There was a breakthrough in journalism in the mid twentieth century. Instead of writing stories fitting the traditional standards of reporting, journalists started using literary techniques usually reserved for short stories and novels. The movement, branded New Journalism, came into its own around the same time Frank Deford was breaking through as a young writer at Sports Illustrated. Deford adopted many of the devices of New Journalism and applied them to sportswriting, making him a pioneer in the long-form sports journalism associated with that magazine.
“There is no question in my mind that I came along at the right time,” says Deford. “If I had come along ten years earlier when there was no Sports Illustrated and when I would have had to have spent many years covering a baseball team on a day-to-day basis, I don’t think I would have stayed in sportswriting.”
Deford joined a Sports Illustrated team that was reviving a once-struggling magazine. The magazine needed a boost, and it came in the form of bonus pieces at the back of the magazine, and there was no better bonus piece writer than Deford.
He was a writer before he was a sports journalist. At a young age, Deford tried to add literary elements to his stories about sports that others might not have considered using. He inserted himself into stories. He was versatile, willing to set a mood and tone. He became the Mickey Mantle of sports feature writing.
“For my money, Frank Deford is the greatest take-out writer in sports, ever,” sports columnist and TV personality Tony Kornheiser told Grantland in 2011.
Deford didn’t set his sights on sportswriting as a child—there were no dreams of being the next Grantland Rice or W. C. Heinz. He knew as an eight-year-old that he wanted to write, but he didn’t have a favorite author or book to model himself after. He knew he was good at writing and enjoyed it, he just also happened to like sports. So, after graduating from Princeton, he started out at Sports Illustrated in 1962 as a researcher, checking the accuracy of articles, and worked his way up to become the magazine's go-to man for in-depth feature articles, where he showed off his understanding of structure and theatrical elements.
“I like to look at stories as little plays with scenes and acts and foreshadowing and putting something in that you didn’t notice until you’d find out later on,” says Deford. “Those are the kinds of things I experimented with at a very early age at Sports Illustrated.”
Deford’s experiments made him one of a kind in the sportswriting world and one of the most highly sought-after writers. He went on to become the voice of sports on National Public Radio—and still is—and later left Sports Illustrated to take on the challenge of leading what was one of the boldest experiments in sports journalism, and the newspaper world, the National Sports Daily.
While the National lasted only a little over a year because of financial and logistical difficulties, it helped launch plenty of successful careers, laid the groundwork for future daily sportswriting, and inspired generations of sportswriters who wanted to be more like Deford. It was the first and last of its kind, but its influences are felt in magazines like GQ, Esquire, ESPN: The Magazine, and websites like Grantland, The Classical, and Sports on Earth, to name a few.
On top of his work as a sportswriter, for which he has won numerous awards, including Sportswriter of the Year six times and a National Magazine Award in 1999, Deford also penned numerous screenplays and novels that go beyond sports. Deford is a writer first and foremost; sports were just his favored topic, but in no way did he reserve himself to that. And reaching across writing boundaries has kept him fresh.
“I also feel that because I do have such range that it’s kept me more interested in writing,” says Deford. “I don’t think I would have stayed a sportswriter if I couldn’t have gotten away from it now and again—and not just now and again, but a lot of the time—and write novels and have nothing to do with sports. I think in my case it’s been best that I have this variety of talent instead of one thread.”
That talent has taken Deford around the world and back again, and readers have been lucky enough to follow him, while writers have been able to follow his lead on and off the pages. He set the stage and showed the world that sportswriting is more than the game wrap, and sportswriters are chroniclers of the human experience.
— by Kevin Koczwara