Renowned sports writer and commentator Frank Deford, 78, died on Sunday, just a few weeks after his last piece aired on Morning Edition. He had recorded 1,656 commentaries for NPR over nearly 40 years.
Deford left everything on the field when choosing topics for his commentaries. One of his early 1980 pieces argued that losing teams didn’t deserve support, and later that year he opined that the Heisman Trophy was “the second stupidest award given in sports.” In 1992, he told us “television coverage of football is abysmal. It stinks.” A few years later, he weighed in on then-rookie NBA player Jason Williams’ nickname, “White Chocolate.”
But Deford wasn’t always the sports curmudgeon, as Jon Wertheim, executive editor for Sports Illustrated, told Morning Edition.
“I think there was a real versatility to him,” said Wertheim, who knew Deford for more than 20 years. Many sports writers, Wertheim said, got into the business because of Deford.
“He could write with empathy, compassion, and sweetness. He could take stands — as NPR listeners know there were certainly, there were dimensions to sport that bothered him. There was a level of moral outrage,” Wertheim said. “And then he could come back the next week and write about something with real sweetness and tenderness. And he did the same thing in his prose. And he is just an absolute giant in the field.”
For Wertheim, what made Deford’s writing so good, was his reporting and analysis.
“And I think something that gets lost with Frank Deford — you hear what a brilliant writer he was, and all of that is true — but I think his writing in some ways was really shaped by his ability to report, and his ability to analyze. Analyze situations, analyze people, analyze games,” Wertheim said. “And too often we talk about brilliant writers and we lose sight of the fact that they were brilliant reporters as well. Which made the writing easy. And I think Frank is a classic example of that.”
It’s hard to distill 37 years of Deford’s Sweetness and Light commentaries down to a few “best of” pieces. But, before he retired, he shared some of his favorites with us and, here, we share them with you.
Plays, Monet, Faure and football?
Deford came to the defense of Gary Walters, the athletic director at Princeton University, who compared sports to art, in his Oct. 17, 2007, commentary:
What we accepted as great art — whether the book, the script, the painting, the symphony — is that which could be saved and savored. But the performances of the athletic artists who ran and jumped and wrestled were gone with the wind.
Now, however, that we can study the grace of the athlete on film, a double play can be viewed as pretty as any pas de deux. Or, please: Is not what we saw Michael Jordan do every bit as artistic as what we saw Mikhail Baryshnikov do?
Toss the ball to Shakespeare
There are plays on the field and court, and, well, plays. Deford put the ball in The Bard’s hands for his Jan. 30, 2008, commentary:
Methinks the crunch upon his presence is so great,
And the paparazzi do shine forth such a spangled glare
That the great golden orb above must be dimmed
And the sounds of Niagara itself seem noiseless
Before the din of questions that confront our great Brady.
Hey, you guys!
Deford observed that there was a new “linguistic phenomenon” in his Sept. 27, 2011, commentary — the “guy-ification of America”:
How did females become guys? How did everyone become guys? Remember, too, that a male guy was something of a scoundrel. And a wise guy was a fresh kid, a whippersnapper. In its most other famous evocation, men in Brooklyn said “youse guys.” Damon Runyon referred to hustlers, gamblers and other nefarious types as guys.
Now every mother’s son is a guy and every mother’s daughter, too. If they wrote the musical now, it wouldn’t be called Guys and Dolls –– just Guys and Guys.
Our indecent joy
Deford revisited the topic of concussions and football over and over again, and in his Jan. 16, 2013, commentary he reflected on Americans’ love of the game despite what he called, its “violent nature”:
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 of our love for football, as broken hearts are what we pay for young love.
Put down the ball, pick up a book
In his Sept. 4, 2013, commentary, Deford weighed in on the whistleblower who called attention to fake classes for athletes at UNC-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.