On my very first assignment as a writer for Sports Illustrated, March of 1981, I had to call up Frank Deford to get a credential. Frank was covering the Southeast Regional in Atlanta–for God knows what reason; he probably wanted to go to Atlanta to see friends and, between dinner and drinks, no doubt tossed off a great story about the tournament–and I had to join him. My assignment was to do a feature on two-sport star Danny Ainge, whose BYU team was in the regional.
“Jeez, I can’t just call up Frank Deford,” I complained to Peter Carry, second-in-command at the magazine.
“Frank’s a great guy,” said Peter. “He won’t care. He’ll help you.”
Like many other young sports journalists I was in awe of Deford, who died on May 28 at age 78. One of my first thoughts when I came to SI was, Damn, I’m sharing a masthead with Frank Deford. Years earlier, when I had just started out writing at a small daily newspaper, Frank had done a piece about the Harlem Globetrotters. I swear this is the truth: I read it, then read it again and thought: Okay, I get it. This is how you approach sports writing. It had this tone of utter professionalism to it, neither hatchet job nor suck-up, utterly complete in its reporting, fair-minded in its execution. It was one of the only journalistic lessons I ever had.
So I took a deep breath, got a hold of Frank in his hotel–pre-cell-phone days, remember–introduced myself and started to stammer something about needing a credential if he could give me a number or something, and he interrupted and said …
“Oh, yeah, Jack, yes. You just joined us. I read your piece on baseball chatter. It was great.”
In my last piece as a freelancer, I had indeed written a long piece on that subject. Who knows if Frank really read it, or, if he did, if he liked it. It could’ve just been his way of welcoming me. But here’s what it sounded like:
This is Stephen Spielberg: Listen, man, loved your screenplay.
As time went on, I would ask Frank questions now and again, usually by phone, sometimes by these things called letters. Not often. He had his life, I had mine, and we did not run in the same circle. Nobody was asking me to do Miller Lite commercials, after all. One day, perhaps a year into my employment, I got a note from Frank that read something like: “I’ve been reading your stuff. It’s pretty good. But resist the urge to end every paragraph with a direct quote. You’re a writer, not a stenographer.”
Indeed, that’s what I had been doing. It was a habit that came partly from working at newspapers and partly from the fact that I thought I needed to show–either to the reader, to my bosses, or both–how many people I was interviewing. But it was so damn true. I tweeted out that little morsel earlier this afternoon (on May 29) and was surprised at how many responses I got. It was another writing lesson. Maybe I’ve had four good ones in my life, and Deford supplied two of them.
Several years later Frank decided–or was probably dragged–into being SI‘s temporary managing editor for, I think, six weeks. (Someone with a sharper memory at SI might better remember.) I happened to be in the office one Sunday night, which was closing night, and things were in utter chaos because we needed a certain NFL result to happen for a story to pan out. (You would not believe how often that happened.) And I distinctly remember one editor saying: “Just dummy up the story. It’ll work. Frank’s in charge. Things always work out for Frank.”
Of course we got the result we wanted.
I’m sure it was never that easy, even for a man of Deford’s gifts. But he had an unmistakeable magic touch, around words, around stories, around people. There is, in many of us sports journalists, a touch of an inferiority complex. If I were really good, I wouldn’t be writing sports. Maybe that’s a little strong, but I think it’s true. Deford recognized it himself, having called one collection of his work The World’s Tallest Midget. But because Frank Deford did the same thing I did for a living, I always felt a little more secure, a little more worthy.
For that man was a giant.