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.
That’s the classic amazing luck story. And I think so much of life is that. Sometimes it’s bad luck, sometimes it’s good.
One other thing that’s so prominent in the book is the degree to which the relationships between pro athletes and writers has changed. How different is it nowadays?
There’s no question that my task was easier. There were fewer of us, we had more access. Because television was not so dominant, print reporters were more important, and therefore the players were more eager to talk to us. Blogging didn’t exist, the Internet didn’t exist. Basically, what you had was a few newspaper reporters, and then I would come along, or another guy from a magazine.
So you could get to know the players, and that’s not true any longer. The players are now surrounded by PR people, and they have so much money that they often have friends who travel with them. Back then, the players liked us writers. They looked upon us as potential friends. Now, there’s a wall of separation, and it’s a much more difficult thing.
It’s unfortunate, because I think we were better able to present these guys as human beings, simply because we got to know them better. It wasn’t because we were better writers, or anything like that, but when you have that access, and that intimacy, you can write about a person with more authority. Now, even after ordinary games, they’ll bring the manager or the coach into an auditorium. In those days, you’d go into his office. You’d sit there, and he’d be having a beer, and maybe offer you one. You’d sit and chat. It was a different world altogether.
At one point in the book, you call blogging and the focus on statistics “the pole dancing of sports writing.” Where do you think sportswriting is going, and what’s your opinion of it?
I think that there are more good sportswriters than ever before, simply because sports writing is more respectable. So you get a better breed going into it. People are not as afraid to go into sportswriting.
But by the same token, because they don’t have access, because they’re so influenced by statistics, the writers don’t tell stories as well as they used to. I look at myself as a storyteller, and I don’t think that there are as many good storytellers around. The writers don’t get the access, and they’re too influenced by numbers. They’re knee-deep in statistics, so I think they get led astray. There’s a feeling that you have to prove everything by statistics, and I think that’s something of a loss.
You wrote for Smithsonian about the history of the Olympics in London. What do you think about it as a venue for this summer’s games?
London is one of the great cities of the world. What’s typically the problem with the Olympics is simply getting around—it’s very hard to get to all the different events. But because London has got the great Underground system that it has, and because the city is used to big, world-class events, I think it’ll be easier.
The only problem with London is always the weather. You can get three, four or five rainy days in a row—I’ve been at Wimbledon when that’s the case. So I worry more about the weather than anything else. Otherwise, it’s a magnificent city, and it’s used to hosting big events, so it should be a wonderful Olympics.
Do you have any predictions or athletes to watch in this summer’s games?
The one thing I’m fascinated to see is how Michael Phelps, the great swimmer, will do. He will never repeat what he did in Beijing, winning eight gold medals. But how many more medals can he win? This is sort of his swan song—swimmers peak pretty early—so he probably won’t be around for the Rio Olympics in 2016. And so whenever Phelps swims, I’ll be watching to see how he does. This is his last chance at glory.
I would also love to see Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter, break the 100-meter world record at the Olympics. That’s the other classic event. He already holds the world record, but if he could break it at the Olympics, with the whole world watching, that would be very special. Usually, those kinds of records don’t come with the brightest spotlight on them. They come at a secondary meet, when nobody’s quite expecting it.
What’s it like to cover the Olympics as a journalist?
From a journalistic point of view, the Olympics are the most difficult event to cover. They’re so spread out, and you have so little access to the athletes. It has to be that way—it would be chaos if everything wasn’t very carefully ordered, and this has been all the more the case since terrorism reared its ugly head back in Munich. It’s a very difficult event to cover, and you don’t get close to people, and that’s part of the problem. It’s basically a great television show, but not so good for print.