Frank Deford, one of the sharpest and most affable sportswriters in American journalistic history, died Sunday at the age of 78. Deford’s decades-long career reached from the daily newspaper to the smartphone screen, covering every medium in between. A Sports Illustrated contributor since 1962, Deford also created memorable television segments for outlets including HBO and CNN. His weekly sports segments on NPR, which he concluded earlier this month, showcased his characteristic wit, insight, curiosity, and compassion.
“A dedicated writer and storyteller, Mr. Deford has offered a consistent, compelling voice in print and on radio, reaching beyond scores and statistics to reveal the humanity woven into the games we love,” the National Endowment for the Humanities wrote in awarding him the National Humanities Medal in 2012. Deford won worldwide acclaim for his work, including a PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for sportswriting, a National Magazine award, an Emmy, a Peabody, and numerous honorary degrees.
Deford reached across sports, profiling personalities and games, eras and teams. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from “The Rabbit Hunter,” his landmark 1981 profile of mercurial former Indiana coach Bobby Knight:
”In the early ’60s, when Knight was a big-talking substitute on the famous Jerry Lucas teams at Ohio State, he was known as Dragon. Most people think it was in honor of his fire-snorting mien, with the bright and broken nose that wanders down his face and makes everything he says appear to have an exclamation mark. Only this was not so. He was called Dragon because when he came to Ohio State, he told everybody he was the leader of a motorcycle gang called the Dragons. This was pure fabrication, of course, but all the fresh-scrubbed crew cuts on the team lapped it up. It was easy. People have always been charmed by him; or conned; anyway, he gets in the last word.”
And here he is from “The Ring Leader,” a profile of the transcendent Bill Russell:
“Look, you can stand at a bar and scream all you want about who was the greatest athlete and which was the greatest sports dynasty, and you can shout out your precious statistics, and maybe you’re right, and maybe the red-faced guy down the bar—the one with the foam on his beer and the fancy computer rankings—is right, but nobody really knows. The only thing we know for sure about superiority in sports in the United States of America in the 20th century is that Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics teams he led stand alone as the ultimate winners. Fourteen times in Russell’s career it came down to one game, win you must, or lose and go home. Fourteen times the team with Bill Russell on it won.”
Here, a scene from “The Boxer and the Blonde,” a story of love and the fight game:
“The boxer is going on 67, except in The Ring record book, where he is going on 68. But he has all his marbles; and he has his looks (except for the fighter’s mashed nose); and he has the blonde; and they have the same house, the one with the club cellar, that they bought in the summer of 1941. A great deal of this is about that bright ripe summer, the last one before the forlorn simplicity of a Depression was buried in the thick-braided rubble of blood and Spam. What a fight the boxer had that June! It might have been the best in the history of the ring. Certainly, it was the most dramatic, alltime, any way you look at it. The boxer lost, though. Probably he would have won, except for the blonde—whom he loved so much, and wanted so much to make proud of him. And later, it was the blonde’s old man, the boxer’s father-in-law (if you can believe this), who cost him a rematch for the heavyweight championship of the world. Those were some kind of times.”
“Coach Bob ‘Bull’ (Cyclone) Sullivan was a legend in his place. That place was Scooba, Miss, in Kemper County, hard by the Alabama line, hard to the rear of everywhere else. He was the football coach there, for East Mississippi Junior College, ruling this, his dominion, for most of the ’50s and ’60s with a passing attack that was a quarter century ahead of its time and a kind of discipline that was on its last legs. He was the very paradigm of that singular American figure, the coach—corch as they say in backwater Dixie—who loved his boys as he dominated them, drove off the weak and molded the survivors, making the game of football an equivalency test for life.”
Over the course of his six-decade career, Deford authored 18 books, half of them novels, including “Everybody’s All-American.” He died at his home in Key West, Florida.