“[S]o many grown American men are walking around all the rest of their lives, playing those glory days over, still hearing the cheers in their inner ear. A lot of them lie about how good they were, and I think after a while, they come to believe their own lies. Some of them never get it out of their system, no matter how long they live or what they do for a living, because in this country, when you're so damn young and impressionable, it's especially exhilarating, playing for your school, with pretty cheerleaders jumping up and down and fans yelling for you. ... [A]ll your life, you might never beat that.” —Frank Deford, Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter (2012)
Frank Deford, who passed away on Sunday at age 78, sensed that sports was more than a mere matter of box scores, but also involved matters such as physical perfection and the ache of losing it. It was evident in one of his most famous pieces, “The Boxer and the Blonde,” on heavyweight contender Billy Conn and his wife, and a novel of his adapted into a Dennis Quaid-Jessica Lange movie, Everybody’s All-American.
Standing 6 ft. 4 in. himself, with a pencil-thin moustache, Deford radiated enough charisma to be described as “the Clark Gable of sportswriting” by a onetime associate, Norman Chad. His own elegant prose embodied that combination of humor, earthiness and heart.
The long profile, the form that Deford perfected at Sports Illustrated, can feel like a relic from the pre-digital age, impossible to emulate at a point when people have little time for anything beyond a tweet.
Consider his retrospective on Johnny Unitas, “The Best There Ever Was,” which depicted how this quarterback brought pride to Baltimore and transformed the very concept of his position:
“They didn't have coaches with headphones and Polaroids and fax machines then, sitting on high, telling quarterbacks what plays to call. In those halcyon days, quarterbacks were field generals, not field lieutenants. And there was Unitas after he called a play (and probably checked off and called another play when he saw what the ruffians across the line were up to), shuffling back into the pocket, unfazed by the violent turbulence all around him, standing there in his hightops, waiting, looking, poised. I never saw war, so that is still my vision of manhood: Unitas standing courageously in the pocket, his left arm flung out in a diagonal to the upper deck, his right cocked for the business of passing, down amidst the mortals. Lock and load.”
In the middle of his career, Deford gambled by leaving his longtime perch at Sports Illustrated to become the founding editor of The National, America's first and only all-sports daily newspaper. It contained a Murderers’ Row of great sportswriters—Mike Lupica, Dave Kindred, Scott Ostler, John Feinstein—but, coming out amid an economic downturn, it flopped within two years. Nevertheless, it became the object of adoration as what sportscaster Tony Kornheiser called “the great and noble experiment of sports writing in America.”
Well into his career, Deford learned how to adapt his words for the mass media of radio and television, appearing as senior correspondent on HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel and as a commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition. His prose became shorter and punchier without deviating from his longtime convictions, as in this explanation of how performance-enhancing drugs destroys fans’ faith in their sports:
“Visual entertainment certainly doesn't need to be real. Magicians have always performed what they frankly call ‘tricks.’ The movies now live by what are advertised as ‘special effects.’ But in sports, the bodies must be honest or what's the point? In a horrible way, concussions are good for football; they validate how seriously the bodies function in that game. You need a few matadors gored to sell bullfight tickets.
“But drugs — Lance Armstrong on the highest level, and lesser lights like Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon — don't just poison the game. They poison our faith.”
The passion in this passage is palpable. I strongly suspect, however, that the work that may have meant the most to Deford was Alex: The Life of a Child, his nonfiction account of the death of his first daughter, Alex, from cystic fibrosis, at age eight.
Researching this post made me want to read far more of Deford’s work. I hope these short passages will have the same effect on anyone who reads them here.
(Photo of Frank Deford taken at the Bridgeport Public Library on Sept. 21, 2007.)