Remembering Frank Deford

Frank Deford — one of the most famous (and elegant) sportswriters of all time — has died. He was 78, and lived in Key West and New York.

But for many years, Deford was a Westporter. It was here that he wrote many of his 20 books, and some of the most important pieces in his 50-year career at Sports Illustrated. He spent 37 years as an NPR “Morning Edition” commentator, and recorded most of those stories just up the road, at WSHU’s Bridgeport studio.

It was in Westport too that his daughter Alex was raised, went to Greens Farms Elementary School and died, of cystic fibrosis. She was just 8.

Deford turned that tragedy into a poignant book and movie, called “Alex: The Life of a Child.” He also served as national chair of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, from 1982 to 1999.

After Alex’s death, Deford and his wife Carol adopted a girl, Scarlet, from the Philippines. Their oldest child, Christian, graduated from Staples High School.

Deford won countless honors. He was most proud of the National Humanities Medal, awarded in 2013 by President Obama.

In 2013, President Obama awarded Frank Deford the National Humanities Medal. He was the 1st sportswriter to earn that honor.

But he was also a local presence. He spoke at the Westport Library, and was a reader — in that voice familiar to so many NPR listeners — at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

Deford had a remarkable career. But though he hit plenty of grand slams, he wouldn’t be human if he never struck out.

In 1990, he was editor-in-chief of a new launch, The National: America’s 1st-ever daily sports newspaper.

It folded after 18 months. One of its many obstacles was distribution. Deford even had to cancel his own home delivery when not enough Greens Farms neighbors signed up.

But he had great fun trying to make a go of the National. (The final front-page headline: “We Had a Ball: The Fat Lady Sings Our Song.”)

Frank Deford

The paper — and he — covered every sport imaginable.

Including soccer. Which — as every NPR listener knew — he hated.

A few months after The National began, I asked him — only half-jokingly — why he got to cover the World Cup in Italy, instead of a true soccer aficionado like me.

Deford was very tall. He looked down at me, both physically and journalistically.

He gave me a semi-smile.

“When you run The National,” he said, “then you can cover the World Cup.”

Frank Deford covered it all, in a storied and story-filled life.

His many fans — and his former neighbors — will miss him greatly.

18 responses to “Remembering Frank Deford

  1. I’m so sad to hear this news. We moved to Westport 3 years ago from NYC and bought our home from the DeFords. Frank was gracious and lovely and we enjoyed getting to know him a little bit during the process. I’m typing this comment sitting in what was his office, and is now mine. I will think of him every time I sit at this desk.

  2. Frank was our neighbor for many years and while I won’t say we were buddies, I will say he was a great neighbor in every way. RIP, Frank.

  3. As a college kid and aspiring sportswriter, I used to work at the tennis courts at Longshore, where Deford and Soorts Illustrated colleague Curry Kirkpatrick would occasionally come to play furious tennis. I was awestruck. It was like seeing a Beatle. I was never able to croak out more than a “Hello, Mr. Deford.” Years later, as a reporter, I got to interview him a couple times and found him to be a delightful guy. R.I.P. Every journalist wishes they could write as well as Frank Deford.

    • I just spoke with Curry Kirkpatrick. He remembers those tennis matches — and those at the indoor courts right near his own home on Treadwell Avenue — along with fellow SI writer and Westporter Doug Looney. Frank was Curry’s idol — even though only 3 or 4 years separated them in age — and later his best friend at the magazine.

      “After years of being around Frank, trying to emulate how he acted and wrote, I finally realized the tennis court was the one place I could beat him,” Curry said.

      “He had style and elegance. He was a star.”

      Curry visited Frank and Carol the year before last, in Key West. “I’ll always treasure that time,” he said.

  4. Tom Broadbent

    Claudia, I spend an afternoon with Mr. Deford at your house with my “confirmand,” who was torn between asking me and Mr. Deford to be his mentor at Christ and Holy Trinity. I asked Mr. Deford if he would meet with the boy and he was just wonderful, very elegant and intense as you’d expect.

    You have done a wonderful, tasteful job with your renovations!

