In writing about sports, Frank Deford ’61 tells stories about life

Frank Deford in his garage, which documents stories he has covered over almost 50 years.
Frank Deford in his garage, which documents stories he has covered over almost 50 years.
Ricardo Barros

The office in Frank Deford ’61’s suburban Connecticut home seems fitting for one of sports journalism’s most decorated writers. Handsome bronze horses — awards for stories about thoroughbred racing — double as bookends at the front of a wide wooden desk that holds a laptop and a few stacks of paper. On the walls, framed drawings from Sports Illustrated surround the desk, along with a painting of pitcher Christy Mathewson, who peers over his shoulder toward the writer’s chair.

But the real shrine to Deford’s near half-century of chronicling sports is in his garage, where a hodgepodge of posters, photos, and other artifacts covers nearly every square inch of wall space. On one side, there are tea tickets from Wimbledon; on the other, a Sports Illustrated staff photo shows a field of former colleagues, circa 1980. Pinned to the back wall, next to an old roller-derby uniform, is a faded football jersey with five red stars across the chest.

The jersey, from East Mississippi Junior College in Scooba, Miss., was designed by an obscure but beloved coach named Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan — Deford says he was so tough he needed two tough nicknames — who roamed the sidelines in the 1950s and ’60s before he was unceremoniously removed from his post. Sullivan grew up in a poor Southern town, survived the bloody battle for Okinawa as a Marine in World War II, and spent most of his adult life coaching football in Scooba. While he often coached like a drill instructor, his teams did not win on grit alone. He employed a dynamic passing game that was envied by coaches throughout the South.  

Sullivan never achieved much fame beyond his little corner of Mississippi, and when Deford wrote an SI story about the coach’s life in 1984, Sullivan had been dead for more than a decade. But anecdotes from relatives and former players, relayed with Deford’s masterful style, brought Sullivan to life on the page, capturing the complex toughness that seems to accompany great coaches. Sullivan was demanding, sometimes unreasonably so, but also fiercely loyal. He cared for his players and worried about them like a father.  

“He was an intriguing character, but at the same time, he was representative of coaches of that era,” Deford says. “So he was on the one hand singular — an American original — and on the other hand, he was very symbolic of a place, the South; of a sport, football; and of the time, the postwar. He represented all those things.”

For a generation of readers, stories like that of “Bull” Sullivan defined Deford, a sportswriter who wrote about much more than sports. 

Deford began his career as a writer, but he endures as a multidimensional talent — the reporter who can do it all. On Sundays, his feature reports, often covering lesser-known athletes and sports, air on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. Each Wednesday morning, his sharp, reasoned commentaries punctuate the second hour of NPR’s Morning Edition. And while Deford hasn’t published an SI feature since 2007, he continues to write extensively — novels mostly, but plays and screenplays as well. At age 70, he works about 85 percent of a full schedule (his version of semi-retirement) and has no intention of backing away from the keyboard.  

Deford’s opinions cover the full spectrum of sports. He has written well over 1,000 NPR commentaries, and last fall, when PAW visited him in Connecticut, he spent about a half-hour discussing topics of the day as a guest on a sports radio show, in advance of a speech he was scheduled to make in Virginia.

The opening riff of Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” marked the transition from a commercial break, and after a short introduction, Deford began fielding questions, first on the general attraction of sports and then on everything from steroids in baseball to a gambling scandal in men’s tennis. One listener brought up the idea of paying college athletes who play revenue-generating sports like football and basketball. Deford balked at the notion. Athletes have a place on campus, he said, but he’s not convinced they deserve special treatment. “You’re raising athletics above art, music, and academics,” he reasoned. “I think that’s a mistake in this country.”  

Another caller asked Deford about his work as the national chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Deford’s daughter Alex died of the disease in 1980, when she was 8 years old, and Deford has been a tireless advocate for research and treatment. He took a moment to thank the caller, noting that there still is much work to be done. The host then moved on to the next topic: misbehaving athletes. It’s not just boys being boys, Deford noted. “As women’s sports become more successful, [women athletes] are starting to become badly behaved, like the men,” he said.

Even in the disjointed sequence of a call-in show, Deford’s warm and welcoming personality shines through. Former colleagues describe him as courtly, charming, and charismatic — “a guy of real standing,” in the words of Peter Carry ’64, who worked with Deford at SI.

