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Sportswriter and commentator Frank Deford dies at 78

Frank Deford with President Obama in 2013, after Obama presented him with the National Humanities Medal.
Frank Deford with President Obama in 2013, after Obama presented him with the National Humanities Medal.Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press/File

NEW YORK — Frank Deford, who mined the sports world for human stories and told them with literary grace over six decades in Sports Illustrated, a shelf of books, and many years of radio and television commentary, died on Sunday at his home in Key West, Fla. He was 78.

His wife, Carol, confirmed his death on Monday but said she did not yet know the cause.

Mr. Deford retired from NPR’s “Morning Edition” on May 3, signing off with what the radio network said was his 1,656th weekly commentary since 1980. He also appeared on HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel” for 22 years and wrote for Sports Illustrated for more than 30 years.


At Sports Illustrated, he became a leader in a form of literary sports journalism nurtured by its managing editor, André Laguerre, who recruited him as one of a blue-ribbon roster of writers that included Mark Kram, Dan Jenkins, and Roy Blount Jr. Together they made the magazine one of the most successful at Time Inc.

Mr. Deford was a six-time Sportswriter of the Year, a National Magazine Award recipient, a member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame, and the first sportswriter to be given a National Humanities Medal, presented by Barack Obama in a White House ceremony in 2013.

“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 award citation said.

He displayed that voice — evocative, unhurried, conversational — in a 1985 profile of the champion boxer Billy Conn, known as “the Pittsburgh Kid.” Titled “The Boxer and the Blonde,” the article began this way:

“The boxer and the blonde are together, downstairs in the club cellar. At some point, club cellars went out, and they became family rooms instead. This is, however, very definitely a club cellar. Why, the grandchildren of the boxer and the blonde could sleep soundly upstairs, clear through the big Christmas party they gave, when everybody came and stayed late and loud down here. The boxer and the blonde are sitting next to each other, laughing about the old times, about when they fell hopelessly in love almost half a century ago in New Jersey, at the beach. Down the Jersey shore is the way everyone in Pennsylvania says it. This club cellar is in Pittsburgh.”


He wrote more than a dozen books, including fiction and nonfiction.

In a memoir, “Alex: The Life of a Child” (1983), he wrote about a daughter who died of cystic fibrosis when she was 8 years old. The book was later made into a 1986 television movie. He was national chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation for 16 years.

In another memoir, “Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter,” published in 2012, Mr. Deford said he had written about his daughter “to make her short life mean something.”

Benjamin Franklin Deford III was born in Baltimore and attended the Calvert and Gilman schools there before enrolling at Princeton, from which he graduated in 1962. He began his career at Sports Illustrated as a researcher.

In 1980, having become one of the magazine’s top writers, he was recruited for what he thought would be a temporary stint, delivering weekly sports commentary on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” There he spoke to an audience less obsessed with statistics and injury updates and more interested in the cultural impact of sports and the people behind the games.


“Nothing made me happier than to hear from literally hundreds of listeners, who would tell me how much the commentaries revealed about a subject they otherwise had never cared much for,” NPR quoted him as saying in May.

In 1990, he was recruited to be the founding editor in chief of The National Sports Daily — also known as The National — a short-lived tabloid newspaper that assembled a murderer’s row of writers and editors, including Tony Kornheiser and Mike Lupica. Some said they had been drawn there by Mr. Deford’s presence.

“I’d follow Frank Deford into any foxhole,” Peter Richmond, a sportswriter, told Grantland in 2011. “To this day, I would. If he started this sucker up again and said, ‘Except this time we’ve only got $10,000 and four writers, and you’ll have to walk to every city,’ I’d do it.”

The paper went out of business in less than two years, having lost $150 million.

Besides his wife, Carol, whom he married in 1965, Mr. Deford leaves his son, Christian; another daughter, Scarlet Crawford; and two grandchildren.

As Mr. Deford was commenting on sports for 37 years, until shortly before his death, the sports media around him changed. In a 2008 interview in Deadspin, he mourned the loss of what he saw as deeper storytelling in favor of gossip and “x’s and o’s” coverage.


“I think there are more good sportswriters doing more good sportswriting than ever before,” he wrote in “Over Time.” “But I also believe that the one thing that’s largely gone out is what made sport such fertile literary territory — the characters, the tales, the humor, the pain, what Hollywood calls ‘the arc.’ That is: stories. We have, all by ourselves, ceded that one neat thing about sport that we owned.”

Listen to Deford’s “Sweetness and Light” segments here.

Read his Sports Illustrated stories here.

Here is an SI gallery of photos of Deford over the years.

Here are a few of Deford stories on Boston sports:

Boston’s savior Bobby Orr commands respect, high price at 18. (Originally appeared in the Oct. 17, 1966, issue of Sports Illustrated.)

■ Two guys on a Boston hot seat: The men who share the heat are Tom Heinsohn and Red Auerbach, and their huge problem is a missing Celtic player. (Nov. 3, 1969)

■ A player for the ages: Boston’s Larry Bird, in what may be his finest season, gets Red Auerbach’s vote — over Bill Russell — as the best ever. (March 21, 1988)

Bill Russell helped the Celtics rule their sport like no team ever has. (May 10, 1999)