Frank Deford: A Career Spent Bringing ‘Something New’ To Sports

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Frank Deford is shown here in 1984, four years into his gig as sports commentator on Morning Edition. Bob Child/AP

Frank Deford, NPR’s longest-running sports commentator, announced Wednesday that he’s retiring after 37 years on Morning Edition — 37 years of entertaining, educating and yes, annoying some listeners, like any good commentator should.

Frank Deford, his wife, Carol, and their dog, Miss Snickers, in his home office in Key West, Florida. On Wednesday, Deford retired from Morning Edition as sports commentator.

Tom Goldman/NPR

The warnings from Frank Deford arrived via email, days before our scheduled interview. When I get to his third floor apartment in Key West, Fla., Deford cautioned, I’ll be greeted by a screeching dog.

He was right, although Miss Snickers, Deford’s yorkiepoo rescue, sounded more ferocious than she actually was.

Deford also had this warning: “Unfortunately, I will be a terrible host.”

He 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. Prior to my visit, Deford had had a couple of tough days because of a lung condition. It left him short of breath and on oxygen. But his performer within carried the day.

The oxygen machine went off, Deford switched on.

The first topic of conversation: his adopted home of Key West. He first visited in 1996 and within hours of his arrival he was on the phone to Carol. “You’re going to love this place,” he told her.

A place nicknamed “the Conch Republic.”

“Conch, y’know, the shells,” he says. “And you get to be a ‘conch’ only one way and that’s by being born here.” You can, he says, be a “bubba” if you’re not originally from Key West. “That’s the greatest compliment I can get, when somebody from Key West says ‘Hey, Bubba.’ That means I’m in!” he says.

 

So being a “bubba” in Key West, tapping out his prose, actually does fit him.

“It’s off the beaten track,” he explains — which, of course, is where Deford took Morning Edition listeners for nearly four decades.

Levine recruited Deford in 1979, the year Morning Edition first went on the air. At the time, Deford was one of the top writers at Sports Illustrated. She remembers flying to meet him in New York to make her pitch, and being nervous.

“I was kind of flipped out,” Levine remembers, “because here was this super tall, handsome, sexy, intelligent, irreverent, well-traveled, well-spoken, erudite guy! And I was just kind of tripping all over myself knowing very little about sports. And he was very, very gracious.”

And open to the idea.

“I am something of a ham,” Deford says. “Yeah, I’d always been a writer. But in high school I acted in plays. So it wasn’t as if you had to drag the words out of my vocal chords.”

What Deford thought would be fun “for a few months” turned into 37 years.

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