Frank Deford's Quest to Bring Humor and Grace to Sportswriting

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An interview with the writer about his half-century-long career and his new book, Over Time

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Courtesy Frank Deford

Frank Deford basically looks the way he writes. He's 6'4," trim, wears silk ties, French cuffs, and natty sports coats. He has a pencil mustache and slicks back his hair. During the Christmas season, he's probably the only man in all of TV gallant enough to wear a red blazer on the air.

That's pretty much the same swath Deford cuts through his sportswriting, which for him is never simply about the game. "It should be the best writing," he once explained. "You're writing about young, vibrant people; there are wins and losses. In other words, it's great drama." He brings a streamlined elegance to every subject, whether it's old football coaches in the Deep South, retired prizefighters in the steel belt, or tennis champions at Wimbledon.

"I can't believe it's been 50 years since I started writing for Sports Illustrated," he told me last week, marveling at how time moves. The work came easy for him, too. After all, this is a man who once equated writing with the joy of sex. "I think I would die if I couldn't get to the typewriter every day. I really need that. I think it's a sexual experience," said Deford in an interview.

His jobs include founder and editor-in-chief of the first and only coast-to-coast daily sports newspaper, The National (it was one of the most audacious experiments in journalism, lasting only a year and a half in the early 1990s); correspondent on HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel; and commentator on NPR (a position he's held since 1979). He's also written 18 books, 10 of them novels. Probably his most evocative book has nothing to do with sports—it's about his daughter, Alexandra, who died from cystic fibrosis when she was just eight years old. Hollywood made a TV movie from it in 1986, Alex: The Life of a Child. Craig T. Nelson played Frank.

He's now 73, and if you're expecting him to say that the most interesting person he's interviewed is some major athlete such as Mickey Mantle, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, or Arthur Ashe (Deford co-authored a book with him), you'd be wrong. "It's Teddy Tinling," he says. "Nobody's much heard of him, and everybody wants to hear a big name." (For the record, Tinling was a tennis champ. He also designed Gorgeous Gussy Moran's lace panties.)

I caught up with Deford as he was starting a 20-city book tour for his new memoir, Over Time.


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Your 1984 Sports Illustrated article about Coach Bob "Bull" Sullivan, "The Toughest Coach There Ever Was," is regarded as a classic. In it, you chronicle this man from East Mississippi Junior College, who's still a legend down there. How do you rank that piece with the other things you've written?

I think the best thing I've written is a story called "The Boxer and the Blonde." It's a piece about Billy Conn, the white would-be heavyweight champion of the world, who lived in Pittsburgh. I love the Sullivan story, though. Both are favorites because they deal with time and place. But Billy Conn is a love story, too.

One of your reporters at The National, Ed Hinton, said of the Bull Sullivan story, "The 120th paragraph is as good as the lede, and the ending is better than all of it."

Well, you see, Ed's from the South. If you find somebody who's from Pennsylvania, they'd put Billy Conn at the top.

Over Time is full of references to sportswriter Grantland Rice. "You certainly can't compare any individual, ever, in American journalism, to what he was," is one of your lines about him. What made Rice unique?

He dominated his area of journalism more and for longer than any other single individual, from Walter Lippman to Walter Winchell. The only thing that compares to Grantland Rice is ESPN.

Was he a good writer?

Yes, but he was nothing special. When he started at the beginning of the 20th century, sportswriting was just a couple of decades old. And he dominated it for the next 50 years. Somehow he simply managed to rise about the crowd. He was like certain movie stars who aren't the most beautiful or handsome but somehow they achieve a greater stardom.

Speaking of ESPN, do you read its website, Grantland, named for Mr. Rice?

Occasionally. I was sort of seduced into it because it launched with an oral history of The National. The piece was entertaining and also complimentary about what we did with that newspaper. So they seduced me. Bill Simmons, who runs Grantland, had enough sense of history to name it after Grantland Rice.

But, "there's no poetry in ESPN's soul," you say in this new book. Is it really that bad?

ESPN is all meat and potatoes. It's pretty much scouting reports. There isn't a great deal of humor, and when there is, it's pretty sophomoric. The people at ESPN feel that their charge is simply to deliver just the facts, ma'am—inside baseball all the way. They don't have any sense of trying to be poetic or graceful.

Spoken like a man who works for HBO Sports.

Well, whether I'm on HBO or NPR, I try to leaven my pieces with a certain amount of humor and grace. I just don't think you see that on ESPN.

In 1971, you wrote There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America. I read that book and loved it. Reviewers did, too. But There She Is bombed. What happened?

The Miss America insiders were the only ones who wanted to read 350 pages about Miss America.

Even with the critical raves it didn't catch on.

There are some books that get huge numbers of positive reviews, but reading them satiates people. They say, I've read enough now.

But when it went out of print, it almost developed a cult following.

Yeah. For a while, every Miss America contestant wanted to read it. If they'd only bought it when it was published it would have been a runaway success. [laughs] I guess people who watch Miss America don't read a whole lot of books. At the end of the day, maybe that was the real issue.

In 1966, you wrote the first big story about hockey star Bobby Orr. Years later, you say that he gave you the best definition of what it means to be blessed with great talent: "I don't think most people can understand what little pressure I felt out there," said Orr. "It was like skating in a little balloon. Only you can't take that balloon anywhere else with you."

That's an absolutely brilliant thing he said. He was in his 40s at the time. I don't think any 20-year-old could understand that statement.

Did it remind you of all the other great athletes you've covered?

That statement isn't just about a great athlete—it's about anybody who's extraordinary at something. They're inside this protective cocoon. What they do is so good, so special, that they're untouched by pressure, never mind by the other players. They float above everyone else. Once Bobby climbed off the rink, he was human. Not just human, but vulnerable.

You've purposely avoided participatory journalism. Your philosophy is, "I would never try do with any of my subjects what they do for a living. Leave that amateur hokeyness to the local TV reporters."

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John Meroney is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars.

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