Frank Deford, 2005
by Dottie Witter
Frank Deford wanted to be a writer his entire life. Just not necessarily a sportswriter.
"It's my experience that most of my sportswriting colleagues wanted that from the time that they were very, very young. But I just wanted to be a writer."
When presented with the opportunity to work at Sports Illustrated, "One thing led to another, and all of a sudden you find yourself a sportswriter," he said.
He never planned to be on the radio or TV, either. "When National Public Radio was starting 'Morning Edition,' somehow my name came up, even though I had never done any radio before. I thought I’d try this for a few minutes, it sounded like a fun thing to do, and I've been doing it for 25 years."
Deford still considers himself as a writer, just one who happens to be on radio and TV. "Actually, what I do on radio is rather than letting you read my story, I read it to you."
When he began his sportswriting career, he was sent out to "cover things." After a few years at Sports Illustrated, he told them he'd had enough sports and planned to leave to write features.
"So that was the main change, from covering games to doing features. I haven't changed in 30 years. Once you're not covering stuff, you have more time," Deford said.
He has filled that spare time by writing books and a few movies. When his first collection of stories was published about 20 years ago, he included his story on Billy Conn, the boxer knocked out by Joe Louis. "That story just had all the elements. It's a love story, amazingly dramatic, things are happening. There's a lot of history to it, about America in the 1930s and leading up to war. You don’t usually get everything all in one piece, and that’s what I got there."
He's not waiting for any major story, he said. "If it was my Moby Dick, if my big whale was out there, I’d go after it. Along the way there were things I didn’t get to do because other people did them. I never covered Muhammad Ali, for example, until he was finished fighting. You don't always get to do everything you want."
Deford feels sorry for writers today because they don’t have the opportunities he had when he started.
"There are so many games now and so many teams and things move so fast so that you don't get the opportunity to write the long sort of thoughtful stories as much," he said. "This is true on newspapers, on magazines and I don't even think you see that kind of good journalism in television so much any more because there is such a push and drive to cover the game."
On the other hand, he said, better writers are going into sports journalism now. "It's a much more respectable profession than it was when I was starting out, so it's kind of ironic that there's more better people and less opportunity."
More writers are on television now, he said. "I'm a classic example of that myself. Writers used to hate television because they got more money, they got more attention," he said. "We were jealous."
There's a passion for sports everywhere, he said, but in a perfect world, the U.S. would be like other countries where athletics are not connected with schools.
"We are the only country where sports is so connected to academics. You go abroad and people don’t play for their high school team, they play for sports clubs. We are the only ones that mess up academics and athletics. And obviously academics suffers because sports is so much fun."
But history can't be undone, and athletics is now part of our DNA, he said. "This is America, so all you can hope for is that somehow there’s a certain amount of toning down insanity. I've been in this business too long to think that anything is going to change. It's not the worst thing in the world. Nobody's died, and it gives a lot of people happiness. I think the problem is that it detracts from the main mission of education."
Sports, he said, hurts a lot of boys, and now that the girls are finding a certain equality in sports, it’s starting to affect them adversely, too. "The same way that boys have been seduced, now girls are going to be seduced by the glamour of it all," he said.
He is a champion of women sports writers since the memory is still strong of what women went through trying to break through that sports writing barrier. "When I first came in, they wouldn’t let women in locker rooms. They literally would say, no women are allowed."
At the same time, he noted, Western Union women were allowed to come in. "They didn't count, they weren't people, they were just part of the machine," he said. "But no women were allowed in press boxes. I think we're a bunch of misogynists, I think we're pretty wide open about it, but it’s a pretty tough profession. You burn out fast."
Deford is now working on a novel about baseball, his first sports novel in 30 years. "My agent is very happy, because what I've done with my novels is get away from sports," he said. "There’s no question that it's easier for me to sell a sports novel than it is some of the others I’ve done."
His books have ranged from Pearl Harbor to reincarnation to his most recent work on polio in the 1950s, all subjects that interested him. "I think it makes me a better sportswriter when I get away from sports. But the last thing I did of any consequence was a movie for ESPN."
And he already knows what he wants to write about next. "I think it’ll be a better movie than a book. It has to do with music," he said. "I know nothing about music. I do think we give too much attention to sports at the expense of music and art and literature."
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