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Let’s be Frank

Frank Deford jumps from sports to novels to NPR (and back).


By Nicole Holland Pearce

Photograph by Daniella Zalcman

 

Frank Deford is sitting a few yards from her long legs. She is nervous, dressed in a one-piece swimsuit much like the one Farrah Fawcett made famous. Deford stares at the girl as she walks back and forth across the Atlantic City stage. She stops, smiles, then takes her place in line with the rest of the half-naked women.

The year: 1976. Deford, hailed as America’s best sportswriter, was at the Miss America Pageant, adding some testosterone to the judging panel. But unlike his fellow judges, Deford knew practically everything there was to know about the young women competing. He’d been behind the curtain, interviewing Southern Belles with big hair and thick accents to find out what it meant to be a pageant queen for his book, There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America. Feminists might protest the Barbie-doll image of Miss America contestants, but Deford knew how earnestly these girls would fight for the crown.

If a story with good legs is around, Frank Deford will find it. He’s done it all: print, radio, documentary, television commentary, a play, a movie, fiction and nonfiction. Deford’s versatility is one of the hallmarks of his star-studded career, propelling him into a stratosphere occupied by no other sportswriter in America: U.S. Sportswriter of the Year (six times), author of 16 books, writer of award-winning TV sports documentaries, creator of the first national sports daily, The National. When he’s not writing stories, books or documentaries, Deford dissects athletes on NPR or HBO – a dry wit salting his dissections. His record spans nearly 50 years, ranging from wry bits of baseball and basketball coverage in the go-go ’60s at Sports Illustrated to increasingly complex narratives built on themes as far away from sports as he could imagine – from war to reincarnation.

Deford folds his 6-foot-4 frame into his Subaru hatchback and sets off down I-95 in Connecticut to wax athletic on Nation Public Radio’s Morning Edition. He commutes weekly to Sacred Heart University in Fairfield to record his three-minute sports commentary – a job he’s had for 31 years. Today, he’ll discuss the NFL lockout, which is threatening to torpedo the next football season if owners and their attorneys can’t come to an agreement. “It’s not very sexy,” he says apologetically. But who’s he kidding? Deford’s listeners on NPR aren’t tuning in for the sports talk. They are tuning in for Deford’s insight into the people behind the sports.

As he prepares for his sports show, Deford’s already shifting gears, beginning to psychoanalyze his next subject. He’ll spend days, weeks, even months mining the substrata of his subjects’ psyche, figuring out what makes them tick, what motivates them, what gives their life meaning. It’s why they nicknamed him DeFreud at Sports Illustrated, where he wrote probing portraits of sports greats from Bill Russell and Bill Bradley to the miler Roger Bannister and Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary. “I always was interested in where people came from and what drove them,” he says.

He doesn’t so much interview his subjects as drill into their heads. When he descended into the mind of Bobby Knight, the winningest coach in college basketball, he practically moved in with Knight at his Indiana home, engaging him in endless conversations ranging from the bloodiest battles of the Civil War to the bone-crunching practices Knight conducted on Indiana University’s basketball court. Readers saw the human side of Knight for the first time. “I want people to tell me things that they’d never told anybody else,” Deford says – secrets they wouldn’t tell their brothers or their best friends.

Deford’s ability to unravel the humanity of his subjects in intimate detail – their dark shadows, their deepest desires, their enviable strengths, their embarrassing flaws – helps explain a little-known fact about America’s greatest living sportswriter: His most devoted fans don’t follow sports at all. They know the other Frank Deford, the author of Alex, The Life of a Child, a poignant and moving memoir about his daughter who died at age 8 of cystic fibrosis. They know the Frank Deford who studied the intricacies of Japanese culture for his novel Love and Infamy, set in the days before Pearl Harbor. The Deford who, most recently, told a love story through the eyes of a woman in Bliss, Remembered, a novel about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “The people who like me best,” says Deford as he drives, “are the ones who don’t really like sports.”

The thing is, Frank Deford never wanted to be just a sportswriter. He wanted to be a novelist or a playwright, a serious writer, a writer who created characters. But as a high school and college basketball player, he fell naturally into sports writing, joining Sports Illustrated at a time when the magazine nurtured narrative writers. Decades later, the man who once called himself “the world’s tallest midget,” still hasn’t come to terms with his profession. But since the death of his daughter Alexandra in 1980, he has increasingly used fiction as well as nonfiction to peer into the human soul.

In Daddy’s eyes, Alexandra was the quintessential princess, donning long dresses and costume jewelry at age 4. She wanted to be a dancer, an actress. Despite her cystic fibrosis, Deford and his wife Carol gave her a normal childhood, full of birthday parties and vacations, wedged between frequent trips to the hospital and therapy sessions that involved physically pounding her small back and chest. His daughter passed away in his arms, at their home in Westport, Connecticut.

