Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Elegance Of Frank Deford

As you may have noticed, TigerBlog likes to write.

He has visions of his retirement world, one that includes, among other necessities, a dog (probably a bulldog like Trevor Tierney's), a beach house, a porch that looks out over the water and a laptop on which he can write, about anything and everything, for a large audience or an audience of one.

Golf? Nah. Walking on the beach. Walking the dog. Writing. That's a retirement.

The art of writing - sportswriting in particular - has fascinated TigerBlog since he was a kid and FatherBlog would bring home the New York Post and the New York Daily News every night. 

Long before TigerBlog ever wrote his first story - nearly 35 years ago, about a high school football game between Pennington Prep and the Academy of the New Church - his views on writing were shaped by reading others.

TigerBlog never really envisioned writing the sort of blog that he has come to do every day. He was taught early on that the news is the news; your covering the news is not news. That was the mantra of Harvey Yavener, with whom TB worked way back when in the newspaper business.

Back then, the idea of writing about himself - even if the third person - would never have dawned on him. Writing about his own experiences day after day? That would have been absurd.

It was a different world back then. Sportswriters wrote stories about coaches and athletes. The emphasis was on the ability to put words together. Analyzing games was what the beat writers did. Analyzing the people was what the feature writers did.

And the best writers could be found in one place - Sports Illustrated.

TigerBlog used to get the magazine out his mailbox every Thursday and read it cover to cover. The stories were so well crafted, week after week. And one name was more associated with that level of sportswriting than any other.

Frank Deford.

The legendary sportswriter passed away Monday, at the age of 78. In addition to his decades of work at Sports Illustrated, Deford also did essays on NPR and spent what was a fulfilling, if unsuccessful, tenure with the short-lived "The National," a daily sports newspaper that started in 1990 and lasted 18 months.

Deford also wrote books, both sports books and novels. Until he read the obit, TigerBlog had no idea that Deford had written "Everybody's All-American." He also was awarded the National Humanities Medal by former President Obama.

TigerBlog met Deford one time, back in 1996, when he spoke at a symposium on athletics in Dillon Gym as part of the University's 250th anniversary celebration. Joining Deford on the panel was Bob Costas; the moderator was Marvin Bressler, the late sociology professor and the inspiration for the Academic Athletic Fellows program.

Looking for some sense of who Deford was as a person, TigerBlog spoke with former Ford Family Director of Athletics Gary Walters, who was close to the writer. He was a wonderful man, Gary said. And he was a great friend of Princeton and Princeton athletics.

Deford, for those who don't know, was a member of the Princeton Class of 1962. He came to Princeton from the Gilman School in Baltimore, where he had been a basketball player. At Princeton, Deford - who stood 6-4 - began his writing career with the Daily Princetonian.

As Gary spoke about his old friend, TigerBlog was struck by the way he used the word "elegant" to describe him four separate times. He was talking about his attire, his penchant for dressing up with matching purple ties and handkerchiefs.

And he was talking about his writing.

TigerBlog spent some of yesterday rereading stories that Deford had written during his long career at Sports Illustrated. They are all stories that TigerBlog has read before, and they're all amazingly well done.

They're also from a different era. It was an era of elegance in writing, one that has been torn away by the combination of impatience in society and ego and money in of those who used to be called sportswriters.

Today, it's more standard to express yourself in 140 characters or even just in a picture with a captain. Both of those have seen words shortened or eliminated, because why write out, for example, "for what's worth" when you can write "FWIW."

Where's the elegance in that?

And sportswriters, as it were? The money isn't in elegant writing. It's in what they call "hot takes."

The formula now is 1) find a forum someplace, 2) rant and rave about something as crudely as possible, 3) hope to get on TV, 4) make money.

Again, where's the elegance in that?

The best features TigerBlog has ever written have been about Princeton lacrosse players and coaches and have come from knowing his subjects for years and years. How, TB has long wondered, did the Sports Illustrated writers come up with those features each week on people that they presumably never met and spent little time with prior to writing?

TigerBlog likes to write longer feature stories. The story he wrote about Zach Currier earlier this spring was more than 3,500 words, or 3.5 times the length of an average blog.

Who has the patience to read that when Twitter is so much easier?

If you think 3,500 words are a lot, how about Deford's pieces? They take awhile to read, but they are incredible works of art.

If you are a Princeton fan, you probably read this Sports Illustrated story on the 1965 men's basketball team's run to the Final Four once you heard of Deford's passing.

It's called "A Whole Team Touched By Stardust," and it brings to life one of the greatest moments in Princeton Athletics history. It also has this sentence: Playmaker Gary Walters, 5 feet 10, is a poised first-year man who can beat a press.

TigerBlog found a link to the best stories Deford ever wrote for the magazine. Pick anyone you like. They're all spectacular.

HERE'S the link.

TigerBlog remembered reading some of them. One he didn't remember is one that captured his attention yesterday.

It's called "The Boxer and the Blonde." Read it HERE.

Remember how TigerBlog's Currier feature was 3,500 words? This one is 12,000.

It's the story of boxer Billy Conn, his first fight against heavyweight champ Joe Louis and the summer of 1941. It's told 24 years after the fact. 

It's incredible. It's to sportswriting what "A Prayer for Owen Meany" is to literature. It's unbelievable storytelling - and the very best writing TB has ever read.

Late yesterday afternoon Gary stopped by TigerBlog's office. TB could tell how saddened he was at the passing of Frank Deford. He'd had him up to his house on Cape Cod and had spent countless times with him.

At one point, Gary asked if TB had gotten the pictures that he had sent, including the one he included here. Yes, TB said. Gary paused, not speaking for a few seconds. Then he shook his head and said softly "those were great times."

Gary was mourning the loss of his friend, Frank Deford, a great American sportswriter, as great as they have ever come.

He was, to use his friend's word, a man of elegance.

Even as the world around him lost its patience, and the ability to put words together became valued less, that elegance still lives on in the pieces he leaves behind.

That elegance, the elegance of Frank Deford, will last forever.


Steven Feldman '68 said...

Thank you for writing that elegant tribute to Frank Deford.

Anonymous said...

Mr.Blog- A beautiful tribute to a wonderful writer. By the way... Your Pete Carril story I believe in 2007 was writing of the finest skill. Stay inspired to write!