Former Sports Illustrated writer draws lessons from beginnings

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Frank Deford realized early on that he had a gift that allowed him to write eloquently and creatively. He also realized he wanted to use that gift to tell sports stories.

Using that ability, Deford became one of the most celebrated sportswriters in the country, working for Sports Illustrated and winning dozens of awards including a National Magazine Award, U.S. Sportswriter of the Year and an Emmy Award. Deford discussed his writing career Wednesday and his new book, “Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter,” at the Texas Program in Sports and Media’s McGarr Symposium on Sports and Society.

“He’s one of the most beloved figures in America in terms of his writing and his commentary on NPR,” said Michael Cramer, Texas Program in Sports and Media executive director. “Everyone listens when Frank speaks.”

Prompted with questions from Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonnell, Deford said he grew up in a time when sports writing wasn’t a popular choice of profession for those who could write.

“Sports writing certainly was looked down upon in many respects and had been for a long time,” he said. “Sports writers wrote differently than other writers. We wrote in convoluted ways, used different language. There was a lot of crookedness.”

After the creation of Sports Illustrated in 1954, Deford began working at the publication as a writer in 1962 and said the profession was just starting to change.

“I came in at that time when it was becoming respectable,” he said. “A large part of that respectability came with the creation of Sports Illustrated.”

As a young writer at Sports Illustrated, Deford said he found himself in the midst of a fascinating world with access to many interesting characters.

“Here I was, allowed to come into the salon, where all these older gentlemen are gathered with their scotch and cigarettes,” he said.

“And to be accepted as a kid was a wonderful experience. I grew up real fast.”

Despite his natural tendency for sports writing, Deford said he still struggled with the decision to form a career out of it.

“I think all of us wrestled with, is sports writing serious?” he said. “Are you throwing your life away just going to games?”

His early success as a writer was accredited to innate talent but also required hard work, Deford said.

“I knew I was a natural, and I know that sounds vain,” he said. “But sometimes you are blessed and given a gift. I knew I could write.”

Throughout his extensive career, Deford said he had the opportunity to interact with all kinds of athletes with varying personalities, from Arthur Ashe to Billie Jean King at the peak of her career.

“Athletes pretty much go across the human spectrum,” he said. “There are rough guys and soft guys and nice guys and sweet guys. But most athletes aren’t bad guys.”

McDonnell said Deford’s new book proves a greatness about Deford that others have praised for years, and serves a guide to the experience of telling stories as a sports writer.

“That’s what this proves,” he said. “When I finished it, I just wanted to put it up to my forehead, because in it is a road map for what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years.”

Deford said today’s technological advances and the dominance of the Internet present aspiring writers with challenges he didn’t have to deal with on his own entry into the journalistic spectrum.

“I can’t imagine what I would do if I came out of college now,” he said. “I do know this, though — it’s easy to define who’s good at writing. If you can write, it’s obvious and somebody will give you a job and I think you will succeed at it.”

Printed on Thursday, April 26, 2012 as: Celebrated sports writer discusses his life, career