SI Remembers: Past and present writers on the impact of Frank Deford
- Frank Deford may have been the most famous of all of Sports Illustrated's many gifted writers. Here, the magazine's writers both old and new recall the impact he had on them and their work.
Frank Deford died Sunday at age 78 at his home in Key West, Fla. He spent almost 50 years at Sports Illustrated and became the most recognizable, talented and formidable sportswriter of his lifetime. Deford was a six-time winner of the National Sportswriter of the Year award, had several of his books turned into movies and even starred in Miller Lite commercial. He influenced generations of future writers and leaves behind an unmatched collection of brilliant stories.
Here, Frank's former SI colleagues remember him and the impact he had, with submissions from Chris Ballard, Michael Bamberger, Lee Jenkins, Larry Keith, Curry Kirkpatrick, Tim Layden, Jack McCallum, Terry McDonell, William Nack, John Papanek, Michael Rosenberg, Steve Rushin, Robert Sullivan, Chris Stone, Grant Wahl, Jon Wertheim and Alexander Wolff.
As a boy, my heroes included men who played sports and men who wrote about them. Deford was perhaps foremost among the latter, for he approached the job with a wonderful mixture of joy, curiosity and intellect. His stories read like both literature and conversations, and he somehow elevated athletes while simultaneously humanizing them. He was funny and pointed, forever reminding us of the larger world—that in the end these are just games, but oh, what games they are. To a young writer, he made everything seem possible, even if only he could do it.
Even after landing a job at SI, I never crossed paths with Frank, or even had a phone conversation. Then, in 2010, I received a small envelope in the mail. Inside was a hand-written note from him, complimenting a story of mine and thanking me, "for the pleasure of reading it." I am as struck now as I was then by the gesture. Here he was, perhaps the greatest sportswriter ever, sending unsolicited compliments to younger colleagues. That took him all of 10 minutes; for me it remains a career highlight, the note still taped to my office wall, the writing faded with time.
For decades, the things that had impressed me most about Frank Deford—aside from the dripping-syrup beauty of his writing—was how damn handsome the man was. Not TV newscaster handsome. Movie-star handsome. The tall, lean frame; the long, gray swooped-back hair; the dangling sideburns; the loose and stylish suits, purple accents here and there. His voice was a perfect match for his appearance, with his theatrical listen-up-here pauses. The back-cover bio blurb brought the whole package home: The impossibly talented Frank Deford lives with his wife, the former model Carol Penner, in Westport, Conn., and Key West, Fla.
I never met the man. I got to know him as you likely did, by reading him in SI, by reading his books, by hearing him on NPR, by watching Everybody’s All-American, the movie adopted from one of Deford’s novels. The movie, like the book, captures the unbearable wistfulness of a college star’s afterlife. One can imagine Dennis Quaid, who plays Deford’s quarterback, conferring with the author, as equals. I had created a version of Frank Deford that suited my needs. The writer as god.
I had the man all wrong.
I realized that after speaking to my former boss, Mark Mulvoy, Monday night. Mulvoy first met Deford in 1965. It was Deford who introduced Mulvoy to fondue.
For various long periods in the 1980s and ‘90s, Mulvoy was the managing editor of SI, and in the '60s and '70s he was rising north on the magazine’s masthead while Deford was bringing the SI bonus piece to new places.
“I know what you’re getting at,” Mulvoy said. “He did look like Clark Gable. Or Rhett Butler. He wore those topcoats. He had a thing for purple. But what Frank was was a reporter. He took editing well and he worked closely with his editors, especially Jerry Tax. He was a hard-working writer who led a sane and sober life.
“Frank gave you a take. He had a take on his subjects that was his own. He wrote a story once and that was it. He never wrote a story that way again. Each one was unique. He wrote of profile of [Arkansas basketball coach] Nolan Richardson as a play. And I thought it was strange, but I ran it anyway. He had earned that.
