In 1961, Frank Deford graduated from Princeton and started writing for Sports Illustrated, a job he thought would be a brief entryway into the world of magazine journalism. More than 50 years later, he’s still at SI and still going strong. His remarkable stories—covering everything from outsized athletic figures to oddball coaches—have led to his being recognized as one of America’s finest sportswriters. Last month, he published his memoir Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter. He spoke with Smithsonian’s Joseph Stromberg about the luck involved in being a journalist, his thoughts on bloggers and his predictions for this summer’s Olympic Games in London.
After a lifetime spent reporting and writing about other people, what’s it like to sit down and write your own memoir?
Well, it’s very hard writing about yourself, because you have less context about whether it will interest people. All my life I’ve been writing about other people, and I have a pretty good idea that if I’m interested in so-and-so, then the reader will be. But when it’s yourself, that throws you off. I had a very hard time wondering, ‘Is this part of me going to interest people?’ That was the tricky part.
You wrote about interviewing at Time, Inc. fresh out of college and telling everyone you were exclusively interested in working at Sports Illustrated, and not the other magazines. Why was this?
It wasn’t so much that I wanted to focus on sportswriting, it was that the writing at Sports Illustrated was so good. It was the kind of writing that I wanted to do—long pieces. For example, at Time magazine, everything was very short. I never could have survived there very long. But Sports Illustrated was well written, and it was the length of the kinds of pieces that I wanted to do. So for me, it was incidentally a sports magazine. And for once in my life, I had figured myself out.
I never intended to stay there for more than a few years. It was quite a coincidence. But sometimes life just takes you by the scruff of the neck and drags you on. What happened is, sports got bigger and bigger, the magazine prospered, and I found that I really liked it. And I was having a certain amount of success, so it made sense to stay.
You’ve had so many remarkable interactions with famous figures, a lot of which seem to have occurred by happenstance—you write about sitting down in a diner for breakfast next to Colonel Sanders, and sharing a bus seat with Cassius Clay. Is there a science to getting in these situations, or is it just the right place at the right time?
I think there’s no question that so much of life is luck. One of the best stories I wrote for Sports Illustrated is called “The Toughest Coach There Ever Was.” Here’s how I encountered this story: I was in Alabama, doing a story on Bear Bryant, and then I flew back home after interviewing him. I got on a plane in Birmingham, Alabama, and next to me, on the empty seat, was a newspaper from Jackson, Mississippi. I idly picked up the newspaper, and there was a long article on a coach, and his name was Bob Sullivan. He had been dead for ten years, he had never coached at anything but a small junior college, in the poorest county in the poorest state in the country—Scooba, Mississippi. It was a fabulous article, and it turned out to be the only article of any consequence that had been written about Sullivan, and he had been dead ten years.
I was astounded by this article, and I took it back to my editor, and showed it to him, and he said, ‘You’ve got to write this.’ It was a long article for a newspaper, but there was obviously much more there. And so I wrote it, and they put it on the cover, even though nobody had ever heard of this guy.
Think about that: What if I’d sat in the ninth row instead of the eighth row, what if that newspaper had not been left there? The coincidences just piled on each other to make it possible. And I remember, Bob Sullivan’s widow, she thought it was just divine intervention. It restored him to glory—this guy who nobody had ever heard of before—and he went into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.