As a reporter, the affable Deford had little trouble building rapport with sources, but what set him apart was his storytelling. Writing can be hard work, even for the pros. The sportswriter Red Smith famously compared it to opening a vein. “That’s the experience for a lot of writers,” says Rob Fleder, a longtime editor at SI. “But I think Frank has fun at the keyboard.”  

Born and raised in Baltimore, Deford got an early start as a storyteller. In grade school, he jumped between fiction and journalism, winning a national short-story contest one year and starting his own newspaper the next. Later, he realized that one could make a living as a writer (“a terrific revelation,” he says), and intended to do just that.  

Deford’s Baltimore was something like the city depicted in the Barry Levinson film Diner. (Levinson, also a Baltimore native, is Deford’s junior by four years.) It was a place where sports mattered. When the Colts, Baltimore’s first big-league team, won NFL championships in 1958 and 1959, it provided a burst of pride for a city long suffering from an inferiority complex. “Sometimes people overstate the importance of sports, but in that case, it was very, very important to us,” says Deford, who carried the lesson into his career.

By the time he reached college, Deford had developed a singular focus on writing that helped him to develop his prodigious skill, but it did little for his college experience. Princeton, the alma mater of his father, Ben ’26, “was just a place [where] I was spending four years before I could become a writer,” he says. Deford enjoyed his time on campus but struggled with his major (sociology) and dreaded the prospect of writing his senior thesis.  

He found a more comfortable niche writing for Princeton publications — The Daily Princetonian, PAW, and The Tiger. On the Prince, he contributed to several sections but gravitated to sports. (“Cappy” Cappon, Princeton’s basketball coach during Deford’s brief career on the hardwood, told him that he wrote basketball better than he played it.)  

Deford’s Prince contemporaries included José Ferrer III ’61, who became an editor at Time; William McWhirter ’63, who also joined Time, serving as a foreign correspondent and business writer; and Tom Bray ’63, who went on to edit the opinion pages of The Detroit News. But even in that esteemed company, Deford stood out, according to Lester Munson ’62, now an investigative reporter at ESPN. Prince colleagues admired Deford’s effortless manner, which gave the impression that he could write as fast as he could type. In four or five minutes, he would hammer out movie reviews that were good enough to run in a metropolitan daily. “We would all kind of sneak up to the desk [after Deford left] and read what he’d written before it came out in the next day’s paper,” Munson says.

Deford graduated in 1962, after taking a year off to serve in the National Guard, but he skipped the Commencement ceremony to start his first job, as a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He would remain at the magazine for most of the next four decades, save for a stint as editor of The National, a short-lived daily newspaper devoted to sports, from 1990 to 1991.  

His editors found his skills best suited for “bonus pieces,” the long, penetrating features that helped to fuel SI’s success in the 1960s and ’70s. The stories required significant research, lots of interviews, and a well-defined narrative — all trademarks of Deford’s work. He would write more than 100 bonus pieces, becoming the magazine’s most recognized writer. “When people thought about SI, they thought about Frank Deford,” says Fleder, who now edits compilations of SI’s greatest stories.

Carry, a writer and later an editor at SI, says that writers who worked on profiles and bonus pieces were encouraged to hang around with their subjects, and Deford used that hang-around time better than most. Carry was on the NBA beat in the early 1970s when Deford was working on a feature on Dick Motta, then the coach of the Chicago Bulls. When Motta curled into a chair in his office for a postgame interview, Carry joined the newspaper writers and jotted down the coach’s take on the latest game. In the back of the room, Deford casually leaned against a wall. Carry took it to mean that Deford was waiting to speak with Motta, but in truth, he was taking mental notes on the odd mannerisms of the 5-foot-7-inch coach, a little man in a big man’s world. In his story, Deford observed that Motta was “one of those rare little men who has no insecurities about scrunching himself up even smaller.”  

By the early 1980s, Deford started to expand to new audiences. He wrote fiction, most successfully with Everybody’s All-American, his well-received 1981 novel about a Southern football star (later made into a film). He worked in radio, as a commentator for National Public Radio. And he added television to his repertoire, reporting stories for CNN and NBC. Today, every sports columnist in print seems to have a parallel life as an on-air personality, but that sort of versatility was rare when Deford began his work in television and radio.

