By DANIEL VICTOR
Frank Deford, who mined the sports world for human stories and told them with literary grace over six decades in Sports Illustrated, a shelf of books and many years of radio and television commentary, died Sunday at his home in Key West, Florida. He was 78.
His wife, Carol, confirmed his death Monday but said she did not yet know the cause.
Deford retired from NPR’s “Morning Edition” on May 3, signing off with what the radio network said was his 1,656th weekly commentary since 1980. He also appeared on HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel” for 22 years and wrote for Sports Illustrated for more than 30 years.
At Sports Illustrated, he became a leader in a form of literary sports journalism nurtured by its managing editor, Andre Laguerre, who recruited him as one of a blue-ribbon roster of writers that included Mark Kram, Dan Jenkins and Roy Blount Jr. Together they made the magazine one of the most successful at Time Inc.
Deford was a six-time Sportswriter of the Year, a National Magazine Award recipient, a member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame and the first sports writer to be given a National Humanities Medal, presented by President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony in 2012.
“A dedicated writer and storyteller, Mr. Deford has offered a consistent, compelling voice in print and on radio, reaching beyond scores and statistics to reveal the humanity woven into the games we love,” the award citation said.
He displayed that voice – evocative, unhurried, conversational – in a 1985 profile of champion boxer Billy Conn, known as “the Pittsburgh Kid.” Titled “The Boxer and the Blonde,” the article began this way:
“The boxer and the blonde are together, downstairs in the club cellar. At some point, club cellars went out, and they became family rooms instead. This is, however, very definitely a club cellar. Why, the grandchildren of the boxer and the blonde could sleep soundly upstairs, clear through the big Christmas party they gave, when everybody came and stayed late and loud down here. The boxer and the blonde are sitting next to each other, laughing about the old times, about when they fell hopelessly in love almost half a century ago in New Jersey, at the beach. Down the Jersey shore is the way everyone in Pennsylvania says it. This club cellar is in Pittsburgh.”
Ross Greenburg, then-president of HBO Sports, told The Los Angeles Times in 2004, “Frank Deford with a pen in his hand is like Michael Jordan with a basketball and Tiger Woods with a driver.”
He wrote more than a dozen books, including fiction and nonfiction. In a memoir, “Alex: The Life of a Child” (1983), he wrote about a daughter who died of cystic fibrosis when she was 8 years old. The book was later made into a 1986 television movie. He was national chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation for 16 years.
In another memoir, “Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter,” published in 2012, Deford said he had written about his daughter “to make her short life mean something.”
“I hoped that by writing about this one extraordinary little person, I would give a face to her disease – cystic fibrosis – which was then struggling to achieve the recognition that it needed to secure research funds,” he wrote. “As a father who was a writer, I would’ve felt simply irresponsible had I not written the story about what was the most important thing that had happened in my life – never mind how tragic that was – especially since writing that story might help others.”
Benjamin Franklin Deford III was born on Dec. 16, 1938, in Baltimore and attended the Calvert and Gilman schools there before enrolling at Princeton, from which he graduated in 1962. He began his career at Sports Illustrated as a researcher.
In 1980, having become one of the magazine’s top writers, he was recruited for what he thought would be a temporary stint, delivering weekly sports commentary on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”
There he spoke to an audience less obsessed with box scores, statistics and injury updates and more interested in the cultural impact of sports and the people behind the games.
“Nothing made me happier than to hear from literally hundreds of listeners, who would tell me how much the commentaries revealed about a subject they otherwise had never cared much for,” NPR quoted him as saying in May.
In 1990, he was recruited to be the founding editor-in-chief of The National Sports Daily – also known as The National – a short-lived tabloid newspaper that assembled a murderer’s row of writers and editors, including Tony Kornheiser and Mike Lupica. Some said they had been drawn there by Deford’s presence.
“I’d follow Frank Deford into any foxhole,” Peter Richmond, a sports writer, told Grantland in 2011. “To this day, I would. If he started this sucker up again and said, ‘Except this time we’ve only got $10,000 and four writers, and you’ll have to walk to every city,’ I’d do it.”
The paper went out of business in less than two years, having lost $150 million.
Besides his wife, Carol, whom he married in 1965, Deford is survived by his son, Christian; another daughter, Scarlet Crawford; and two grandchildren.
As Deford was commenting on sports for 37 years, until shortly before his death, the sports media around him changed. In a 2008 interview in Deadspin, he mourned the loss of what he saw as deeper storytelling in favor of gossip and “x’s and o’s” coverage.
“I think there are more good sports writers doing more good sports writing than ever before,” he wrote in “Over Time.” “But I also believe that the one thing that’s largely gone out is what made sport such fertile literary territory – the characters, the tales, the humor, the pain, what Hollywood calls ‘the arc.’ That is: stories. We have, all by ourselves, ceded that one neat thing about sport that we owned.”