Frank Deford, the charismatic sports writer widely regarded as one of the best of his generation who also presided over the ambitious and short-lived The National, one of the biggest busts in the annals of the newspaper industry, has died. He was 78.
Deford, who began his career at Sports Illustrated in 1962 and remained with the magazine for decades, died Sunday in Key West, Fla., his wife told The Washington Post.
A prolific and widely admired novelist as well, Deford wrote the 1981 book Everybody’s All-American, about the downfall of a 1950s University of North Carolina star. It was made into the 1988 film directed by Taylor Hackford that starred Dennis Quaid and Jessica Lange.
Deford’s passion, knowledge of sports and knack for storytelling led the Baltimore native to opportunities beyond the page. HBO brought him in to serve as a senior correspondent for Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, and for 37 years through this month, he served as a regular commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition. He won an Emmy Award and a Peabody.
Six-foot-4 with rugged good looks, the journalist had a debonair demeanor that radiated masculinity, making him a natural in the sports world. Former Washington Post media columnist Norman Chad once referred to Deford as the “Clark Gable of Sports Writing” (like the actor, he wore a thin mustache well). Deford’s wife, Carol Penner, whom he married in 1965, was a fashion model.
In a 2011 piece for the website Grantland, Chad recalled a lunch he had with Deford when he was interviewing for The National. “He’s the greatest feature sports writer in history, and he just looks immaculate,” he said. “He had barbecue ribs. I’ve had barbecue ribs 500 times in my life. He did not get a drip of sauce anywhere on his face, suit, tie. The guy is carved out of stone. I don’t even know how he ate the ribs. He was like a god. He didn’t even need a napkin.”
But as big an impression as Deford made in person, he made an even more lasting one with the typewriter.
Deford was named U.S. Sportswriter of the Year by the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters on six occasions and was elected into its Hall of Fame in 1998. The Washington Journalism Review twice voted him Magazine Writer of the Year. In 2000, Deford was given the National Magazine Award by the American Society of Magazine Editors for his profile of Boston Celtics great Bill Russell for Sports Illustrated. He was dubbed the nation’s finest sports writer by the American Journalism Review.
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