Legendary sports journalist Frank Deford died Sunday at age 78 in his Key West winter home, his wife, Carol, confirmed to the Washington Post.
Deford spent a half-century writing for Sports Illustrated, and 37 years as a weekly fixture on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” where in his distinct booming voice, he offered thoughtful insights on the world of sports. He had recently retired from NPR. He also wrote 18 books.
“The wonderful thing about delivering sports commentary on NPR was that because it has such a broad audience, I was able to reach people who otherwise had little or no interest in sport — especially as an important part of our human culture,” Deford said upon his retirement.
“Nothing has pleased me so much as when someone — usually a woman — writes me or tells me that she’s appreciated sports more because NPR allowed me to treat sports seriously, as another branch on the tree of culture.”
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In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Deford the National Humanities Medal for his work in media.
He was named the U.S. Sportswriter of the Year six times by the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters and was named to the organization’s Hall of Fame. In 2000, he received the National Magazine Award by the American Association of Magazine Editors. Among his many other awards were the Red Smith Award from the Associated Press Sports Editors, and the W.M. Kiplinger Distinguished Contributions to Journalism Award from the National Press Foundation.
Deford had been a senior correspondent for “Real Sports” on HBO with Bryant Gumbel.
“I’m stunned by Frank’s passing,” Gumbel said in a statement Monday. “Yes, he’d been ill, but just a week ago, he’d joked to me about finally being released from the hospital. In addition to being an immense talent, he was a consummate gentleman, a dear friend, and a beloved, original member of our ‘Real Sports’ family. Frank was a giant in the world of sports. His loss is immeasurable.”
News of Deford’s death spread quickly among sports journalists, and their reaction proved how revered he was among his peers — many of whom grew up rushing out to the mailbox to get their latest edition of Sports Illustrated so they could read his work.
“Frank Deford hired me once. I’d be happy if someone put that on my tombstone,” Ian O’Connor of ESPN.com posted on Twitter.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden posted: “Frank Deford was longform before there was #Longform. In many ways, he invented the genre, and let future generations play with it.”
In 1984, he wrote “Alex: The Life of a Child,” in memory of his daughter, who died of cystic fibrosis in 1980. Deford spent his life raising awareness and money for the fight against the disease, and served as chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation from 1982 until 1999.
Born Benjamin Franklin Deford III, the Baltimore native attended Princeton University. Upon graduation in 1962, he got a job at Sports Illustrated. He began spending winters in Key West in 1997, according to a May 4 interview with WLRN.
“I was sent here by National Geographic magazine, which is kind of rare because I only did two pieces for them in my whole life. But they wanted a story on the Keys and I’d never been here. I thought it would be interesting,” he said.
“Well, let me tell you — the minute I got here, I said, ‘I like this place. I really do.’ I think just seeing the pink taxicabs was enough to win me over. And I called my wife an hour or so later. I knew I had to come back and I was going to bring her. And we started coming down for vacations, longer and longer, and finally moved here.
“I’d been to Florida 50, 60 times before and apart from the weather in the middle of the winter, I never was crazy about it. But Key West has a special flavor. I find that people either like Key West or they don’t like Key West. And I like it.”