Current Issue

Mar.†4, 2009

Vol. 109, No. 9

Features

More than the game

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

By Brett Tomlinson
Published in the March†4, 2009, issue


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

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 Josť 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.

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Comments
2 Responses to More than the game

David Butler '66 Says:

2009-03-02 14:19:42

Frank's commentaries on NPR are the highlight of many a day when I am running a bit late to work on a Wednesday. He has so many insightful perspectives on events and institutions. Until reading this, I had no idea that Frank was a Princetonian, but it seems so right. If he will forgive the analogy, he reflects his Princeton background in a manner akin to Michelle Obama. Princeton begets thoughtful, holistic sons and daughters - mindful of the present, and aware of how current events relate to history in general, and to the past and future evolution of society and our myriad institutions.

David F. Reynolds *75 Says:

2009-03-27 09:39:17

Frank Deford's writing always accomplishes two things. He provides an analytical detachment, while at the same time instilling in the reader an excitement for his subject. Deford knows that sports imitates life -- but without its rough edges. That is why he is fun to read. He allows us to skip over those long dull periods of everyday life. Frank's view of sports provides us with a way of viewing life without its insanity.
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