Point of No Return — Deford’s voice will continue to ring loudly
If you’re serious about what you do — regardless of what you do — it pays to study those who have excelled in that field in the past.
If you’re a bricklayer, it makes sense to pay attention to what succesful bricklayers do, or have done in the past. The same goes for chefs, sales people, musicians, carpenters, farmers, what have you. Unless you are embarking on a never-before-seen quest in life, someone has done it before you, and someone has done it magnificently. Why not follow the trail those pioneers have blazed?
As a writer, I was fortunate to grow up with some remrakable influences in the newspaper that was delivered to my house every morning, The Washington Post. In those pages I could read the words of Bob Levey, Thomas Boswell, Andrew Beyer, Angus Phillips and Shirley Povich, columnists who saw past the A-B-Cs of a story and instead focused on the “He-She-Mes” — the people behind the stories.
As a sports junkie, I was also drawn to the pages of The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated. The Sporting News had all the statistics in one tidy place each issue, as Google was not yet a thing, and Sports Illustrated had the writers. Brilliant, clever and irreverant writers who would not only describe a winning shot or game-saving tackle, but would delve into the childhood and struggles of the person behind the heroic deed. I was drawn to their words and descriptions, and the people who wrote for Sports Illustrated just had to be the greatest scribes on the planet, in my mind.
No writer stood taller to me than Frank Deford, the Baltimore native who always looked and dressed like he was getting ready to run out to a 1920s speakeasy with his pinstriped suits, pencil-thin mustache and slicked-back hair. I saw Deford interviewed on television one time, and when the reporter asked him about writing about sports, Deford replied, and I paraphrase here, “I don’t write about sports. I write about people who happen to play sports.”
That stuck with me.
Deford passed away on Sunday, May 28, at his home in Key West. He was 78 years old, retired from NPR’s “Morning Edition” earlier in May after what the network said was his 1,656th weekly commentary; appeared on HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel” for 22 years; and wrote for Sports Illustrated for more than 30 years, according to The New York Times. He also wrote 18 books, nine of them novels, was voted National Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association six times and was twice voted Magazine Writer of the Year by the Washington Journalism Review.
I could go on and on with his accomplishments and efforts, such as being the editor-in-chief of The National, a daily U.S. sports newspaper in the 1980s, and serving as chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation from 1982 to 1999, following the death of his 8-year-old daughter from the illness in 1980.
So, yeah. The guy left a mark.
He had a way of explaining things in a way that made sense. When the NFL and NCAA were going through their public perception battles with football players’ concussions earlier this decade, and some opined that the popularity of the sport would fade as people saw the ramifications of these head injuries, Deford aptly explained why people would continue to love the game, per NPR:
“Football teams represent cities and colleges and schools. The people have built great stadiums, and the game is culturally intertwined with our calendar.We don’t go back to college for the college. We go back for a football game, and, yes, we even call that ‘homecoming.’ It would take some unimagined cataclysmic event to take football from us. Concussions for young men are the price for our love of football, as broken hearts are what we pay for young love.”
NPR also shared a commentary he gave on the whistleblower who called attention to fake classes for athletes at University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill:
“So much about big-time college sports is criticized. But the worst scandal is almost never mentioned: the academic fraud wherein the student-athletes, so-called, are admitted without even remotely adequate credentials and then aren’t educated so much as they are just kept eligible.”
The thing I admired most about Deford was, though he suffered no fools, he cared. He cared about people being given a fair shot. He cared about principles and rules and standards. And he cared about the artistry and poetry exhibited by some of the world’s more exceptional athletes — once comparing the grace of Michael Jordan to Mikhail Baryshnikov. Many wrote him off as a curmudgeon who complained about the newer world about him, but I always just pegged him as a man who believed and cared about things being done the right way, and he continued to praise athletes of today if they were deemed worthy of his praise.
I have heard stories from several long-time residents of this community concerning Deford’s past visits to Delaware (which is where he met his wife, Carol). I wish I had crossed paths with him so I could have joined the thousands of others who saw him as a mentor-from-afar, but I didn’t.
However, I will never forget those words. Or the man.