Frank Deford was a giant whose accomplishments stack up alongside anyone who ever penned a story and called themselves a sports writer.
He became a trailblazer for longform journalism after joining Sports Illustrated in 1962, but his sharp wit allowed him to make a searing point in only a few words. He published 18 books and was a six-time National Sportswriter of the Year. Deford was to sports writing what the Beatles were to music: He influenced almost everyone.
And he was versatile before the field even required it. He spent much of the past few 37 years of his life as a commentator on NPR and was a senior correspondent on HBO's "Real Sports."
When he wasn't composing classics, Deford was fighting for cystic fibrosis research funding and awareness as the chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation from 1982-99. His daughter died of the disease in 1980 at 8 years old, and he spent much of the rest of his life fighting so others could avoid the same fate. His memoir about his daughter was made into a movie in 1986.
On Sunday, the 78-year-old Deford died at his home in Florida. His story and the stories he wrote will live on.
These are a few of our favorites.
March 27, 1978: A Time For All Us Children
Baseball has a way of bringing the youthful exuberance some men thought had been lost for decades back to the surface. DeFord captured it -- and the silliness with which we select those players -- in his story about the time he and his father went to see his favorite player, Bob Repass, and the time he took his son to do the same.
Like most boys, I had a favorite player. His name was Bob Repass, and he played shortstop for the old minor league Baltimore Orioles. While I lived and died with Bob Repass ("Hey, Bob-a-re-pass!" we shouted), I do not recollect that he seriously diminished my devotion to my father. On the other hand, the heritage of Bob Repass still resides with me. He wore No. 6. To this day it is my firm belief that six is my lucky number. Why? Because it is my lucky number, that's why. Because Bob Repass wore it when I was eight years old.
June 17, 1985: The Boxer And The Blonde
The story of boxer Billy Conn and his love story with his wife, Mary Louise.
Just because it was family, Billy didn't hold back. He went after his father-in-law with his best, a left hook, but he was mad, he had his Irish up, and the little guy ducked like he was getting away from a brushback pitch, and Conn caught him square on the top of his skull. As soon as he did it, Billy knew he had broken his hand. He had hurt himself worse against his own father-in-law than he ever had against any bona fide professional in the prize ring.
Jan. 26, 1981: The Rabbit Hunter
Deford profiles controversial Indiana head coach Bobby Knight and his off-the-court hobby of hunting.
In the early '60s, when Knight was a big-talking substitute on the famous Jerry Lucas teams at Ohio State, he was known as Dragon. Most people think it was in honor of his fire-snorting mien, with the bright and broken nose that wanders down his face and makes everything he says appear to have an exclamation mark. Only this was not so. He was called Dragon because when he came to Ohio State, he told everybody he was the leader of a motorcycle gang called the Dragons. This was pure fabrication, of course, but all the fresh-scrubbed crew cuts on the team lapped it up. It was easy. People have always been charmed by him; or conned; anyway, he gets in the last word.
Nov. 29, 1982: Long Ago He Won The Big One: Dean Smith's best victory
The story of legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith's first title, fueled by Michael Jordan's game-winning shot, but why it wasn't his greatest victory.
Perhaps more damaging, though, Smith has a convoluted way of concealing what passing flaws he does possess, thereby encouraging his detractors to discover hypocrisy where there may well be none. The easiest example: cigarettes.
It's a well-known fact that Smith goes through something like three packs a day, yet often, in public places, he will sneak off and smoke with his hand cupped over the cigarette, like some teenager out behind the shed. It requires very little cynicism for someone to think: Well, if he can't even own up to that little failing, what else is he hiding?
Aug. 8, 1983: Howard Cosell: The One and Only
Deford profiles renowned sportscaster Howard Cosell's rise to the top of the profession.
In a throwaway business, he survives; in the most imitative of businesses, he hasn't met his match, let alone been surpassed. When others say he's but a parody of himself, there's even a measure of compliment in that. One thinks then of Nureyev, who once said to a carper, "I may get tired of playing Romeo, but Romeo doesn't get tired of having me play him." Just so, Cosell never tires of having Cosell play him.
Jan. 25, 1988: Frank Deford Goes Bowling
It's more interesting than it sounds. Just trust us.
But I sympathize with the bowling pooh-bahs. The double bind gets tighter all the time. Anybody who can plunk a buck down for a pair of jester's shoes can score. So nobody ever practices, and still expectations are so high that, even at reasonably modest levels, it becomes more a game of disappointment for failing to be perfect than a celebration for achieving, improving. As Peggy Lee sang, "Is that all there is?"
Aug. 28, 1978: Raised By Women To Conquer Men
Deford profiles tennis legend Jimmy Connors and his unique background.
Conqueror was what he was, too, because Connors did not merely win. He assaulted the opposition, laid waste to it, often mocked it, as well, simply by the force of his presence. The other players feared to go against him, because the most awesome legend that can surround any athlete sprang up about Connors: the better any mortal played against him, the better Connors became. So, he became invincible upon the court, because no man could beat him, and he was inviolate off the court, because his mother had told him so.