Frank Deford, Giant of Sports Journalism, Dies at 78

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Frank Deford

The feature writer spent decades at Sports Illustrated, wrote the novel 'Everybody's All-American' and served as the editor of the grandiose newspaper The National.

Frank Deford, the charismatic sports writer widely regarded as one of the best of his generation who also presided over the ambitious and short-lived The National, one of the biggest busts in the annals of the newspaper industry, has died. He was 78. 

Deford, who began his career at Sports Illustrated in 1962 and remained with the magazine for decades, died Sunday in Key West, Fla., his wife said.

A prolific and widely admired novelist as well, Deford wrote the 1981 book Everybody's All-American, about the downfall of a 1950s University of North Carolina star. It was made into the 1988 film directed by Taylor Hackford that starred Dennis Quaid and Jessica Lange.

Deford's passion, knowledge of sports and knack for storytelling led the Baltimore native to opportunities beyond the page. HBO brought him in to serve as a senior correspondent for Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, and for 37 years through this month, he served as a regular commentator for NPR's Morning Edition. He won an Emmy Award and a Peabody.

Six-foot-4 with rugged good looks, the journalist had a debonair demeanor that radiated masculinity, making him a natural in the sports world. Former Washington Post media columnist Norman Chad once referred to Deford as the "Clark Gable of Sports Writing" (like the actor, he wore a thin mustache well). Deford's wife, Carol Penner, whom he married in 1965, was a fashion model.

In a 2011 piece for the website Grantland, Chad recalled a lunch he had with Deford when he was interviewing for The National. "He's the greatest feature sports writer in history, and he just looks immaculate," he said. "He had barbecue ribs. I've had barbecue ribs 500 times in my life. He did not get a drip of sauce anywhere on his face, suit, tie. The guy is carved out of stone. I don't even know how he ate the ribs. He was like a god. He didn't even need a napkin."

But as big an impression as Deford made in person, he made an even more lasting one with the typewriter.

Deford was named U.S. Sportswriter of the Year by the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters on six occasions and was elected into its Hall of Fame in 1998. The Washington Journalism Review twice voted him Magazine Writer of the Year. In 2000, Deford was given the National Magazine Award by the American Society of Magazine Editors for his profile of Boston Celtics great Bill Russell for Sports Illustrated. He was dubbed the nation's finest sports writer by the American Journalism Review.

In 2012, Deford became the first person from the world of sports to receive the W.M. Kiplinger Distinguished Contributions to Journalism Award, the National Press Foundation's most prestigious honor. That same year, he became the first magazine writer to win the Associated Press Sports Editors' Red Smith Award. In 2013, the University of Kansas presented him with the William Allen White Foundation National Citation for "excellence in journalism."

As John Meroney wrote in a 2012 profile of Deford for The Atlantic: "This is a man who once equated writing with the joy of sex. 'I think I would die if I couldn't get to the typewriter every day. I really need that. I think it's a sexual experience,' said Deford in an interview."

He authored 17 books. Many of his efforts, including Five Strides on the Banked Track: The Life and Times of the Roller Derby (1971), Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and The Tragedy (1976) and The Old Ball Game: How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball (2005), chronicled sports amid real life.

However, Deford didn't limit himself to that. In 1971, he looked at the role of beauty pageants in American culture with There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America. His 1986 novel, The Spy in the Deuce Court, featured a globetrotting journalist on assignment for the CIA. With Casey on the Loose: What Really Might Have Happened (1989), Deford whimsically fantasized about the story surrounding Ernest Thayer's 1888 poem Casey at the Bat. Bliss, Remembered (2010) was a romantic love story set during the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

His most personal work was 1984's Alex: The Life of a Child. Deford penned it in memory of his daughter, who died of cystic fibrosis in 1980. It was adapted into a 1986 ABC telefilm with Craig T. Nelson portraying Deford and Bonnie Belinda his wife. Deford was a lifelong advocate in the fight against the disease, serving as chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation from 1982 until 1999.

Deford also authored the baseball-themed screenplay for the Raul Julia-starring Trading Hearts (1988) and several TV documentaries, including Arthur Ashe: Citizen of the World (1994), Playing the Field: Sports and Sex in America (2000) and Barbaro (2008), about the ill-fated Kentucky Derby champion.

