Rest in peace
Frank Deford, a sportswriter who began his career at Sports Illustrated in 1962 and didn't quit until right before his death on Sunday, was "a dedicated writer and storyteller" who "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," reads his citation for the National Humanities Medal former President Barack Obama awarded him in 2013, the first such honor for a sportswriter. It was one of many awards Deford won over his long career. He died at his home in Key West, Deford's wife, Carol, confirmed on Monday. He was 78.
Benjamin Franklin Deford III was born in Baltimore in 1938, and along with 30-plus years writing for Sports Illustrated he was a regular on HBO's Real Sports and on NPR's Morning Edition, from which he retired only on May 3, after 1,656 commentaries about the human side of sports. Hired as a researcher at Sports Illustrated, he made his bones writing about basketball, hardly a focus of sportswriters in the 1960s.
Deford "understood the particular legacy he had carved out," writes Bryan Curtis at The Ringer. "He would be seen more as a great sportswriter rather than a great writer, full stop. ... And he decided — though he was more talented than many writers who pass through the gates of The New Yorker — that he was more or less comfortable with the slur." At the same time, Curtis says, "Deford wrote so well it obscured his divining-rod abilities as a reporter. He always seemed to land on just the right quote."
So, a quote from Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports in 2004, when he told the Los Angeles Times: "Frank Deford with a pen in his hand is like Michael Jordan with a basketball and Tiger Woods with a driver." And a quote from Deford — who leaves behind a wife, two children, and two grandchildren, having lost a daughter to cystic fibrosis at age 8 — from his 2012 collection Over Time: My Life As a Sportswriter: "I think there are more good sportswriters doing more good sportswriting than ever before. 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."