Award-winning Baltimore sports writer Frank Deford dies at 78

Frank Deford, a master of deeply written Sports Illustrated profiles and later a courtly commentator for National Public Radio and HBO Sports, died Sunday at his home in Key West, Fla. The Baltimore native was 78.

With wavy hair and a dark mustache, Deford cut a dashing figure, draping his 6-foot-4 frame in stylish jackets, often with a vivid handkerchief stuffed in the breast pocket. His look and sonorous speaking voice made him a memorable figure during long stints as a correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports" and as an NPR commentator. He recorded his last NPR dispatch less than a month ago, equating his own retirement after 1,656 commentaries to the shuttering of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

"Nothing has pleased me so much as when someone — usually a woman — writes me or tells me that she's appreciated sports more because NPR allowed me to treat sports seriously, as another branch on the tree of culture," he said. "Thank you for listening. Thank you for abiding me."

His wife, Carol, told The Washington Post she did not know a cause of death but said he had recently been treated for pneumonia.

Before Deford became a radio or television figure, he was the pre-eminent sports magazine writer of his time, inspiring countless readers and would-be scribes with his elegant, probing portraits of complex figures such as Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight and tennis star Jimmy Connors.

As brilliant as he was at capturing such famous figures, he was equally adept at spinning less obvious tales, such as the saga of small-college Mississippi football coach Robert Victor Sullivan. "The toughest coach there ever was," he dubbed Sullivan, who ran scrimmages through a local (the rumor was gator-filled) pond and earned the twin nicknames "Bull" and "Cyclone."

Deford wrote his most famous pieces for Sports Illustrated, where he worked from 1962 to 1989 and again from 1998 until his death.

"All of us who worked with Frank Deford are trying to figure out what stories of his to post as tributes," former Sports Illustrated colleague Jack McCallum wrote on Twitter. "But that would take us all day."

In addition to his magazine pieces and NPR commentaries, Deford wrote more than a dozen books, including a poignant appreciation of his daughter, Alex, who died of cystic fibrosis in 1980 at age 8. "Alex: The Life of a Child" became the basis for an Emmy-nominated television movie in 1986. Deford remained a leading advocate for cystic fibrosis research for the rest of his life.

In 2013, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama, who praised him for "reaching beyond scores and statistics to reveal the humanity woven into the games we love."

Several generations of writers took to social media Monday to express how much Deford meant to them and to the profession.

"This one really hurts," wrote longtime Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan. "He was my writing idol, a writing craftsman beyond measure. And generous with his time. A huge loss."

"RIP Frank Deford, who made us all want to be sportswriters and who was my boss for 18 glorious months," wrote Charles P. Pierce, who worked for Deford at the short-lived but revered National Sports Daily.

The National was Deford's grand midlife experiment, handed to him by Mexican-American media magnate Emilio Azcarraga. As the publication's editor, Deford unleashed a gifted staff of writers to bring literary-minded coverage to everything from the NBA to professional wrestling. But the National never overcame distribution troubles and closed in June 1991, after less than 18 months of publication.

"Understand that the National Sports Daily was a newspaper that cared about good writing and sought [to the bitter end] to live by the premise that sports and good writing deserve to go together," Deford wrote later.

Though Deford built his career and lived most of his life in other places, he always referred to Baltimore as home.

"I've always said that coming from Baltimore made me a different person than if I'd come from Washington, or New York, or Boston, or someplace like that," he said in a 2002 Sun interview. "All of us in Baltimore felt a certain defensiveness, and sometimes defensiveness can be good because it makes you strive to work harder to show yourself. I think that was very important to me growing up.

"I also think Baltimore is a very idiosyncratic city. It's very distinct and very unusual in many ways. For a writer, that's very good. It gives you a lot of material. I think it made me more aware, even if I didn't use all the material from Baltimore. I think if you grow up in a bland place, maybe you don't have as good an eye."

Benjamin Franklin Deford III was born Dec. 16, 1938, and grew up in north Baltimore as the eldest of three brothers. His father, Benjie, was from a well-off family, but the leather business responsible for the Deford fortune had fallen on hard times. So he earned a modest living as a secretary for a porcelain and enamel business.

Benjie Deford and his wife, Louise, nonetheless sent Deford to private school at Gilman, where he played basketball and wrote for the campus newspaper and literary magazine. In his memoir, "Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter," Deford recalled how his high school adviser, Jerry Downs, imbued in him a love of great literature and how his basketball coach, Nemo Robinson, put up with his "terrible hand-eye coordination."

"I was the poorest kid in the class, which is a pretty good place to be," Deford recalled in a 2001 Sun profile. "You have all the advantages, yet you don't feel privileged. I think that's why I strived so hard."

Former Gilman teammate Alan Yarbro remembered him as "an extraordinary person."

"He had so many good things that you could talk about," Yarbro said. "He was a good basketball player, but the real Frank Deford, I guess, had tremendous outlooks on the world. He could do just about everything. He was a great writer in many, many ways."

Deford spent summers working as a copy boy at The Evening Sun, which he later referred to as "Mencken's old place."

He graduated from Gilman in 1957 and moved on to Princeton, where he continued to nurture writing ambitions as chairman of the Daily Princetonian. He briefly tried his hand at college basketball, but grizzled Tigers coach Cappy Cappon told him: "You know, Deford, you write basketball much better than you play it."

In his introduction to a 1987 collection of his work, "The World's Tallest Midget," Deford criticized the Baltimore sports columnists of his youth as "uniformly abysmal." He was fortunate, he wrote, that his father was a fan of President Dwight Eisenhower and thus subscribed to the Republican-leaning New York Herald Tribune, which featured the best-written sports section of the time.

While at Princeton, he listed Herald Tribune columnist Red Smith as one of his three favorite writers, alongside William Shakespeare and J.D. Salinger.

Deford began working at Sports Illustrated when he was just 23 and credited the magazine's longtime editor, Andre Laguerre, as the greatest nurturer of his writing style. Reflecting on his chosen field, he often lamented that American sports writing was beholden to bland formula.

In his own features and later as editor of the National, Deford sought a deeper, more colorful path.

"Sports writing is certainly not a higher calling, but it is, perhaps, a genuine form of literature," he wrote in his introduction to the 1993 edition of "The Best American Sports Writing."

Deford is survived by his wife, Carol; his son, Christian; and his daughter, Scarlet.

He saved some of his most striking late-period words to reflect, in Sports Illustrated, on the death of his boyhood idol, Johnny Unitas. He described how disconcerting it was to meet Unitas at a party and have the great Colt refer to him as "Mr. Deford."

"Sometimes, you just had to be there," he wrote of watching No. 19. "That was the way it was with Johnny Unitas in the prime of his life, when he played for the Baltimore Colts and changed a team and a city and a league. Johnny U was an American original, a piece of work like none other, excepting maybe Paul Bunyan and Horatio Alger."

One indelible Baltimore figure describing another.

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