Through it all, Deford continued to write – and to travel. Writing, he says, was an escape. He offers no further insight. Attempts to do a “DeFreud” on Deford are gently turned away. “I may be the worst person to assess how much my experience with her affected my writing,” he says. “You can’t go through an experience like that without learning something from it. You never think this thing is going to happen to you – job I love, wife I love, all that – so this just hits you right in the gut and it makes you understand the vagaries of life better unless you are a complete idiot.”

Deford’s home, a big, white Colonial Revival-style abode, is decorated in Americana. Nostalgic remnants of a bygone era dot the family room: bright fabrics on white wicker, a vibrant piece of pop art, a hand-built wooden dollhouse. In his office, framed art from his stories in Sports Illustrated fill the walls. As a kid, Deford says, he was already creating short stories. In sixth grade, he put out a community newspaper from his bedroom. His little grade school gazette ran news and gossip, quips about who was in love with whom, and even a continuing saga about Soviet spies in Africa. He printed it on carbon paper, making it five times, so it could be passed out to his 25 classmates. “I’ve never learned how to do anything else in my life,” he says about journalism. “Everything I do, I knew how to do when I was 12 years old.”

In Baltimore, Maryland, his hometown, Deford’s “Archie-Andrews-Ricky-Nelson kind of growing up” was free from the angst and discomfort that supposedly fuels good writers. In high school, he played basketball – a natural if you’re more than 6 feet tall – and he was a star. In college, at Princeton University, however, his ball skills proved far from stellar. His coach told him he wrote basketball much better than he played it, so after Deford graduated, he set off for the mecca of writing in the ’60s – New York City. He snagged a job on the lowest rung at a new magazine making a name for itself, Sports Illustrated. He planned to work his way up to a writer’s job and dreamed of carving out a career as an author, penning the next great American novel.

When he started at Sports Illustrated in 1962, he was a baseball researcher. He made $9,000 a year, worked long hours and built up plenty of overtime pay. Soon, he started writing about basketball, traveling around the country to cover both college and pro. He added baseball and tennis, then worked his way up to a feature writer. When the magazine caught fire, he found himself unable to jump ship, especially after landing cover stories with the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Paul “Bear” Bryant, Howard Cosell, Martina Navratilova and Sugar Ray Leonard. Offers from other publications came and went – The Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times – but still he stayed, postponing his dreams of novel writing.

While he was covering the NBA, MLB and the Super Bowl, he began to explore his fascination with Americana, taking readers on tours of the nation’s tackier side. He’d write articles about the soapbox derby, the Harlem Globetrotters, a lengthy article about the women of roller derby. While other Sports Illustrated reporters poured over the sports page, Deford was reading Amusement Business, a small paper covering fairs and traveling attractions.

Enter Irvy the Whale. Deford was looking for his next subject. At first, his editor was baffled. But there was something about the way Deford pitched the story that made the editor smile. “Don’t tell anybody what you’re doing,” he said, “or that I gave you permission to do it.” And with that, Deford set off to find Irvy, a 20-ton refrigerated whale, and his owner, Jerry Malone. For six days and 1,000 miles, from Portland, Oregon, to Wolf Point, Montana, Deford bunked beside Malone in the cab of his Kenworth rig, digging deep to find out why Malone carted around a frozen whale carcass, charging patrons 35 cents a pop. The story explored Americans’ fascination with whales, from Moby Dick to the Museum of Natural History, but Deford’s real revelation was the disappointment people felt when they discovered Irvy wasn’t swimming in the back of the truck – but was instead an ugly, freezer-burned mass on display behind a glass wall.

Deford, America’s sports darling, knows something about expectations and changing perceptions. He branched out into fiction writing with his 1973 novel Cut ‘n’ Run, a satire on football. A few years later, he used his reporter’s skills to pen his paean to Miss America contestants. He followed that up with a poignant biography of the 1920s tennis great Bill Tilden – voted the most outstanding athlete in the first half of the 20th century (ahead of Babe Ruth). To research Big Bill Tilden, Deford built networks of Tilden’s friends and family, helping him to show the real Tilden with his professional triumphs on the tennis court as well as the homosexuality of his private life. He even tracked down a niece in London for her accounts of her uncle’s life. Even so, the Tilden family was furious at Deford’s portrayal, hailed as a classic today. “Usually I can tell what the reaction will be,” he says, “but this was one time when I was completely blindsided.” His next book Everybody’s All-American – a story about a college football star who clings to his glory days – mined familiar territory for him.