“You didn’t read Frank Deford to read great lines. You read Frank to read great stories. He went to Princeton and we had a lot of Princeton guys here, but Princeton was not his thing. He was a Baltimore guy.
“He liked writing about guys older than he. He liked writing about Bill Russell. There was the story where he drove with Russell from Seattle to Oakland. He made the drive, flew home and wrote it up.”
And that last part we’ll never know, the writing-it-up part. Maybe the former model Carol Penner knows that part. Maybe the late Jeremiah Tax did. Can’t be many others on the list. That’s how he became Frank Deford. By writing it up.
So Deford was not Hemingway in Key West, he was not Gable at the Stork Club. His keyboard was not Picasso’s paintbrush. He was a hard-working writer who led a sane and sober life. How inspiring.
In April 2012 I went to Austin to report a Where Are They Now? story about former Texas and Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell, and when I got there I had an email from then-SI managing editor Terry McDonell saying that he was having dinner that night with Frank Deford, who was being honored the next day at the University of Texas, and inviting me along. While I was there Frank gave me one piece of advice that I thought was very interesting. He said to always ask players what they dream about at night. It’s the kind of question you have to ask with a lot of confidence because it can solicit some strange looks. I don’t ask it all the time, but it proved useful last June when I had a few minutes with LeBron James after the Cavaliers had won their first NBA title. "Every night, this is what I dreamed," he told me. I used that quote in the second sentence of my story. Afterward I remembered thinking back on that dinner and being grateful for that piece of advice.
I have three special memories of the inestimable Frank Deford. The first occurred in the Christmas season of 1977. We were standing in the coat check line for the SI party at the Plaza Hotel (that’s how we rolled in those salad days, I’m afraid!), and Frank was just ahead of me. He had a long piece in the current issue, on Chicago Bears owner George Halas, and I said to him, with the awe and respect he deserved, “Frank, it’s an honor just to be in the same [magazine] masthead as you.”
The second came in January 1981, when Frank wrote his Bobby Knight profile, "The Rabbit Hunter." It remains one of his most famous stories. I was the so-called editor, which means, except for scribbling the headline and a few captions, I pretty much took the week off. In talking to him about his piece, he told me his private impression of Knight, which I hadn’t heard before (or since). Frank chose not to include it in his story, so I won’t repeat it here, only that it was his deeply analytical explanation for Knight’s behavior.
The third recollection requires a little more background. Each year, the National Sports Media Association, as it’s now known, selects a National Sportswriter of the Year. In its early years, the award had always gone to a newspaper or wire service writer. When Frank won his first of six, in 1982, he was extremely proud, and deservedly so. Magazine writers were not always welcome guests in the sportswriters’ lodge. The magazine asked me to travel down to North Carolina, my home state, to say a few words in praise of Frank and present him the award. I recall that Frank’s acceptance remarks were characteristically humble and gracious, a perfect reflection of the man himself. Over the years, I suppose, more than one new hire at SI wanted to be, aspired to be “the next Frank Deford.” As good as they may have been, there was no way that could happen.
It is fairly impossible to describe what Frank Deford meant to me—as a role model and friend, advisor and inspiration.
Sports Illustrated was just another piece of mail in a college kid's cubbyhole when Frank appeared on the horizon of a gym floor, and I realized immediately what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be.
I guess I had read some of his early stuff and was sufficiently mesmerized that somebody so young could be so good. But one night, sitting high in the seats at a basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., I spotted him standing on the sideline merely observing the scene. A budding legend. In the flesh. Wow.
Latter-day Defordologists always point out Frank's striking, moustachioed resemblance to Clark Gable. But, in his youthful post-grad years, recently out of Princeton, his look was by way of Elvis and Saville Row and Hollywood and Vine. His clothes, his style—even when taking notes he had some mysterious but obvious star presence—he was always the neatest guy in the sports room. Which of course made him the coolest guy on Earth. For me, that night seemed to foreshadow what he meant not just to the games and the sports and the people he would cover for the many decades to come, but to his profession itself.