Benjamin Franklin Deford III was born in Baltimore on Dec. 16, 1938. After graduating from Princeton University in 1962, he landed a job as a researcher at Sports Illustrated.

Within a year of joining the publication, his byline began appearing in the weekly magazine. Many of his initial efforts were stories about athletes close to his own age. The Dec. 17, 1962, issue featured a profile of Princeton hoopster, Rhodes scholar and future New York Knicks star Bill Bradley. The following year saw stories about the up-and-coming Canadian tennis star Mike Belkin, USC's domination of college tennis and Oklahoma City besting the University of San Francisco in a major college basketball upset.

In a 1966 article, Deford introduced the world to Bobby Orr, then 18. It proved to be one of his breakthrough pieces.

"The ice will soon be forming on Parry Sound, and within the month it will conquer the green waters that lap at the Thirty Thousand Islands and hold them tight until the thaw, late in April. In this long winter the harbor will, as always, belong to the kids from town and to their hockey games," Deford wrote.

"Bobby Orr learned to grab a puck and keep it on Parry Sound. He is only 18 now, starting his rookie year with the Boston Bruins, but many people think that before long he will be controlling games in the National Hockey League as surely as he did those against the Indian boys."

His 1984 SI article "The Toughest Coach There Ever Was," about East Mississippi Junior College coach Bob "Bull" Sullivan, is legendary among his peers. "The 120th paragraph is as good as the lede, and the ending is better than all of it," former colleague Ed Hinton once said.

One of Deford's favorites was "The Boxer and the Blonde," his 1986 piece on Billy Conn, the would-be heavyweight champion of the world. "I love the Sullivan story though," he told The Atlantic. "Both are favorites because they deal with time and place. But Billy Conn is a love story, too."

Undoubtedly, Deford's most ambitious and frustrating undertaking was The National. Describing it as the biggest gamble of his life, the five-times-a-week tabloid was envisioned as America's ultimate sports publication. It was conceived and backed by media mogul Emilio Azcarraga, owner of the Mexican television conglomerate Televisa. Deford, with little editing or managerial experience, was named editor-in-chief.

"The whole idea was very beguiling," Deford wrote on the website Still No Cheering in the Press Box. "It is difficult for people to understand now, but this was before the internet, so the world was entirely different then it would be in just a few years. USA Today was selling more than a million copies a day all around the country. Sports dailies existed in most countries around the world and were extremely popular. So there was a rationale for saying we might be able to make this thing work.

"And we had real money behind it. So often, when people get these crazy ideas in journalism, or in publishing, there really isn’t any money to sustain it. But we had big money. So I thought, let’s do it."

Azcarraga essentially gave Deford a blank checkbook, and he used it to staff the paper with the best in the business — Tony Kornheiser from The Washington Post, Mike Lupica from The New York Daily News, Leigh Montville of The Boston Globe, Scott Ostler from the Los Angeles Times, auto racing expert Hinton, NFL investigative reporter Chris Mortensen, wrestling authority Dave Meltzer, and on and on. All were paid premium rates.

The premiere edition, which arrived Jan. 31, 1990, featured three different versions to entice readers in its three major cities. Michael Jordan appeared on the cover of the Chicago edition. Magic Johnson graced the cover in Los Angeles. Patrick Ewing starred in New York. The price was 50 cents an issue.

With the help of Vince Doria as executive editor, Deford put out a publication that was considered one of the finest sports tabloids ever produced. The features were great, the graphics groundbreaking, the box scores full of information never before included. But the business side was a disaster.

Ads were almost non-existent. The paper shared printing facilities with The Wall Street Journal, which often forced The National to go to press lacking late-night scores. And it could only be purchased on regional newsstands; the operation never figured out home delivery.

"I live in Westport, Conn. That ain't exactly the middle of nowhere. They couldn't deliver the paper to me. I knew we had problems," Deford said in the Grantland article. "I remember talking to the guy who delivers newspapers to me. He told me how many people on his route had ordered The National. Now, I can't remember the figures, but every one of them had canceled because they couldn't get the paper. And finally I canceled myself. I did! I canceled."

Eighteen months and $150 million later, The National was through, and Deford returned to his first love — writing.

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