thought that? But, I learned from Vince Doria that Deford was quite amenable to the editing process.
“When I dealt with Frank at The National, and obviously he wasn’t writing there as frequently as otherwise, what struck me about him was how receptive he was to editing,” Doria says. “I had the sense of Frank Deford that he just sat down at a typewriter and magic came out. But I don’t think it came as easily as it read. His writing has been described a lot of ways, but graceful is certainly a term, and I think it lends to that sense that it flowed easily. I don’t think that it did. In fact, I would read some of his original versions and they needed some editing. But, with just the right touch of editing, they became that much more impactful. He respected it, and I think expected and appreciated it.”
One cliché in life is to never meet your idols, but when you look at the outpouring of current and former SI staffers who had relationships with him it’s clear that Deford was an exception to the rule:
Richard Deitsch wrote a piece, noting that as a special projects editor about a decade ago he would put together roundtables of SI magazine writers to contribute thoughts to SI.com. At this time, though the publications were under the same banner, they were largely separate entities. Yet Deford, a living legend with thousands of things going on in print, TV, and radio, never turned him down. “Once I had Deford, I was able to use him as my chip,” Deitsch writes. “If anyone started saying they didn’t want to write, I could mention something along the lines of, “Frank F—ing Deford is writing so you can too.”
Deford’s collection of profiles, The World’s Tallest Midget, is entitled as such because the sportswriting genre was, as he put it, “disparaged.” We’ve all heard the sports section referred to as the toy department. Deford was not only tall in stature; his work was widely heralded, but there would be backhanded compliments about his stories, or other meaningful work from sportswriters. “Patronizing critics,” as he called them, would characterize those pieces as “not really about sports” or “different from sportswriting.”
Whatever you want to call it, Deford prolifically produced literature for a half-century, and it had a profound impact on countless readers and writers. Perhaps as importantly to those impacted, Deford was astoundingly accessible.