Frank Deford, Sportswriter Who Found Human Stories Behind Wins and Losses, Dies at 78

Deford, who spent a half-century career at Sports Illustrated, was also a commentator and interviewer for NPR and “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel”

Last Updated: May 30, 2017 @ 7:17 AM

Frank Deford, the famed Sports Illustrated columnist and NPR commentator who turned stories about sports into stories about humanity, died Monday at age 78.

For fifty years, Deford was one of the leading voices of Sports Illustrated and among the most beloved writers in all of sports. He joined NPR’s “Morning Edition” in 1980, retiring earlier this year. He also served served as a correspondent on “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” and received a Peabody Award for his work on the 1999 HBO documentary “Dare to Compete.”

“Since 1980, Frank voiced sports commentary for NPR, leaving us 1,656 of his signature insights into the world of sports and the human stories behind athletic triumphs. He was a beloved colleague and a signature voice of public radio,” NPR President and CEO Jarl Mohn said in a statement Monday.

A graduate of Princeton University, Deford started his career at SI in 1962, winning the Sportswriter of the Year Award from the National Sports Media Association six times during the 1980s.

Along with writing columns, Deford published over a dozen books during his career, most of them fiction. His most famous novel was the 1981 book “Everybody’s All-American,” which tells the story of Gavin Grey, a Heisman-winning college football player whose professional career, along with the rest of his life, quickly turns to ruin. The book was turned into a movie in 1988, with Dennis Quaid in the lead role.

In 2012, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama.

Deford earned praise for finding stories that went beyond the spectacle of sports and delved into the personal backgrounds of those who build careers and lives around their athletic ability. In one such story in 2013 for “Real Sports,” Deford interviewed former pro wrestlers Scott Hall and Jake Roberts, who fell into substance abuse and financial struggles after their careers in the ring came to an end and they were forced to deal with the damage wrestling had done to their bodies. Their lives were finally turned around when they received the help of Dallas Page, another pro wrestler who found post-career success as a yoga instructor and who helped Hall and Roberts recover through his own rehab process.

Deford passed away at his home in Key West, Florida. He is survived by his wife, Carol; his children, Christian and Scarlet; and two grandchildren, Annabel and Hunter.