(I wonder if Bear Bryant or Bobby Knight or Jimmy Connors ever came to realize what an honor it was to be profiled by this man.)
Anyway, I was hooked.
And Frank Deford became transcendant.
With four years and untold eons of talent behind him at the magazine, I somehow lucked into an office right across a narrow hall from Frank, whereupon I would nervously enter his space and pick his brain about writing.
Or living. I got so confused once when Frank compared putting typewriter to paper (look those up, kids) as thrilling as sex.
Our conversations often included some fond surprises—coming as always amid the decorative charms of dozens of those tiny cardboard hotel/bar/restaurant advertisements that Frank had scattered everywhere in his quarters. Right there, the most elegant wordsmith of us all was harboring his tacky, trashy side.
Then one night, this: "I'm doing a basketball story in Indiana," Frank said. "But what's really cool—I'm going to finally get to visit James Dean's grave !"
East of Eden....
West of Weird.
As we pursued our SI careers, Frank became my best friend on the magazine. We were neighbors in Westport, Conn. We played tennis together and sometimes rode the commuter train to New York together.
Our young daughters, Sage and his treasured Alexandra, played together—sometimes alongside the Alex's oxygen tent as she battled the horrific cystic fibrosis which took her life at age 8.
I followed Frank on the basketball and tennis beats, and I couldnt go anywhere without a Bill Russell or a Rod Laver devastating me with, "Nice to meet you, kid. Where's Frank?"
Attempting to copy his style, I was cynical, sarcastic, occasionally nasty. My predecessor's trademark "long form" pieces were transcribed with a grace and elegance unmatched still. He wrote deeply penetrating stuff on the likes of Knight and Connors, somehow remaining harshly accurate and commendably fair—always retaining the respect of his subjects. God, how did he do that? Probably the same way he established lifelong relationships with fellow giants such as Wilt Chamberlain and Arthur Ashe.
Messy and mean were foreign substances to Frank Deford, right? But wait. Combining on a story one year—I was reporting and interviewing, Frank writing—I went to his hotel room one morning to deliver some research.
"What?" answered a sleepless Frank, opening the door to a veritable ransacked pigsty of pizza slices, sodas and scribbled notes . . . notes . . . and more notes on the bed, the floor, the desk, everywhere.
"Jeez, what happened in here?" I said.
"I'm working" he said.
On another masterpiece, it turned out.
Another year, another combo: This time I was writing and Frank was overseeing the entire magazine the week in 1986 that Ivan Lendl won another U.S. Open. Lendl was a stoic, mostly emotionless Czech who had few friends in or outside the locker room—a point I may have stressed in the story.
Frank's cover billing read: "The Champion That Nobody Cares About."
Thanks a lot, buddy. Only recently did Lendl ever forgive . . . me.
Frank Deford was and will always be my idol, my mentor, my hero, my champion. I last saw him and his wondrous wife Carol—once a runway model, always—a winter ago on a visit to Key West. Though weak with illness, he was tall, straight, brimming with goodwill and rich wit and stories, so many stories. Still and forever, the coolest guy on earth.
Then this weekend, amid gorgeous weather on my beach in Hilton Head—Frank would invariably kid me "You're always on a beach somewhere"—came the terrible news. I could only stare at the ocean.
High tide was coming.
The French have a phrase.
La mer s'est elevee avec les pleurs. The sea has risen with tears.
Sail on, my Captain.
Like every other sportswriter of my generation (and probably several generations after me), I devoured every word Frank Deford wrote, from high school through college and, most of all, through the 1980s, when I was grinding along at medium-sized newspapers in upstate New York and trying—very unsuccessfully—to make every one of my feature stories a "Frank Deford Feature." His piece on Bob Knight, "The Rabbit Hunter," which has been referenced so often since Frank’s passing, is one I’m sure I read from start to finish five times before finally stopping. Frank’s work gave so many young writers something to chase. We were young tenors and he was Pavarotti.
