Sports Illustrated media writer Richard Deitsch reflects on his first meeting and favorite memories of the late Frank Deford.
I first met Frank Deford in May 2000 and I remember it like it was yesterday, because you remember when you meet Frank Deford.
I was sitting in my cube at SI—at the time I was a fact-checker/reporter and assigned to all the tennis stories—and this very tall and regal-looking man came up to me holding a giant folder. He had a mustache, perfectly combed hair, and looked, no lie, like Clark Gable. He introduced himself as Frank Deford, and for an SI junkie like me, it was like meeting someone larger than life. Sort of like Shoeless Joe Jackson walking out of the Iowa cornfields except this was the Time & Life Building in Manhattan and I imagine he came up in the elevator.
The story I worked with Frank on was a cover story about Anna Kournikova and objectively it’s not going to go down as his best. The editors over-sexed the cover and the piece was way too much Lolita. But on a personal level, I got to marinate in Deford’s brain—he was an inveterate note-taker—and we got to talk tennis, which was one of my favorite sports. He told me about his Jimmy Connors profile—my favorite piece he ever wrote—and he was such a gentleman of the highest order. He knew he was Frank Deford but his ego was still among the living, which was nice.
That experience led to me having an email relationship with Frank over the years—we might exchange one every couple of months. Then around 2007 I became SI.com’s first-ever special projects editor, which was a fancy title that really meant I was supposed to come up with projects that would involve having the magazine writers contribute to the website. At that time, SI’s magazine writers were not exactly flocking to SI.com. So I started coming up with projects to get everyone involved, asking them to write about the greatest game they ever saw or their favorite venue or the best team they ever covered. And here is where I could never repay Frank Deford: I knew that many of the writers did not want to write for the web—especially for free—so I started those projects by making Frank the first person I’d ask to contribute. He never turned me down in the first couple of years.
Once I had Deford, I was able to use him as my chip. If anyone starting saying they didn’t want to write, I could mention something along the lines of, "Frank F---ing Deford is writing so you can too." Unfortunately, we have changed CMS’s many times over the years at SI.com so most of those Deford links are now in the web heavens. But he was such a prince to me with those assignments, and it helped me get some traction at the web, which ultimately got me out of editing (for everyone’s sake) and back to writing fulltime.
He was a writing giant, and one of the reasons I wanted to work at SI as a kid. Thank you, Frank Deford. Rest in peace before your next profile up there.