Every Wednesday morning Deford brings timely and entertaining sports commentaries to NPR’s broad audience. He’s a senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated and is a regular correspondent on the HBO show RealSports With Bryant Gumbel.
Deford’s been named sportswriter of the year six times by his peers and was named to the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters. So you might be surprised to learn that sports writing is not what Frank Deford set out to do.
“I just wanted to become a writer, and when I left college, I left Princeton in 1962, a long time ago, I wanted to go to New York,” Deford said. “The best job offer I had was from Sports Illustrated, and the reason I was so attracted to it was not because Sports Illustrated was about sports, but because it was such a well written magazine. That’s not to say that I didn’t like sports. It’s not say I hadn’t written about sports, but the reason I went to Sports Illustrated is because I thought that was a great place to be a writer. I never imagined in a million years that I would stay there forever and stay in sports for the rest of my life, never thought about that.”
Deford says the job has provided fun over the years too. In fact, one of his favorite stories involved a basketball player from Morgantown.
“Many, many years ago I was there with “Hot Rod” Hunley, who of course was the great all-American before Jerry West. I was doing a story on Hot Rod when he was a shoe salesman. He’s now and has been for many, many years the voice of the Utah Jazz. At that time he was an area salesman for converse shoes and I was doing a story on him. Hot Rod was a very funny guy,” Deford said.
Deford says he has to guard against having too much fun or else the reporting suffers.
Reflecting back on his career, Deford says his biggest accomplishment doesn’t have much to do with writing.
Deford says his greatest accomplishment is about his daughter, Alex. She died from cystic fibrosis in 1980 when she was just eight years old.
“I got very much involved with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and eventually I served as chairman for 16 years. I would have to say when the curtain is drawn on my life, that’s the most important thing that I did in my life,” Deford said. “I did write a book about Alex and that brought a tremendous amount of attention to cystic fibrosis because it was then turned into a movie. The writing came in concert with the other work. But I would have to say that’s the most important and the most significant thing that Frank Deford ever did. You can’t lose a child and not be so horribly, terribly touched. I don’t know that it changes you, but it so affects you.”
Deford’s writing is described as versatile, from the book he wrote about his daughter to those he’s authored about sports plus his many articles for Sports Illustrated.
He says he’s fortunate to have the opportunity to write for NPR’s Morning Edition. Deford says even though the subject is sports, he keeps the broad base of this audience in mind as he crafts his weekly commentaries.
“If I just talked to that audience like we were all part of the family, we were all jocks together, an awful lot of people listening to me wouldn’t like what I was saying, wouldn’t understand what I was saying, so I’m very lucky that I can bring other elements into my commentary that I couldn’t do if I was on sports radio. I’m very grateful to NPR for that,” Deford said. “It’s sort of funny that some of the people who seem to enjoy me the best don’t really know that much about sports. It’s kind of ironic. In a way it’s kind of a backhanded compliment, ‘I don’t really know what you’re talking about, but I enjoy you.’”
If you enjoy Frank Deford, you can hear him in person Tuesday night at 7:30 at Eiesland Hall on WVU’s downtown campus.
The public event is part of this year’s Journalism Week sponsored by WVU’s P.I. Reed School of Journalism. Speakers throughout the week are all tied to the theme of the evolution of sports journalism and communications.