But here’s another story. I went to Williams College, graduating in 1978. Twelve years later, the Williams sports information director, Dick Quinn, a man of boundless generosity and affection for the college’s students, athletes and student-athletes, decided to give an annual award to the top student assistant in the sports information department. He named it the Frank Deford Award and Frank came to the Berkshires to give out the first one. In 1995, I went back to campus to present the award to two students. I never asked Dick why he named the award after Frank. Until yesterday. This was his response:
Basically he was my favorite sportswriter when I was growing up and I knew his favorite color was purple. I also knew he lived in Connecticut and with the connection of our daughters having Cystic Fibrosis he would at least hear what I had to say. I got his number from Beth Schmidt (Williams Class of 1986), a former skier who was at SI at the time. He told me he would do it as he had only heard good things about Williams and the only other thing named after him had been a racehorse that after three races had been turned into a gelding."
I was in awe of Frank before I ever met him. He wrote a story about the Harlem Globetrotters in the early-70s ["The Bouncing Ball," Dec. 3, 1973] that I read twice in a row and said: "Okay, I get it. This is what you have to do as a sportswriter." I knew I'd never be that good, but the tone of it, the way he mixed respect with a jaundiced eye, the way he reported the absolute hell out of it was invaluable to me.
So on my first assignment for SI in 1981 I had to write about Danny Ainge, who was then playing for BYU in the NCAA tournament's Southeast Regional in Atlanta. Frank was already there to cover the regional. Not his usual kind of story, but Frank liked to mix it up once in a while.
Assistant managing editor Peter Carry tells me: "Call Deford. He'll help you get a credential."
I was terrified, but I made the call. I got Frank in his hotel room and stammered out an introduction.
"Oh, Jack McCallum," he said. "You just did a freelance story for us. It was really good."
So the guy I idolized—everybody idolized—complimented me before I got to say anything to him. I never forgot that.
No one was better at defining sports as a refection of American culture than Frank Deford. Starting in 1960s, Frank covered every important sports story (Frank was there) and personality (Frank knew them), pulling back the curtain on racial and sexual mores and human rights, and also the emerging phenomena of media celebrity with all of its outrageous narcissism. Tall, with easy coordination, Frank looked as if he could play (as he did for stories in several sports), which helped him unlock camaraderie and friendship with athletes and coaches, especially during the bush league years of the early NBA—which he influenced profoundly with his coverage of the racism that no one else seemed ready to confront. When I took a job at SI in 2002, I taped this line of his on my computer: How little, really, we live up to the homilies we love to recite at sports banquets.
Frank was so dominant and at the same time humble that he told me he found himself overwhelmed by accolades, so many lifetime achievement awards, that he felt “like Tom Sawyer going to his own funeral.” Now that sent a chill, and I think of his many triumphs before the inevitable. And I think about his humor. You see we also had a private joke about editing being the perfect job for a person who didn’t want any friends, and Frank would tell me about coming up as a writer with an unspecific dread of editors: What would they do to his copy next? It was not that he hated them exactly, but maybe he did. When Frank received a lifetime achievement award from Time Inc. he smiled wryly from the podium and said that during the short time he himself was an editor, even he couldn’t stand Frank Deford.
No one else ever had that experience.
Frank Deford wrote with poetry, passion and precision for many years at Sports Illustrated, and in the doing he became an inspiration for a whole generation of sportswriters across the land, for those working in newspapers as well as in magazines. The first Frank Deford story that I recall reading was in SI in 1972, the year I became a sportswriter and Americans were still waiting to see the "light at the end of the tunnel" of the Vietnam War. Frank's lead paragraph told of his meeting the great All-America football player from Army, Pete Dawkins, who had been attending a YMCA conference in New York and was now waiting for him under what Frank called "of all perfect places," the Biltmore clock in Manhattan.
