He wrote about great dynasties and their eventual demise. Unwittingly, he chronicled the rise and downfall of the greatest dynasty of all.
Frank Deford, 78, died Sunday at his home in Key West, Fla. He leaves behind a body of work that is the combination of that of millions of lesser men including 18 books (nine novels), thousands of articles for Sports Illustrated, an ill-fated editorship of The National, the first and only sports-only daily paper, dozens of segments on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and an astonishing 1,656 commentaries for NPR.
He was voted National Sportswriter of the Year six times by the National Association of Sportswriters and Sportscasters, and was twice voted Magazine Writer of the Year by the Washington Journalism Review.
His 1981 novel, Everybody’s All-American was named one of Sports Illustrated’s Top 25 Sports Books of All Time and was later made into a film of the same title which I recommend nobody ever see.
He was also the screenwriter on the films Trading Hearts (1987) and Four Minutes (2005).
I first came to know Deford through his weekly spots on NPR’s Friday Morning Edition where he would wax poetic about an era in sports that was alleged to be present-day but I felt had long ago passed, for me and perhaps the rest of the nation.
For Deford, the grass was ever sepia green on the professional gridiron. College football players still had endearing nicknames and coaches tousled their crew cuts and flicked their still sticking-out ears. Baseball players were ornery cusses with hearts of gold. The great teams somehow bridging racial, socioeconomic and language barriers to galvanize during the heat of a playoff run. Basketball players, the best of ‘em anyway, played a couple inches above the hardwood, hydroplaning then launching to unfathomable heights.
Deford reminded me of how I used to view sports, before I started to see it through the lens of billionaire oligarch owners, teams of trainers and scientists trying to find the athlete the edge—legal or no—and football, oh dear football, before science taught us that playing from high school on hands notables a sort of lifetime of imprisonment in their own damaged heads.
Deford’s narratives also began to change over time. Some thought the old man was growing a little surly and impatient, I saw a poet in the twilight of his career acting as he always had, as a conduit.
He was a scholar of all letters, notions and pop culture. His commentary was always infused with a little old, a little new and a little bit of his own trickery.
He grew tired though. Tired of the money and the attitudes and the manufactured answers and his own growing lack of access. Great men age with determination and yet it’s never graceful. Deford had just enough in his pouch to make magic once more during his final NPR commentary and it was there he revealed the true secret to his success: He never talked down to his audience or took their smarts for granted. He was one of us, a fan, and he never forgot it.
I’ve been blessed with you, with a broad and intelligent audience—even if large portions thereof haven’t necessarily given a hoot about sports. Nothing has pleased me so much as when someone—usually a woman—writes me or tells me that she’s appreciated sports more because NPR allowed me to treat sports seriously, as another branch on the tree of culture.
Unfortunately, there is another side to that comment, one that is out-of-touch and perhaps in a different light would be cast as sexist. Of course, that wasn’t his intent but it’s there. A man who watched a time of civility and intelligence and direct discourse pass him by during the span of his career and his waking life.
We occupy a different moment than Deford did. How lucky for him that he was in his career’s prime after a World War to defeat fascism? When print and radio were viable mediums. When a man’s or woman’s well-crafted words were viewed as art.
There were other wars and controversies and attacks on civility to follow, but he exited right at the time when America is re-defining itself as a place where only the callous and unconcerned survive. We are no longer a nation of neighbors… and Deford was the one you wanted next door to you, in your corner.
Deford served as chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation from 1982 until 1999. He became a cystic-fibrosis advocate after his daughter Alexandra was diagnosed with the illness in 1972. She died at age 8 on January 19, 1980. To donate in his name, click here.