Legendary Sports Illustrated Writer, NPR Voice Frank Deford Passes Away At 78
FRANK DEFORD, often considered the "finest sportswriter of his generation for his detailed psychological profiles of athletes and coaches, who also won acclaim for his novels, his television and radio commentaries and for a heartfelt book about his daughter’s struggle with cystic fibrosis," died Sunday at his home in Key West at the age of 78, according to Matt Schudel of the WASHINGTON POST. Deford's wife, CAROL, said that he had been "treated recently for pneumonia, but the immediate cause of death was unknown." Deford joined SI in '62 and "soon emerged as the most accomplished stylist on sportswriting’s brightest stage." His stories "helped raise sportswriting from the daily chronicle of victory and defeat to something with more literary ambition." Deford left SI in '89 to launch The National, a daily sports newspaper that "folded 18 months later." Since the early '80s, he had been a "regular on the airwaves, often appearing" on NBC, ESPN, HBO, Miller Lite ads and, for 37 years, as a weekly commentator on NPR (WASHINGTON POST, 5/30). In N.Y., Leonard Greene writes for decades, Deford's byline was "practically synonymous" with SI (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 5/30).
LIFE OF A LEGEND: In N.Y., Daniel Victor notes 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 '80. Deford was a six-time Sportswriter of the Year, a National Magazine Award recipient, a member of the National Sportscasters & Sportswriters HOF and the "first sportswriter to be given a National Humanities Medal," presented by PRESIDENT OBAMA. He "wrote more than a dozen books, including fiction and nonfiction" (N.Y. TIMES, 5/30). In Baltimore, Childs Walker in a front-page piece writes The National was Deford's "grand midlife experiment." As the publication's editor, Deford "unleashed a gifted staff of writers to bring literary-minded coverage to everything from the NBA to professional wrestling." However, the paper "never overcame distribution troubles and closed" in June '91. While Deford "built his career and lived most of his life in other places, he always referred to Baltimore as home" (Baltimore SUN, 5/30). SI.com's Alexander Wolff noted an SI editor once said that Deford "wasn’t so much a great stylist as someone whose humanity shone through in all that he wrote." Deford "enlarged the canvas on which sportswriters painted, and in doing so set the stage for colleagues to come," from former SI writer GARY SMITH to ESPN The Magazine's WRIGHT THOMPSON (SI.com, 5/29).
HIS WORK STOOD OUT: On Long Island, Neil Best writes Deford was "among the most venerable and versatile voices in sports journalism for the past half-century." The news "left a nation of sportswriters an unenviable task: Writing about a writer better at writing than the rest of us" (NEWSDAY, 5/30). In DC, Sally Jenkins writes Deford "practically invented the notion of multimedia." Deford also "didn’t write about people who were easy to like," but instead chose those that "defied idolizing," like JIMMY CONNORS, BOB KNIGHT and BILL RUSSELL. Deford "picked them on purpose," because he "understood that sports are stories we tell ourselves about who we would like to be -- but aren't" (WASHINGTON POST, 5/30). In N.Y., Mike Lupica writes Deford was a sportswriter, one of the "best and most elegant the business has ever known and ever will know." If someone was a kid in the '60s and '70s "dreaming your own dreams about someday being a bigtime sportswriter yourself, he was a giant, in all ways." Lupica: "There has never been anyone, in the history of the business, that did that sort of work that well, for as long as Frank did" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 5/30). PBS' Erica Hendry noted fans and colleagues of Deford said that he "transformed the way Americans think about sports, weaving intimate portraits of coaches and athletes and bringing statistics to life with his distinctive style of storytelling" (PBS.org, 5/29). SI.com remembers the life and impact of Deford in a roundtable with current and former writers (SI.com, 5/29).
TWITTER REMEMBRANCES: Tributes to Deford poured in on Twitter. THE MMQB's Peter King wrote Deford "told such wonderful stories in print, TV and radio with feeling and empathy. A writer's writer. A wonderful man." SI's Tim Layden: "Deford was longform before #Longform. In many ways, he invented the genre and let future generations play with it." Writer Rick Reilly: "Deford used to tell us: 'I don't write about sports. I write about people who happen to play sports.' That stuck w/ me forever." The National Endowment for the Humanities tweeted Deford, a '12 National Humanities Medalist, "transformed how we think about sports." NPR's Steve Inskeep: "I'll miss his voice." K.C. Star's Sam Mellinger: "Very few can honestly wear the 'legend' tag. Frank Deford is one." The Washington Post's Jenkins: "See you around the next bend in the river, Frank Deford. Til then, thanks for what you taught us youngsters."