Typical of Frank, he did not let that clock line just hang there unwound and unexplained. The second paragraph went like this: "There is real comfort to be had waking up one fine, polluted, polarized morning and discovering that there still is a Biltmore clock and a YMCA and a Pete Dawkins. These things actually have survived. Perhaps each morning one last hero should be assigned to stand under the Biltmore clock so we can hear the ticks from the good old times, when peace and prosperity were both lit up at the end of the tunnel and the only shaggy-haired perverts were the four who were making noise in a Liverpool cellar."
That was just the first of many gems. There was the one about the great, star-crossed jockey, Tony DeSpirito, whose death prompted Frank to write a poignant ode to an athlete of ability and enormous promise titled "The Kid Who Ran Into Doors." Another was about the life-long Jersey Shore romance of boxer Billy Conn and his wife, Mary Louise, called, "The Boxer and the Blonde," one of the best stories he ever wrote, and another I remember well was his searching piece in 1978 about Jimmy Connors' decline as a tennis player following his greatest year, 1974, titled "Raised by Women to Conquer Men."
Frank Deford set a very high bar as a magazine sportswriter, and he also happened to be one of the kindest, most supportive people I have ever met in the business, a Southern gentleman whose talent as a writer was matched only by his generosity and grace as a human being.
To me, as I was lucky enough to join SI in 1973, Frank was one of the living gods who occasionally walked the floor. Reading his manuscripts always left us breathless. And you got the sense that he never broke a sweat. He was also unfailingly friendly and jolly. Larger than Life, and Time, too.
Nobody ever wrote about sports with the depth, insight and touch of Deford. Very few people ever wrote about America as well as he did, either. A thousand writers would praise a sports figure and another thousand would rip him, and then Deford would step in and explain him, and his piece would render the others unnecessary. He had, in sports parlance, all the tools: He could report, observe, structure and write at the highest level. The other greats of my profession—Jim Murray, Dan Jenkins, Gary Smith—spawned imitators. Deford was different. You could learn from him, but good luck copying him. I've been reading sports stories almost every day for 30 years, and I've never read anybody who reminded me of Frank Deford.
Most journalism writing becomes dated, through no fault of the writer. The language evolves, tastes shift, societal values change. If Deford's 1976 profile of Al McGuire were published this month, it would easily be the best sports profile of the year. I am sorry to say I never met Frank Deford. But I never met McGuire or George Halas or Robert "Bull" "Cyclone" Sullivan either, and Deford made me feel like I'd known them all my life.
When I lucked into a fact-checker job with Sports Illustrated in 1988, and prepared to move to Manhattan, my Minnesota dentist said to me during a valedictory teeth-cleaning: “So, you wanna be the next Frank Deford?”
The truth was, I just wanted to see Frank Deford, standing at the copy machine in the Time & Life Building, in a smoking jacket, regaling passersby with anecdotes. Such was the image I’d conjured of him as a reader of his stories, whose titles I could recite from memory: “The Rabbit Hunter,” “The Boxer and The Blonde,” “Raised By Women to Conquer Men.” He had more hits, over more decades, than Sinatra.
Of course, I never did see Deford in the SI office. If he ever descended Olympus and dropped by, I wasn’t in. So when he left the magazine to start The National Sports Daily, I walked from Sixth Avenue to Fifth Avenue to interview over there, almost exclusively in the hope that I’d meet him. But alas, he wasn’t in those unfurnished offices either, and over the ensuing years I began to take comfort in the old adage that you should never meet your heroes.
And then one day a mutual friend summoned me to Westport, Conn., to have lunch with the great man himself. In person, Frank was even nicer than he was smart, and even smarter than he was tall. And he was very, very tall. It turns out you can and should meet your heroes.
