Frank Deford: A Career Spent Bringing 'Something New' To Sports The long-time sports commentator announced his retirement from NPR this week. His success was often measured by just how much the audience loved, or hated, what he had to say.
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Frank Deford: A Career Spent Bringing 'Something New' To Sports

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Frank Deford: A Career Spent Bringing 'Something New' To Sports

Frank Deford: A Career Spent Bringing 'Something New' To Sports

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're saying goodbye to Frank Deford this week. NPR's longest running sports commentator announced Wednesday that he's retiring after 37 years on MORNING EDITION. Thirty-seven years of entertaining, educating and yes, annoying some listeners like any good commentator should. Frank could make us listen when words like this came out of the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: This may sound far-fetched, but football reminds me of Venice. Both are so tremendously popular, but it's the very things that made them so which could sow the seeds of their ruin.

MARTIN: Frank is 78 years old. He will retire in Key West, Fla. And that's where he had a recent exit interview with NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The warnings arrived via email.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR KNOCKING)

GOLDMAN: When I get to his Key West apartment, Frank Deford wrote, I'll be greeted by a screeching dog. He was right. And he said he will unfortunately be a terrible host.

Frank.

DEFORD: If you'll - I apologize.

GOLDMAN: I - don't apologize.

Frank wasn't able to greet me at the door or give me a tour of the spacious apartment he shares with his wife Carol which overlooks boats and turquoise water and palm trees. He'd had a couple of tough days with a lung condition. It left him short of breath and on oxygen. But his performer within carried the day. The oxygen machine went off. Frank switched on, talking first about his adopted home of Key West, nicknamed the Conch Republic.

DEFORD: Conch, you know, the shells. And you get to be a Conch only one way and that's by being born here. Now, you can get to be a bubba. That's the greatest compliment I can get when somebody from Key West says hey, bubba. That means I'm in.

GOLDMAN: Bubba doesn't seem to fit this urbane man with his pencil mustache and natty dress, but Key West has been a haven for writers. Frank knows he's been one since that composition assignment in elementary school. His classmates wrote half a page. He filled eight. So being a bubba in Key West actually does fit. What is it about the writer that brings you to a place like this?

DEFORD: I think it's because it is off the beaten track.

GOLDMAN: Which, of course, is where Frank took MORNING EDITION listeners for nearly four decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DEFORD: I am the very model of a baseball star. I hit them hard and hit them far. No, not a swimmer, nor a sprinter, nor a skier, nor a point guard - me, for I'm lean and mean and fit as a fiddle, ready to show the world my spittle, ready to show my spittle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM THE VERY MODEL OF A MODERN MAJOR-GENERAL")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I am the very model of a modern major-general.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) In short, in matters vegetable, animal and mineral, he is the very model of a modern major-general.

KETZEL LEVINE: When Frank came on being outrageous, it was very much what we wanted in our commentators.

GOLDMAN: Ketzel Levine was the MORNING EDITION sports producer who recruited Frank in 1979, when he was one of the top writers for Sports Illustrated.

LEVINE: He just kind of took it in a whole different direction that no one had really taken it before.

GOLDMAN: From April 2, 1980, until two days ago, Frank churned out 1,656 commentaries. He was given a lot of freedom with the expectation he'd be original, every Wednesday, a notoriously slow sports day.

DEFORD: If I come on three days after the Super Bowl and say pretty much what everybody else has said, what's the point? That was the tricky thing was coming up with a new angle.

GOLDMAN: Mostly, he did. He imagined Shakespeare covering the Super Bowl. He compared Babe Ruth to Winnie the Pooh. And almost always, he had a fresh, pointed take on the issue of the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DEFORD: So I believe that the reason gay male athletes stay in the closet has far more to do with the public than with the locker room.

The exalted NFL so needs a leader of grace and vision. More and more, Roger Goodell just looks like a slick selling us 76 trombones.

It troubles her, she admits, that she herself lied about that - filling out boilerplate NCAA forms that affirmed that there was no cheating. But everybody does it, just tell the NCAA what it wants and sell more tickets.

GOLDMAN: Strong opinions beget strong reactions, and Frank got his share. After Frank suggested maybe hockey should stay in Canada, former MORNING EDITION host Bob Edwards read from a particularly scorching letter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BOB EDWARDS, BYLINE: (Reading) If Mr. Ford were to step off a plane in Detroit, Hockeytown, under anything but an assumed name, he probably wouldn't live to find his luggage.

GOLDMAN: Yikes. Threats against Frank's life weren't the norm but heckles went up, especially when the subject was soccer.

DEFORD: If I had grown up in Sao Paulo, I'm sure I would have been a great soccer fan.

GOLDMAN: But he didn't and he wasn't. Frank grew up in Baltimore. And he hates tie games. He hates that you can't use your hands, hates the pace which he calls tedious. Despite his anti-soccer feelings, Frank says it's never been his goal to alienate listeners. Rather, he wanted to show a non-sports audience that sports were closer to them than they thought.

DEFORD: This is part of your life. And it's the second tier. The first tier is eating, drinking and procreation. The second tier is religion, the spirit, music, art and the physical - sports. It deserves to have as much attention paid to it seriously.

GOLDMAN: Many did.

DEFORD: And the number of letters that I have gotten through the years saying, you know, I never really cared for sports, but I like listening to you because you bring something new to it. I'm sort of proud of that. I am proud of that.

GOLDMAN: Beyond the commentaries, Frank fed a sports-loving audience a steady diet of memorable Sports Illustrated articles, often athlete and coach profiles that delved deeply into the person's psyche, earning him the nickname Frank Defreud (ph). They also earned him countless awards and a spot in the Sportswriters Hall of Fame. And we're pretty sure he's the first NPR commentator featured in a beer commercial. It was 1981.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEFORD: I've had to write some things about some tough guys. And there's one guy I can't write anything bad about. His unique brand of baseball has made him a living legend, so have his commercials. They got me to try his favorite beer, light beer from Miller.

GOLDMAN: Thirty-two years later, Frank made the leap from a bar to the White House. In 2013, he received what he calls his highest honor, the first-ever National Humanities Medal for a sportswriter. Right before former President Obama gave him the award, Frank was announced this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Frank Deferd (ph).

GOLDMAN: Nothing's ever perfect, chuckles Frank Deford. But for so many listeners and readers, his career came pretty close. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GALLANTHORN'S "DREAM")

MARTIN: Thank you, Frank.

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