Frank Deford: All in the Game

Sunday, April 23, 2006

"American sports magazines fall into two categories: Sports Illustrated and the rest," Jim Naughton once wrote in this paper. "Sports Illustrated is witty, well written and socially aware. The rest are none of the above. One of the principal reasons for this distinction is that Sports Illustrated employs the services of Frank Deford, who is probably the best sports writer in the country. . . . One does not encounter essays like Deford's in any other sports magazine. One does not even encounter second-rate imitations."

Whatever you might think of Sports Illustrated these days (it certainly is no longer the publication it was in 1988, when those words were written), one thing is clear: The magazine was at its peak when Frank Deford was at his -- and the combination of man and team was unbeatable.

Deford was born to thrive in an all-male world -- the eldest of three sons, spurred on by his father, an executive with a small manufacturing company in Baltimore. At Gillman, an all-boys private school, Deford became a star basketball player. At Princeton, long before women were admitted, he was editor of the Daily Princetonian. He did a short stint in the army between his junior and senior years, and then, in 1962, when graduation came and he was offered two jobs -- one at the New York Herald Tribune, the other at Sports Illustrated -- he didn't hesitate. He went where he thought the writing was better, the stories were longer and editors encouraged young recruits to stretch their skills.

As it happened, the year Deford joined the magazine was the year it finally became profitable. Sports, too, took off as never before: TV networks began vying for games, the National Football League and National Basketball Association blossomed. "I was suddenly valuable!" Deford says in that booming, gruff voice that has become so familiar on TV and radio. Turning his talents to novels ( Cut 'n Run , for instance, or Everybody's All-American ) and book-length nonfiction (on Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, the Miss America Pageant), he became a veritable one-man production line, the author of more than a dozen books. And he has continued as a featured commentator on National Public Radio, HBO, CNN. "The great gift SI gave me," he says now, "was to let me wander. I was no pioneer, but there wasn't a road I didn't take. I led, in every way, a charmed life."

In 1980, all that fell apart. His 8-year-old daughter succumbed to cystic fibrosis. "When Alex died, my world simply collapsed," he says. "It was horrible. Horrible." Gradually and with great effort, Deford found a way to get back into the arena. He struggled to make sense of his family's tragedy in a memoir, Alex: The Life of A Child (1983), later a TV movie. Eventually, he became the head of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and then its chairman emeritus. "If I've done any real good in my life, it was there," he insists.

But once a sportswriter, always a sportswriter. As years passed, Deford went on to serve as editor-in-chief of the celebrated but short-lived National Sports Daily. He won an Emmy for his work on the Seoul Olympics and a George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting. He was a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a columnist at Newsweek. There wasn't a medium he didn't plunge into. Six times his peers voted him Sportswriter of the Year.

How did one man manage to do it?

"I don't play golf," he says.

-- Marie Arana

Whatever you might think of Sports Illustrated these days, one thing is clear: The magazine was at its peak when Frank Deford was at his -- and the combination of man and team was unbeatable.

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