“You have a wonderful canvas on which to paint,” he said to me of column writing, and ever-after I began to think of him as the world’s greatest muralist. (The ugly word longform, which ought to be reserved for tax returns, didn’t yet exist.)
Frank once wrote that when people hear you’re a sportswriter, they assume you’re far more interested in the first half of that word—sports—than in the second half: writer. And while Frank was deeply interested in both—and was also, rather unfairly, an excellent broadcaster—he was above all a writer, a writer without equal, a writer you could only aspire to see, not to be.
A few weeks ago, a colleague at SI forwarded a lovely e-mail from Frank about something I had written. In it, Frank mentioned that Cole Porter as a Yale undergraduate wrote “Bulldog,” which remains the Elis’ fight song to this day. That was the Frank I grew up reading. He knew something about everything, from Cole Porter to Cole Hamels.
Years ago, he sent me another kind message, this one hand-written on a note card in his favorite color: purple. I have kept it on my desk so long in the sunlight that the words have faded away, leaving only FRANK DEFORD in the upper left corner. I cherish it all the more now, a blank canvas, awaiting paint.
You don’t write the stories Frank did by being incurious. That curiosity, fortified by his vast intellect, informed all of his writing and made him the titan he was. But I was struck by how that curiosity extended to more everyday matters in our business, and more specifically SI. More than any other writer I knew, Frank paid attention to the work of young writers, or at least was more vocal in his awareness and praise of their work. And I would later learn—more than once and most recently from one of the other tributes in this collection—that he frequently shared those warm sentiments in a note to the writer. Can you imagine being 25 or so and opening a handwritten note from Frank Deford thanking YOU for bringing so much pleasure to HIM with one of your stories? From the work he did for cystic fibrosis awareness and research to his encouragement of young talent—all talent, really—to his mind-blowing body of work, he was a sharer. Someone asked me not long ago what it was like to have an audience with Frank. Truth is, you left genuinely feeling as if you had done him the favor. That’s a gift.
I was at SI in the 1980s and got to know Frank well, having come to revere him—and other new friends like Bob Creamer, Bill Johnson, Bob Ottum, Bob Boyle (who also just recently passed away)—earlier through my boyhood subscription. I have reminiscences, of course. Frank's office’s tacky (literally and figuratively) wallpaper of cocktail napkins, coasters and matchbooks from his many travels for the magazine. The week he desperately tried to land a lone noser in the SI football pool by picking 20 ties. (Came up dry, of course.)
I left SI for LIFE magazine in 1993 but stayed in touch with many folks at the old shop, which was, after all, simply in another elevator bank at the Time & Life Building. In 1996 I, along with a photo editor and a reporter at LIFE, agreed to turn a cover story into a small book: Who Do You Say That I Am?: Reflections on Jesus In Our World Today. I had read Frank’s biography of his young daughter, Alexandra, who had died of cystic fibrosis when she was just eight years old. Knowing what I knew from Alex: The Life of a Child, I asked Frank if he wanted to share some new thoughts in our forthcoming volume. He sent in a characteristically wonderful essay.
I do not know where Frank’s religious beliefs and spirituality lay last week, but I thought it might be apropos, at this time, to share a bit of what he wrote back then. This, then, from Deford:
“I know it helped all of us that we believed that Jesus was going to be there where she was going. That mattered. It’s all very grand—and spiritual—to expound something like Alex would be with God, but that was something hard to grasp . . . .
“Jesus, whatever his parentage, had been a person, one of us. If we didn’t know for sure what He looks like, if He wasn’t really tall and slim and sandy-haired and blue-eyed, the way the great artists would have him, at least we have grown familiar with who the man is. You could deal with Jesus the way you finally meet someone who you’ve talked to a lot on the phone. You may be surprised at your phone friend’s appearance, but you know that person, so looks are incidental . . . [W]hen Alex died it was going to be the first time she’d ever been alone. That was why Jesus meant so much to her—and to all of us—her parents and her brother, too.