As a commentator, Deford stands out by dint of contrast. Knee-jerk rants may be in fashion elsewhere on the radio dial, but Deford gives his subjects a fair trial before pronouncing a verdict. In January 2008, after Major League Baseball released the Mitchell Report documenting the transgressions of steroid users, Deford struck a philosophical tone: Why is it that cheaters who conspire to lose, fixing games for the sake of a gambling payoff, are condemned to shame, but those who cheat to win often slide by with a lighter sentence? “Let’s put the right word on [steroid use],” Deford concluded. “Any player who took steroids is a fixer. He fixed games.”

With three minutes allotted for his NPR pieces, Deford provides more detail and context than most commentators. In 2007, when he offered ideas for revamping Title IX — which bolstered women’s athletics programs at coeducational colleges — he first gave an introduction about the history of the law and the growing proportion of women on college campuses (at the time, 58 percent of undergraduates). Deford dismissed reformers who say that the allotment of sports should be based on the vague standard of “interest” among students. Instead, he proposed eliminating scholarships in nonrevenue sports, to free up funds for more teams — basically putting volleyball and lacrosse on an equal footing with the orchestra and the debate club.

Deford occasionally devotes his NPR segment to “the sports curmudgeon,” a gruff-voiced alter ego who lists gripes about today’s athletes — their baggy pants, their off-field antics, their fragile egos. But Deford has relatively few curmudgeonly complaints about the state of sports. The sanctity of tradition means little in his view. He muses that sports could learn something from reality television shows, which start the “playoffs” on the first day of the season, eliminating players or teams on the opening show.  

If Deford has one true pet peeve, it’s the lack of color in the sports coverage he watches on TV. Take, for example, a PGA golf tournament. The story lines have a certain sameness. In each tournament, Tiger Woods seems to be charging hard toward another victory, whether he’s in the lead or trailing by a couple of strokes. And alongside him is the other guy, often little known and largely forgettable, trying to hold his place against the world’s greatest player.

Deford has heard plenty about Tiger. He wants to know more about the other guy — where he’s from, how he got here, what sets him apart. The commentators will talk about his swing and his statistics, from his ranking on the tour’s money list to the percentage of fairways he’s hit. But the person takes a backseat to the competitor. “You never know who he is,” Deford says. “There’s sort of the sense that it doesn’t matter — all that really matters is how he’s doing as a golfer.”

Surely, many disagree — sports coverage on television, radio, and the Web would seem to indicate a steady, if not growing, demand for stats and analysis. But Xs and Os never meant much to Deford, even when the coaches he interviewed offered tutorials. “I’m not an analyst, an expert, or an insider,” he says. “I’m an observer. I’m a generalist, and ultimately, a storyteller.”

Deford first settled into SI’s feature beat in the late 1960s, and he got in the habit of leafing through Amusement Business magazine, a trade publication for the promoters who booked arenas on the nights when pro sports teams weren’t in town. Tucked in those pages were scraps of what Deford fondly calls “sports as Americana”: a wrestling bear, a traveling display of a 20-ton sperm whale, and the roller derby. He wrote about all three.

Deford was just chasing interesting stories, but in the process, he discovered an added benefit to stepping outside the mainstream. “You couldn’t travel with the roller derby in Virginia or Minnesota and not learn a little bit about America that you couldn’t get if all you were doing was going to Yankee games,” he says.

“The derby” was a memorable case. The sport, born at 1930s dance marathons, enjoyed a period of popularity in the 1950s, when it first hit TV airwaves, and a resurgence in the late 1960s, when it was broadcast on tape-delay. But when Deford traveled with two teams of skaters for a few weeks in 1969, he saw vestiges of the game’s Depression-era roots. “It is still one-night stands and advance men, launder-mats and greasy spoons,” he wrote. “The players themselves, like Barnum’s elephants, construct and dismantle their track, and carry it — and their puppy dogs — along to the next town.”

Other reporters who’d written about the roller derby seemed bent on exposing secrets behind the theatrics. But Deford focused on the people, lifting the veil of glitzy stage personas to reveal a band of humble, working-class skaters. Like other professional athletes, they wanted to make money and leave healthy. They also had an uncommon awareness of their fleeting fame. “Years from now, when I say I was in the derby,” Joan Weston, one of the top stars, told Deford, “I want people to still know what it is.”

Forty years later, Deford still receives Christmas cards from some of the skaters he rode with from town to town, and the lessons from that trip and many others endure in his work. If you don’t spend every night in the press box, says Deford, it’s easier to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground.

Brett Tomlinson is an associate editor at PAW.