There are important things going on in the state today; I probably should pay more attention to them.
Will Gov. Rick Scott wield his veto pen? The nation’s policy on Cuba is attracting attention; 55 U.S. senators signed a letter urging travel restrictions on visits to that island nation be lifted.
That stuff, and more, will still be there tomorrow.
Right now, though, I want to talk about Frank Deford. He died Sunday at his winter home in Key West.
People have rightly praised him as a consummate story-teller, wordsmith, and a giant in the world of sports writing – although, for Frank, a more appropriate description would be writer, period. Never mind the subject.
In the introduction to a book called “The World’s Tallest Midget” — a compilation of his best long-form stories from Sports Illustrated — he said of sports writing: “It is, surely, the only form of literature wherein the worst of the genre is accepted as representative of the whole.”
I was a sports writer, primarily at the Tampa Tribune, for nearly four decades, and I don’t think as a group we ever escaped that shadow. In newsrooms across the country, sports was mockingly called the toy department. Still is, I would imagine.
Even after I moved from sports to become metro news columnist, occasionally I would get an angry email from a reader with the suggestion I should go back to sports. They probably thought that was witty because a sports writer couldn’t possibly understand politics and government. The “serious” work of gathering “important” news was done by professional journalists. The rest of us were just hacking out copy about ball games.
Frank Deford didn’t hack.
I was a young pup in the business in the 1970s and 80s when Deford was, as he described tennis star Jimmy Connors in one profile, “champion of all he surveyed, Alexander astride Bucephalus astride the globe.”
He was that good.
Like wannabe’s everywhere, I poured over each line of a Deford story in Sports Illustrated. He routinely did things with words that I could only imagine. The magazine wisely granted him time and space to dig deep into a subject, and he repaid by producing lasting literature.
He wrote a profile of a junior college football coach in Mississippi named Robert “Bull Cyclone” Sullivan called “The Toughest Coach There Ever Was.” In the story, he described the team’s top rival — a school called Pearl River.
Years later, on a road trip to watch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play New Orleans, I might have (maybe) manufactured an excuse to drive up from there to Pearl River for a story just because Frank Deford made traveling to an obscure small college in Mississippi sound like something interesting to do.
It was, too.
Later, he produced commentary for NPR. I am sure it amused him on some level that listeners went, “Wow. Not bad for a sports writer.”
A few years ago, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg held a private reception for Deford after he gave a talk there. As a reward for teaching a class at Poynter, I was invited. I sat with five or six other sports writers as we gathered ‘round the legend to soak it all in. It was riveting. I wish I had a picture, but I’ll never forget what that evening was like.
Deford and columnists like Jim Murray and Red Smith elevated sports writing and inspired a generation to take its craft, and itself, seriously.
Young boys grew up wanting to be like Mickey Mantle or Johnny Bench.
I grew up wanting to be like Jim Murray or Frank Deford.
One of the beautiful things about literature is that it survives eternally. These men wrote prose that happened to be about sports. They turned words into pictures and reminded everyone that when done properly, telling the story is an art. They made that matter. Godspeed, Frank Deford.
Oh, and one more thing.