“An hour or so before she died, when she knew the end was close, she suddenly said, ‘Which way do I go?’ Maybe she just meant something simple like, What’s the best place to turn my head now? But we had been talking about heaven, and I took some kind of deeper meaning. So I replied, ‘Anyway you and God think is best, Alex.’
“But with what little energy she had left to her, right away, she wanted a clarification. ‘And Jesus too, Daddy?’ she asked. Urgently.
“She knew Jesus, and if He were there, she was comfortable that she would be taken care of.
“After that, the abstraction of Jesus, the Son of God, the Jesus Saves and all that, was crystallized for me into something much more vivid. Even now I see Him there to welcome Alex, to show her the ropes in this new place and to make sure she felt at home.”
May Frank feel at home—with Alex.
Do yourself a favor: Go back and read anything Frank Deford wrote. Anything. In a long, glorious, prolific career, the man hit nothing but home runs. Superb without exception, brilliant without pretense. If you'd like a good place to start, begin with his SI profiles of Bobby Knight in 1991 and Bill Russell in 1999. Difficult subjects only made Deford's genius shine brighter. What made him a great writer made him a great person: empathy, the ability to truly understand, care about and share the feelings of others. And when you do read Deford, you quickly also know this about him and his writing: You can drop the "sports" modifier. Frank Deford was one of the giants of modern American literature.
When I was in high school, I probably set a record for the number of times someone checked out Frank Deford’s collection of Sports Illustrated stories, The World’s Tallest Midget, from the Johnson County Library in suburban Kansas City. I loved sports, but here was the first writer I ever connected with so deeply that I wanted to read everything he wrote, on any topic, even on sports that I never watched. You always knew you were in good hands with Frank, and he was so stylish, both in the stories that he told and in the way he looked on the book cover: Arms folded, tailored jacket, smart jeans and that debonair mustache that made him look like a cooler modern-day version of Clark Gable.
I must have read that book 20 times. There were unforgettable stories on Jimmy Connors, on the boxer Billy Conn, on Bull Cyclone Sullivan (“the toughest coach there ever was”), on the coach Al McGuire and the jockey Steve Cauthen. The last paragraph of Deford’s story on Connors (who returned serves while they were still on the rise) and his mother, Gloria, “Raised By Women To Conquer Men,” was so astonishing I could never forget it, then or now:
“It is strange that as powerful as the love is that consumes the Connorses, Jimbo has always depended on hate in order to win. And all along that must have been the hard way. There is no telling how far a man could go who could learn to take love on the rise.”
I decided then and there that I wanted to write for Sports Illustrated someday. To try to be like Frank Deford. There were a lot of us out here. Nobody was ever as good as he was.
The amazing thing was that Deford actually answered fan letters. I wrote more than one in high school, and each time he sent back a type-written note with encouragement and his signature in purple, the color that always seemed to be part of his wardrobe whenever you saw him.
It’s a little embarrassing, but I became a bit of a Deford stalker. I chose to go to Deford’s university (Princeton) in part because he did. When they announced that Deford would be teaching a seminar on sportswriting, I was one of 200 students who applied for a 20-person class. I got negged because I wasn’t in the American Studies department, and I had the bright idea to try to “bribe” Deford by sending him a giant Wisconsin cheese wheel and an accompanying note. This makes absolutely no sense in retrospect and was probably worth a restraining order, but he had written a story in his collection that included a discourse on Americana like cheese wheels, and I thought it might be funny and get me into his class. It didn’t, but he took pity on me and went out to lunch one day on campus with me and my friend Nate. I was over the moon.
That was the thing with Frank. Here was this larger-than-life writer who was willing to spend time with random students who worshipped him. He didn’t have to do that. During the summer of 1994, he agreed to let a college sophomore come to his house in Connecticut and spend an hour there interviewing him about soccer and the World Cup, which was happening in the U.S. at that time. Maybe 50 people on campus read that story, but he met up with me anyway. It’s something I’ve tried to remember when college students send requests: Frank always made the time.
