Frank Deford, Longtime Sports Writer, Dies At 78
Frank Deford, who was among the best sports reporters in the business, has died at the age of 78:
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 on Sunday at his home in Key West, Fla. He was 78.
His wife, Carol, confirmed his death on Monday but said she did not yet know the cause.
Mr. 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, André 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.
Mr. 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 sportswriter to be given a National Humanities Medal, presented by President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony in 2013.
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. The book was later the basis of 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, Mr. Deford said he had written about his daughter “to make her short life mean something.”
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 murderers’ row of writers and editors, including John Feinstein and Mike Lupica. Some said they had been drawn there by Mr. Deford’s presence.
“I’d follow Frank Deford into any foxhole,” Peter Richmond, a sportswriter, 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, Mr. Deford is survived by his son, Christian; another daughter, Scarlet Crawford; and two grandchildren.
Deford was also a frequent guest on several networks over the years to discuss sports-related issues. His insights, and his prose, will be missed.