Frank Deford, the legendary Sports Illustrated writer who also made a mark on radio and television with a unique voice and perspective on all sports, died on Sunday at age 78. The Baltimore-born Deford won countless awards during his life and helped raise awareness of Cystic Fibrosis.
Deford’s wife, Carol, confirmed the news to the Washington Post. He died at their home in Key West.
Deford spent over 50 years at Sports Illustrated and wrote several books about sports. He also became the chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation from 1982 to 1999 after the death of his daughter, Alexandra, in 1980. He is also survived by his grown children, son Christa and Scarlet. He earned a degree from Princeton University.
Here’s what you need to know about Deford’s life and career.
1. Deford Retired from NPR on May 3, Just Weeks Before His Death
After 37 years of appearing on NPR’s Morning Edition, Deford retired earlier this month, just weeks before his death. In his final broadcast on May 3, 2017, he thanked his longtime listeners, but he also acknowledged the importance of his colleagues.
“I have survived so long because I’ve been blessed with talented and gracious colleagues, and with a top brass who let me choose my topics every week and then allowed me to express opinions that were not always popular. Well, someone had to stand up to the yackety-yak soccer cult,” Deford said.
“Thank you for listening. Thank you for abiding me,” Deford said in his last statement. “And now, Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, I bid you goodbye, and take my leave.”
In addition to his work on NPR, Deford was a frequent contributor to Real Sports sWith Bryant Gumbel on HBO. He made his last appearance on the show in 2015.
2. Deford Was a Six-Time Winner of U.S. Sportswriter of the Year
As Deford’s Sports Illustrated bio notes, he is a member of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He earned the title of U.S. Sportswriter of the Year six times during his tenure at the magazine.
As NPR noted when Deford retired, Deford did have some critics for controversial comments, like one commentary in which he said hockey should stay in Canada, or his criticisms of soccer. But he told NPR that he loved receiving letters, especially from listeners who didn’t care for sports before they listened to him.
“The number of letters I’ve gotten through the years, saying, ‘y’know, I never really cared for sports, but I like listening to you because you bring something new to it,’ ” he told NPR. “I’m sort of proud of that. I am proud of that.”
Of all of his work, Deford thought his best piece of writing was the 1985 article “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,” Deford told the Atlantic. “Both are favorites because they deal with time and place. But Billy Conn is a love story, too.”
Other important awards he received include the 1999 National Magazine Award for a profile on Celtics legend Bill Russell, a Peabody Award for writing HBO’s 1999 documentary Dare to Compete and a 1988 Emmy Award for his writing during the Seoul Olympics.
3. He Wrote 2 Books That Became Movies, Including ‘Alex: The Life of a Child’
Deford wrote two books that became movies. The 1988 film of his novel Everybody’s All-American starred Jessica Lange, Dennis Quaid and Thimothy Hutton. The book centers on a Louisiana football player trying to find his role in life after his college career ends.
Alex: The Life of a Child, his memoir about his daughter’s battle with Cystic Fibrosis, became a TV movie with Craig T. Nelson as Deford. The film’s script earned an Emmy nomination in 1986.
Deford also wrote a screenplays. Trading Hearts is a 1988 sports movie starring future pop singer Jenny Lewis. He also worked on several sports documentaries during his career, most recently 2008’s Barbaro. He also wrote 2003’s Rebels of Oakland: The A’s, the Raiders, the ’70s.
In an The Atlantic in 2012, Deford gave his thoughts on the movie version of Alex. He explained:
I’ll tell you about that movie—my wife and I were so scared about how it would turn out because this was such a personal story of ours. But the result was a beautiful picture. It was also a tremendous success in bringing attention to cystic fibrosis. Now, about Craig T. Nelson playing Frank Deford: you should know that Frank Deford actually played Frank Deford in an Arliss episode and I think he beat Craig T. Nelson. [laughs] I don’t think there was any comparison. Frank had the character down. It was just like Phillip Seymour Hoffman getting Capote right: I killed it. [laughs]
4. He Was Dedicated to Fighting Cystic Fibrosis Aster His Daughter Died of the Disease
Deford became an advocate for Cystic Fibrosis awareness after his daughter Alexandra’s death in 1980. She was diagnosed with the illness in 1972. Two years after her death, Deford became chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF). He stepped down in 1999, but remained chairman emeritus until his death.
The experience of having a daughter who went through Cystic Fibrosis gave Deford a new purpose in life.
“The idea that tragedy brings a family together — my own experience is that that’s garbage, probably all the moreso because it’s a child,” Deford told The Washington Post in 1986. “Apart from the sadness, there was relief: She was in such distress that we wanted her to die. There was a void there when Alex died. There was so much time. After she died, I woke up one morning and suddenly I remembered that I didn’t have to get up and do the therapy any more.”
Deford wrote Alex as tribute to his daughter and did speaking engagements for the CFF.
“There’s no question that it’s difficult to go through this,” Deford told the Washignton Post. “I really felt that I would be irresponsible if I did not write the book. I’m also able to shut myself off. That doesn’t mean that I don’t go back to my hotel room and break up. I can stand up and talk about Alex — it’s what I do. There’s a difference between the public and the private person.”
5. Deford Received a 2012 National Humanities Medal From President Obama
Back in 2012, President Barack Obama honored Deford with a National Humanities Medal. According to the White House, Deford was honored for “transforming how we think about sports.”
“A dedicated writer and storyteller, Mr. Deford has offered a consistent, compelling voice in print and on radio, reaching beyond scores and statistics to reveal the humanity woven into the games we love,” the White House noted.
Deford’s career spanned every major change in sportswriting, from the days when you could only get your sports news from magazines and papers to the wall-to-wall coverage on ESPN. In his The Atlantic interview in 2012, Deford explained why he didn’t care for ESPN.
“ESPN is all meat and potatoes. It’s pretty much scouting reports,” Deford explained. “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.”
Deford left his fans with 15 books, and their topics didn’t center on just sports. In 1975, he wrote the definitive history of the Miss America pageant, There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America. Other books included Five Strides on the Banked Track: The Life and Times of the Roller Derby, The World’s Tallest Midget: The Best of Frank Deford, The Spy In The Deuce Court, Bliss, Remembered and his final book, 2012’s Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter.
In a 2008 interview with Deadspon, Deford was asked when he thought he’d earned the respect he received.
“I don’t know, I can’t put a year figure on it,” Deford said. “I think it depends on how small the universe is that you’re writing about. It takes a while but I couldn’t tell you how long it takes.”