Frank never said much that was positive about soccer, and that didn’t exactly endear him to the U.S. soccer community. But I often sensed there was a half-smile on his face as he trolled soccer fans. A few years ago, he gave me a signed copy of his memoir, Over Time, that read: For Grant Wahl, A wonderful writer—and I say that even if he writes about soccer. I’ll always treasure that inscription, to say nothing of the time he spent with an adoring yet slightly creepy college student. Frank Deford was such a hero to me as a writer that I thought there was no way he could measure up to that standard in person.
L. Jon Wertheim
Maybe it was a blurb for a book. Maybe it was a note of encouragement. Or it was suggestion for a story that I ought to pursue. Who the hell can remember? The list of graceful and gracious acts executed by Frank Deford was so large it could be serialized. But after one of them I wrote back, thanking him profusely for his both solicitude and for serving as a role model.
What a mistake that was. No one wrote with more flair and freshness than Frank did. As and corollary: no one despised cliché more than Frank did. With his customary grace and wit, Frank responded that he hated the wretched phrase I had used. I’m paraphrasing here, but not by much. He wrote back that, while he could think of more worthy candidates, if I wanted to think of him as a professional exemplar, so be it. But if I ever called him a "role model" again, we were through. Instantly, I regretted my sloppy choice of words. Never did I come to regret how I positioned Frank. What a titan. What a mensch.
In the fall of 2001 my wife Vanessa and I had our first child. We named him Franklyn Nikolaus, after his maternal great-grandfather and German-born paternal grandfather, respectively. We called him Frank.
Our news occasioned a note—on purple letterhead, signed with purple Sharpie—from Frank Deford, who had recently devoted one of his NPR commentaries to the steady disappearance of the name Frank. This trend was a source of consternation to him. After all, he was a Frank born when a Frank sat in the White House, and he now found himself adrift in a sea of Justins and Tylers.
“I was delighted to hear, belatedly, about the arrival of Franklyn Nikolaus, even though neither you or Vanessa can spell either Franklin or Nicholas. But I will accept the Franklyn as very au courant, as many girls are called Robyn and Cheryl and Nancye and so forth. Y is a very fashionable letter, namewise, so that’s O.K.
“Frank is actually the only part of my name that I rather like, even if it is out of fashion. If I had to do it over, I would have changed my name to DeFord, with a capital F, which is how everybody naturally wants to spell it. Basically, with names, I have found that you are best off following the lines of least resistance. You should, for example, tell Frank to make his last name with just the one last f.
“The rest of my name is even more of a problem. It is Benjamin Franklin III. Believe me, nobody should have an initial for a first name, and nobody should have a Jr. or a III. It is a dreadful appendage, with no place to put it on forms. Sometimes computers address me as Mr. Iii.
“But it is very nice to finally have another Frank in the house. We have been waiting a long time, and maybe this means we’re on a roll again now in the 21st century. I welcome him to the diminishing Frank clan.”
He signed it All the best, in purple Sharpie—the same way he had signed a note to me after I’d written him, as a college kid, wondering about writing for SI.
I learned more about writing from reading Frank Deford than from anyone. But more than teaching me to write, he taught me how to write back. Such was his decency. Frank—or so I would hear from a Dutch sportswriter—became a wildly popular child’s name in the Netherlands after World War II. It means honest, and after six years of occupation and collaboration, honesty was a nation’s collective wish, inscribed on countless birth certificates.
Canvass his colleagues at SI, and honesty will sit atop the list of Frank’s most-cited virtues. From the accounting on his expense report, to the 5,000 words he’d file on some Hall of Famer, we could count on him for the truth.
It’s with great sadness that we find the diminishing Frank clan further diminished by one.