During a job interview with NFL Films near the end of my senior year of college, I sat across from the man who named the Dallas Cowboys “America’s Team.” Older, quieter, and more serious than the rest of the 4-person panel conducting the session, he spoke up only occasionally, and throughout, appeared generally unmoved by any thoughts I had to offer.
During one answer about something else entirely I happened to mention Sports Illustrated, a side-door he immediately threw open.
“Who’s your favorite Sports Illustrated writer?” he asked.
It was a completely subjective question from the senior guy in the room, someone whose thinking I could not possibly have prepared for, and yet who could on the merits of any one answer determine the fate of my application.
Frank Deford, I replied.
“Mmmm,” he nodded. “Deford is the greatest writer that magazine has ever had.”
Never mind that a court of law would have dismissed it as an opinion. In these chambers, the fact that mattered was my taste and the head magistrate’s were the same. It was enough to calm my racing heart in the moment; it was what came back to me first when Films called with a job offer a week later; and it was what I thought of immediately upon hearing recently that Deford had died.
“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten,
either write something worth reading or do things worth the writing.”
Ben Franklin wrote it. Frank Deford merely embodied it — penning himself a permanent place in the history of American letters by both writing volumes worth reading and indisputably doing something worth the writing: inspiring others. They are many, I am one. Officially, since the day in 1999 when I read “The Ring Leader” and loved it with the pure, inexplicable certainty that only the best creators spark.
Despite the example of his writing and the cosmic assist he provided in that job interview, I never did make the appropriate effort to thank Frank. Not even given the opportunity a few years into my career, when he was one of my interview subjects the first day I ever directed a documentary film crew. Be a pro, I thought. Circuitous anecdotes in which a thesis of gratitude only might be clear to the listener, well, those are a tricky species. Better to try being a competent inquisitor than come off as a stammering ink-sniff. So I stuck to the task at hand.
It was an air-ball with no do-over. So let this be my penance.
Thank you, Mr. Deford.
I’m happy to say I’m still at NFL Films, the company your inspiration helped lead me to join. The week I marked my 15th work anniversary was the same week your pen went silent forever. Since then, countless lovely words have been spilled in your honor. But unless you, Frank, got out in front of the Reaper, filing the copy for a publication to be named later, I’m certain there’ll be no written tribute to you that’s quite worthy.
For its small part, my best assessment of your influence is to offer this: that whatever accolades every G.O.A.T. of Sports’ Future may ultimately compile, all their resumes will still possess the same hole: Born too late to be profiled by as great a writer as any magazine ever had.
FOR AN HOUR in New York in 2005, I conducted this interview of Frank Deford for the first long form documentary I ever worked on, “Rozelle: Building America’s Game.” On this day part of my job as director was to bring props in the event we got stuck shooting in an undesirably blank room. And so, my own typewriter, books, and portrait of my high school adorn the set behind one of my writing heroes.