He continued to write and to travel despite his daughter’s declining health, wedging work between birthday parties and hospital visits. Traveling away from home, however, left him guilt ridden. “You have to guard yourself from trying to escape too much,” he says, “… but your own emotional health is served if you escape the tragedy around you, and the best way to do that is to do something that you love.” After her death, he began writing her memoir, celebrating her life and giving a face to the chronic lung disease that took it. “I’ll always remember that I went back to work as soon as I could after she died. What was I going to do, sit around and mope?” he says. It was the release he needed. “I might have been writing it though my tears, but it wrote easily.”

Once the first draft was complete, however, he set it aside, unable to continue a second draft for another six months. Writing had been a release, but once his raw emotions were on paper, he found it hard to complete a final draft. The book was published in 1983, three years after her death. “After Alex died, people said my writing became more morbid – that I wrote more about death and tragedy – but I never believed that was true,” says Deford. “Certainly the experience of living with a child who was sick and dying, I mean, it had a tremendous effect on me personally and I’m sure some of that spilled over in my writing.”

Alex’s death was hardest on Christian, the Defords’ son. Deford retreated into what he knew: sports. But the lure of creating his own characters pulled him back into fiction. The Spy in the Deuce Court was a comedic thriller set on the tennis circuit. Casey on the Loose was a fantasy based on the classic poem “Casey at the Bat.” In Deford’s version, Casey falls in love with an Irish maid. “You can be very pleased with yourself when you write nonfiction,” he says, “but in fiction, you can take all the credit.”

Though his back stories are imagined, his books are honed with research. For his 1993 novel Love and Infamy: A Novel of Pearl Harbor, Deford spent months studying Japanese culture. He poured over books about Japanese religion, rituals and the military. He became somewhat of an expert. “It’s almost like you’re taking a course – and you’re the professor and the student,” he says. Then, with a head full of Japanese culture, he hopped on a plane to the Far East, stayed for about a week with a translator scouting out a Japanese village to use as his setting, before returning home to begin the writing process, wading through notes, ironing out details. The book had a back story of its own: Deford says he wrote it in part as a tribute to the Asian heritage of his adopted daughter Scarlet.

In many ways, Deford’s fictional pursuits are both daring and provocative. In 2002, he published a novel The Other Adonis, about reincarnation. In 2010, he took an even bigger leap: He decided to write from the perspective of a woman, a female athlete. His novel Bliss, Remembered, circles around a love affair between the woman, a U.S. backstroker, and a young German she meets while competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which were a huge propaganda success for Adolf Hitler. To create the character, Deford says he drew on a past encounter in his own life – a chance meeting with the 1932 Olympic swimming champion Eleanor Holm. He claims the character development of his female lead was a natural for him. Rather than comb through the differences between men and women, he drew on the similarities – life experiences and emotions.  “She’s in love, I’ve been in love,” he says. “Men and women love pretty much the same way.” It was far harder, he has said, to get inside the head of a young German man in the 1930s.

Now, he’s working on his own memoir. In true Deford fashion, it’s part reality, part sports. Terry McDonell, the editor of Sports Illustrated Group, approached him to write about the early days of the magazine. He specifically was interested in Deford’s reflections on a time when sportswriters were comrades, working in the trenches together – like a group of Vietnam War correspondents. Deford protested that he wasn’t one of those writers. “I was the quintessential loner,” he says. McDonell didn’t back down, however. For Deford, the writing has been easy. Writing is just something that comes to him naturally. “I think it’s like sex,” he says. “It’s almost instinctive.”

The one thing that hasn’t come easily to Deford is playwriting, he says. Not one of his plays has gone into production. But he couldn’t resist trying. “I’m sure there are comedians who want to play Hamlet,” he says. “But at the end of the day, I’m a sportswriter. As much as I can avoid it, I can’t deny the fact that’s what I’ve been.”

In the small studio near Sacred Heart, Deford is ducking under windmills, his way of describing the weekly grind of turning out a radio show. As soon as one blade passes by, another is coming back around. “It’s never-ending,” he says. Julie Freddino, the sound engineer, greets him.

Sitting down, Deford adjusts his headphones and waits for the producer. He looks over his script. The producer dials in. “I’m all ready,” Deford says. “Are you ready down there?”

Deford’s words have a New England gloss. He articulates with sharp t’s and pronounces k’s deep in the back of his throat. His voice is buoyant, the sign of a man expert in his field. Leaning into the microphone, he delivers his commentary on the NFL lockout, with a touch of his dry wit. “If you haven’t been paying attention, which is to your credit, the whole business has been turned over to lawyers.” After the recording, he listens to the playback in his earphones. “I slurred the word ‘abetted,’”  he says.

He rereads a few paragraphs and thanks the staff of the female-run station.  “All women,” he says, grinning. “Might just as well be in a ladies’ locker room. Right, Julie?”

She gives him a wide smile as he makes for the door. “Women love Frank Deford,” she calls after him.

“Well,” he responds merrily, “they’re just stuck with him.”  

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Frank Deford jumps from sports to novels to NPR (and back).
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