Frank Deford was a part my family lore years before I was born. My father was a student reporter in 1958 and had a young running buddy from Baltimore named Frank Deford.
The story my dad still loves to tell, perhaps more than any other, was about the time in 1960 when they covered Elvis Presley’s return from the army, and Elvis was aggressively courted in full view of the press by a young starlet named Tina Louise (later Ginger on Gilligan’s Island). My dad—a terrifically detailed storyteller—always brought the Elvis/Tina Louise spectacle to life and would speak Frank Deford’s name with a terrific pride that they were colleagues, a pride the young me didn’t understand. (I barely knew who Elvis was either.)
Then, when I was 12 years old, I understood the gleam in my dad’s eye. I was slumped down in my school library skimming a back issue of Sports Illustrated and found The Rabbit Hunter, an incisive, elegant article by Deford that explored a decidedly inelegant person, Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight. To learn that sports writing could also be storytelling about flawed, three-dimensional people was life-altering.
Soon I read everything by Deford I could find, from his long-form (before it was called long-form) articles in Sports Illustrated to his page-turner paperback novels, to the devastating memoir Alex: The Life of a Child, about his daughter’s struggle with cystic fibrosis and her death at the age of 8.
Deford, to my young wonder, could write about the shattering tragedy of his child’s death, or a boxer’s lament over a lousy fight, or a sudsy, fictional sports epic like Everybody’s All American, and immediately make you feel like you were entering some kind of virtual-reality zone, viewing the story from the inside.
This was my only connection to Frank Deford for 15 years: my dad’s stories and my own insatiable need to read all he put to the page. Then, in 2005, trying slowly to build my own sportswriting career, I wrote a book called What’s My Name, Fool?, with a then-fledgling, now-ubiquitous radical press, Haymarket Books. My publisher asked me to find a blurb that could make some ripples in the sports world. I contacted Deford via e-mail with a great deal of trepidation. He responded to me almost immediately with his phone number and asked me to call. When I did, I punched all of the numbers but the last one about five times before finding the nerve, my hand and ear slick with sweat. When I finally made contact, the first thing he said to me was, “Dave Zirin… Jim Zirin’s son, my goodness… Did you know that your dad and I covered Elvis Presley?” He then told me his version of the story, which was exactly like my dad’s, shaming a son who thought his father maybe had a penchant to gild the lily.