Frank Deford, among the most venerable and versatile voices in sports journalism for the past half-century, died Sunday at age 78.
Sports Illustrated reported that his wife, Carol Deford, told the magazine he was recently treated for pneumonia.
The news left a nation of sportswriters an unenviable task: Writing about a writer better at writing than the rest of us.
Many tributes seemed to accept that reality and honored Deford simply by linking to some of the many memorable stories he wrote over the decades.
But while he was best known for writing and reporting, he also made a mark on television, primarily with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” on radio, primarily in 37 years on NPR, and even as an executive.
In 1990 and ’91 he was editor-in-chief of The National, an ambitious attempt at a national sports daily.
Deford also was national chairman in the 1980s of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a disease that killed his daughter, Alexandra, at age 8 in 1980, and inspired him to write a book about her that became a television movie.
Boomer Esiason, the former NFL quarterback and current WFAN host, became involved in the cause through Deford even before his own son, Gunnar, was born with the disease in 1991.
“We lost a CF pioneer as well as a great writer,” Esiason posted on Twitter on Monday. “I’m eternally grateful for his influence on my life and dedication to the CF family.”
Deford wrote books, both fiction and nonfiction, but most sports fans will remember him best for his 50 years at Sports Illustrated, where, as his SI colleague Tim Layden put it on Twitter: “Frank Deford was longform before #Longform. In many ways, he invented the genre and let future generations play with it.”
Never was that more evident than in a 1984 feature on a Mississippi junior college football coach headlined, “The Toughest Coach There Ever Was,” a guy so tough he required two nicknames: Bob “Bull” (Cyclone) Sullivan.
Or his 1999 profile of Bill Russell. Or one on Bobby Knight in 1981. Or Jimmy Connors in 1978.
SI used to call them “bonus pieces,” and Deford took to them from the start, enabled by editors who could see what they had in him.
Deford recalled in a 2010 essay, about his early years at SI, a conversation he had with managing editor Andre Laguerre:
“The time he gave me advice was when I wondered whether writing about sports was really substantial. Laguerre simply said, ‘Frankie, it doesn’t matter what you write about. All that matters is how well you write.’ I suppose that has helped sustain me all these years.”
Deford authored the last of his 1,656 commentaries for NPR earlier this month. He closed with this:
“Thank you for listening. Thank you for abiding me. And now, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, I bid you goodbye, and take my leave.”
Deford grew up in Baltimore, graduated from Princeton and lived in Key West, Florida, at the time of his death. In a profession not known for sartorial splendor, he was tall, regal, well-dressed, generally well-mannered and widely liked.
President Barack Obama awarded him the National Humanities Medal in 2013.
But again, to best appreciate him, take the advice longtime Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy offered on Twitter: “Frank Deford. A sports writing god and a class guy. Go back and read his stuff.”
There is no room for long excerpts here. But consider a snippet from early in that Knight feature, part of what Deford considered perhaps the best lead paragraphs he ever wrote:
“Probably, for example, no matter how well you know Coach Knight, you have never been informed — much less noticed yourself — that he’s dimpled. Well, he is, and invariably when anyone else has dimples, a great to-do is made about them. But, in Bobby’s case, being dimpled just won’t fly.
“After all: DIMPLED COACH RAGES AGAIN. No.”
He is survived by his wife and two children, Christian, born in 1969, and Scarlet, whom he and his wife adopted shortly after Alexandra’s death, as well as two grandchildren.