    Your neighbor,

    Tom

  5. Tom Broadbent

    Btw, he called me Tom, and I called him Mr. Deford, and he was not the kind of guy to say, “Oh, call me Frank.” I loved that.

  6. Great job, Dan! Thank you for writing this piece on Frank Deford.

  7. I chatted with him a bit at a library event–a year ago, I think–and he was indeed very gracious (and marveled at how my mom has remained a loyal Knicks fan all these years).

    But what really exemplified just how gracious he was: roughly 20 years ago I sent him a copy of my book, “The Autumn of Our Lives,” which was about my experience going back to Staples 25 years after graduation to serve as a volunteer assistant soccer coach. I knew Frank wasn’t a soccer fan; but I also knew he had written and spoken about how important his high school basketball experience (and a central theme of my story was about the same role high school soccer had played in my life).

    Frank didn’t know me at all but he took the time to write and send me a lovely note about my book. Like Mark Potts, I looked upon Frank Deford as one of the legends in sports journalism–so I was both touched and floored to receive his note. He will be missed.

    • Fred, your book “Autumn of Our Lives” sits proudly today on my bookshelf, a constant reminder of how teamwork in game and sport teaches us self discovery, never lost: “something transcendent, something extraordinary happened out on the Staples soccer field”… an experience hard to put into words, but understood by those lucky enough to have had such an experience. Timely advice!

  8. Gil Ghitelman

    My wife and I were fortunate to hear Frank speak at the Westport library twice. It was quite special. Saddened by his passing.

  9. Bill Boyd (Staples 1966)

    His book on his daughter was very moving…he was a great one and will be missed.

  10. Sad news.
    My husband (at the time) and I worked with Frank at TIME Inc and SI. It was an exciting time and Frank had a wonderful energy.
    Some years later we lived in Westport, their son and my son attended Staples. They lost a daughter; I a son. Numerous parallels.
    He and his wife, Carol, were extremely kind to me during some difficult years. Lovely people.
    My thoughts are with the DeFord family.

  11. Timothy Hall Woodruff

    Style, Grace and Elegance… In person, voice and always in print…
    “The World’s Tallest Midget” was a hero to so many who loved “sports” but also the craft of “covering the event” with insight and appropriate wit, wringing out any and all story humor for our enjoyment. When I heard his final NPR goodbye just several Wednesdays ago, I had no idea he was nearly at the very end. He obviously worked up to the end, and like another of Red Smith’s colleagues, didn’t die. He simply left an unfinished page in his typewriter. All his stories live on. Read them for pure enjoyment.

    I think I read somewhere that “Mr. DeFord” never introduced himself to Mr. Smith, although they shared many press boxes and games. Older to us, they were generations apart and worked for distinctly different employers. I’m sure Jim Murray will make the introduction in what I imagine is the universe’s coolest press box and then they’ll all gather and put a foot on the rail at Toots’ place to laugh about it all. A party of athletes and poets.

  12. Sometime in the late 1980s, say 1987, I was coaching a rec soccer team in Westport of the youngest age group of girls. Frank DeFord’s daughter, Scarlet was playing for the opposition. Mr. DeFord was sitting in a beach chair a few feet behind me at Coleytown Middle, lower field reading the NY Times and watching the game. I was a devoted Sports Illustrated reader at the time and was enthralled that Mr. DeFord was watching a game that I was coaching.Unfortunately, I did not impress him enough to be the subject of an SI article. He was an artist with words and brought honor to the profession of sports writing.

  13. In the late 70’s, the DeFords and our family were renovating our homes using the same crooked contractor, The Home Doctor….and boy did this crook try to “fix” us. Frank and my husband had quite a few conversations and tried to get a class action going but it never happened as the contractor was nothing more than an empty paper bag. We both got screwed royally.

  14. Wasn’t there an area of Green’s Farm’s School that was dedicated to his daughter? Which was then moved to Long Lot’s after Greens Farms closed..back in the early 80’s….I seem to remember a sign hanging from the ceiling in Long Lots… Alex’s Rainbow??

  15. Suzanne Sheridan

    I photographed his children’s weddings. He and Carol were so kind and accommodating. Rozanne and I treasured that relationship at the time and will continue to do so.

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