I crossed paths with Frank Deford only twice, and chatted briefly with him on just one occasion. So I certainly can’t add to the countless personal appreciations of that sportswriting giant, who died last week at 78. Besides, I am not equipped to sum up Deford as artfully as Deford could get to the essence of his subjects—sometimes in one brilliant sentence.
For a 1979 Sports Illustrated profile of Earl Weaver, for instance, Deford began several paragraphs about the feisty Hall of Fame manager, who was ejected by umpires more than 90 times in his career and was widely known for an almost casual profanity, this way:
“Earl says a dirty word.”
As part of his coverage of the 1988 Olympic equestrian event and its “patronizing upper-crust participants,” Deford made a passing reference to famously snippy British rider Mark Phillips, then married to Princess Anne, by slyly noting that “a number of the horses’ asses are not attached to the horses.”
Deford’s writing was conversational yet literate, a model for anyone who aspires to traffic in the English language. It was full of appreciation for its leading characters, while devoid of the gee-whiz gushing that is so common in sports coverage. And so vivid. He once described Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter and Shorter’s fellow distance runners, at a time when running was just becoming fashionable, as “lean leggy people in a pudgy world of wheels.”
To read his stylish, perceptive prose was to wonder—just as so many sports fans puzzle over some jock’s spectacular play—“How does he do that?”
Don’t ask me. I have spent a half-century as a sportswriter and now teach a college sportswriting course, and the best I can do is cite what a comedian once told aspiring students about her profession: “I can’t teach you to be a good comic. All I can do is introduce you to good comedy.”
So I acquaint the class with really good sportswriting. John Updike’s 1960 New Yorker piece on Ted Williams’ final big-league game. Roy Blount Jr.’s 1984 Sports Illustrated consideration of whether Yankee catcher Yogi Berra could be considered a true yogi (“He loves to sit around reflecting in his undershorts”). Roger Angell’s New Yorker articles on baseball. Kenny Moore’s personal account of the 1972 Olympic marathon for Sports Illustrated.
Anything by Frank Deford.
And still there is the mystery of just how those eminent wordsmiths do that? My best student last semester, in his final class essay, raised the frustration that “we have read wonderful pieces but didn’t really explain how they did what they did. How do you tell a story with a lot of color and detail? How do you write casually? How do you develop your voice?”
Not surprisingly, plenty of admirers had asked Deford, “How do you write?” And his response, recalled in his 2012 memoir Over Time, was, “You mean like: In the morning after breakfast, in my office, on a computer? That’s how I write…” His take was that writing “is such a personal endeavor, people are curious as to exactly how you go about it,” yet guessed that captains of industry aren’t asked what they do in their offices, how they talk on the phone and so on.
Back to the comedian’s system, then: If you want to write sports (or anything, really), the first thing to do is read the best. Read Deford. His work embodied journalism’s ideals, that thorough reporting enhances the quality of writing (his magnificent storytelling always was deeply researched); and that interviewing skills are a key tool in gathering facts. He said he considered the interviewing process akin to flirting, since the purpose is to learn another’s interests, aspirations and grievances.
Then, armed with great detail, he could spin transfixing tales. A treatise on roller derby, an examination of what made cantankerous basketball coach Bobby Knight tick, a study of the Soap Box Derby. Whatever.
He once said that “when people hear you’re a sportswriter, they assume you’re more interested in the first half of that word than the second.” It was obvious that he involved himself in the intricate plumbing of that second half of the word. He often quoted his first Sports Illustrated editor, Andre Laguerre, advising him, “Frankie, it doesn’t matter what you write about. All that matters is how well you write.”
So, even though Deford spent an entire career nettling the American soccer community—he once insisted that the initials U.S.A. stood for “Uninterested in Soccer A-tall”—it didn’t stop him from assigning himself to travel to Cameroon to produce an empathetic account of that nation’s 1990 World Cup quarterfinal showdown with soccer’s Mother Country, England.
Deford found a local bar to witness the Cameroon citizens’ emotional investment in television coverage of the game that was being played in Naples, Italy. When Cameroon, an eventual 3-2 loser, scored the opening goal, “a short, fat lady next to me grabbed me and starting dancing with me,” he wrote in Over Time, “and if only you could’ve seen the unbounded joy on her face. The photographer who was with me took a picture of that moment, and it’s the only sports photograph I keep in my office. It tells you better than anything else about the joy of sports—and the power, too, I suppose.”
In fact, it felt as if Deford’s mastery of his craft best told the joy and power of sports. With the news of his death, I might have said a dirty word.