One of my early journalism heroes and mentors by proxy died over the weekend.
Frank Deford was 78.
He came into my consciousness during my college days at Ole Miss.
A professor there told our class that if we wanted to get better, we should read good writers and learn from them. Don’t steal their style, but learn the craft through their perspective.
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Frank Deford was a writer at Sports Illustrated then, and had the anchor spot on the back page of the magazine.
I read him voraciously and could be heard telling fellow students that when I grew up, I wanted to be Frank Deford. He want on to helm The National, a sports daily, and then worked at NPR’s “Morning Edition.” He retired from that gig earlier this month.
I daydreamed about one day working at SI, alongside Deford, learning at his elbow — if I ever got that close to him.
I read his memoir about his daughter, Alex, who died of cystic fibrosis. His heart-breaking words made me want to move people as he had done.
I was an aspiring sports writer. I wanted to be able to do what Deford seemed to do so effortlessly — paint a picture with his words and move people in the process.
A story he did on Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics still stands out in my memory as a great piece of writing.
His description of Bird going through a routine of shooting free throws first with one hand, then the other, still resonates.
I employed a similar tactic years later in describing a high school player whose same dedication to practice was reminiscent of the Boston Celtics great.
And just as the player emulated Bird, I emulated Deford.
One of my favorite books that I still have is a dog-eared paperback edition of “The World’s Tallest Midget: The Best of Frank Deford.”
I bought it after being snowed in during a conference at North Carolina Chapel Hill. Best. Read. Ever.
I still wish I could write like Deford. But I take comfort in the fact that he, too, was always striving to be better.