Frank Deford had one of those careers that kids in journalism school could point to and say, “I want to do that.” He was an iconic sports writer, editor, novelist and commentator. He won pretty much every award you could win as a sports writer, won them for long-form features and columns and books and documentaries and talking on the radio. He was even awarded a National Humanities Medal by then-president Barack Obama.
Deford died Sunday at 78 years old. His death came less than a month after his retirement from National Public Radio, which he announced May 3. Many sports journalists — colleagues as well as the younger generation — told stories of Deford’s influence on them.
But Deford’s career started in 1962, getting a job with Sports Illustrated after graduating from Princeton. Here’s a quick look at three ways he dramatically influenced the sports journalism community:
1. Aggressive, deeply reported features.
When your favorite athlete is on the cover of Sports Illustrated, it can be a thrill. If Deford was the author, though, it should have inspired some chills, too.
Deford wasn’t a takedown artist. He didn’t specialize in hit pieces. Instead, he was a graceful, thoughtful writer who believed foremost in representing his subjects as they really were. That led to one of the truly great magazine profiles ever, his 1981 story on Bob Knight that predated A Season on the Brink by five years. It also led to one of the most stunning stories in SI history, a deeper look at Kirby Puckett years after his retirement that exposed his spousal abuse and other issues.
A couple other Deford classics:
- “The Boxer and the Blonde,” a 1985 feature on Billy Conn that might be the best example of Deford’s literary touch.
- “‘I’ve Won. I’ve Beat Them,’” a gripping 1983 look into the life of boxing announcer Howard Cosell.
- “The Ring Leader,” a 1999 story on an aging Bill Russell, whom Deford had known 30 years earlier.
2. The National Sports Daily.
Deford was the editor-in-chief of the most influential sports publication ever to only last a year and a half. The daily newspaper somehow seemed to aspire to be Sports Illustrated and USA TODAY simultaneously; the reporting was in-depth and expansive, and it had everything anyone could expect from a daily newspaper.
In the process, it burned through money at a relentless rate while also producing some of the great stories of all time, including Ed Hinton on A.J. Foyt and Johnette Howard’s “The Making of a Goon.”
The National‘s legacy is simple: It’s the standard for seemingly every highfalutin sports publisher around. ESPN’s Grantland was the best example — and fittingly produced a definitive oral history of The National. Deford was the guiding force, and his vision was achieved on the newspaper’s best days, however fleeting as they were.
3. The public-radio voice of sports.
Deford joined NPR in 1980 and spent 37 years as its foremost sports commentator, even as others such as Bill Littlefield and Charles P. Pierce joined him. Deford’s voice stayed on a higher plane from what we usually expect in sports radio analysis. There was nothing shock-jock about him.
In this role, Deford kept non-sports fans informed about sports while providing meaningful commentary on the games being played and the off-field events around them. Removed from the takeout feature grind, he became a dose of perspective on many topics.
That’s not to say he was always right. Deford frequently drew criticism in his later years for his views on women in sports, which ranged from antiquated to sexist. A 2003 column on Anna Kournikova drew the ire of many, and years later, he scoffed at those comments in an interview with Deadspin, saying, “Women sports writers have very little sense of humor.”
However, those moments from Deford’s 60s and 70s paint an incomplete picture. Deford worked with Billie Jean King on her 1982 autobiography, and his profile of Jimmy Connors and the women who raised him is a Mother’s Day sports writing staple. At The National, though the staff was heavily male as was typical in 1990, Deford brought on assistant managing editors Susan Kamb and Ellen Thornley and writers Johnette Howard, Kim Cunningham and Lisa Dillman.
Deford’s importance in sports journalism would be hard to overstate. He made us think harder and work harder. He gave us career goals and set our ambitions sky-high. He was your favorite sports writer’s favorite sports writer.