Deford shares his thoughts on today’s young athletes
By KENNETH COKER Messenger Sports Reporter
If that old cliché is indeed true, then Frank Deford could be considered one of the strongest men in the nation.
For the past 45 years, Deford has been a fixture in American homes through his numerous writings in Sports Illustrated, appearances on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and commentaries on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.
And over the years, he has seen his share of the top stars and class acts that the sports world has to offer, covering the likes of Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Bear Bryant, Gale Sayers, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and many others during the glory days of his career in the field.
So it should come as little surprise that when asked about today’s athletes and the negative headlines that many are making, Deford is quick to explain where he believes the problem lies.
“From a very young age, athletes are kissed up to,” Deford told The Messenger Thursday before a lecture at the University of Tennessee at Martin. “People cheat for them, they slip them money and these young men get women very easily.
“When this happens on a regular basis, it gets in your mind that ‘hey, I can do anything.’ The trouble is that we accept it. We play along with it until someone does something really awful and look up to them when in reality they are just young men playing a game.”
And in Deford’s mind, that line of thinking leads to many of the steroid and drug problems that are prevalent in the present time.
“These guys take these drugs and think they can get away with it,” he said. “It’s all a part of the same mindset with getting the women they want because they think they are big stars.”
Despite all the negatives, the 45-year veteran of the sports scene does see a small cluster of positives on the horizon. Deford believes that the National Football League is leading the way in cleaning up the sports world.
The 1994 CableACE Award winner also points out that not all athletes are bad eggs and that some good guys are still taking to their respective playing surfaces as ambassadors for their sports.
“I think there’s a lot of good guys left,” Deford explained. “It’s amazing to me that as many of them get through to that point unscathed, but we shouldn’t think that all athletes are jerks.
“For one, Roger Federer has never had a mark against him and I don’t think anybody has anything negative to say about him, or Tiger Woods for that matter. I don’t think Tiger has the charm that Federer has, but he’s conducted himself absolutely impeccably and proved that it is possible to be a good guy and an athlete.”
One might assume that Deford would pick his own top contribution to the world from the heap of awards hardware he has amassed while haunting the sidelines and press boxes of countless sporting venues.
Yet, that is not the case at all.
It’s not his six U.S. Sportswriter of the Year awards, induction into the National Association of Sportscasters’ and Sportswriters’ Hall of Fame or Emmy Award for his coverage of the 1988 Seoul, South Korea Olympics that makes him proudest.
Deford pegs his work as the national chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation — in memory of his daughter Alex, who fell victim to the disease at the age of eight in 1980 — as his top contribution to society.
“Of all the things I’ve done, that’s by far the most worthwhile,” Deford said. “Everything I’ve written pales in comparison to doing something good like that. It made me a better person. I can’t say that writing made me a better person.
“It made me a lot of money, a certain amount of fame and it was terribly gratifying, but it didn’t make me a better person and working for the Foundation did.”
Deford became involved in the advocacy for a cure for the disease after his daughter’s death. He chronicled her life in the memoir “Alex: The Life of a Child.”
The book was later made into a movie starring Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia in 1986.
“At first we were scared to death. It was one thing when I wrote the book because I was in control,” Deford said of the experience. “When you turn your life story over to a movie director or producer, you lose control. At the end of the day, it was great because it gave so much to cystic fibrosis and it was also a tremendous tribute to my daughter.
“We haven’t conquered the disease yet, but we’ve come a long way and I think that’s something you could put on my tombstone.”
Sports reporter Kenneth Coker can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
Published in The Messenger on 11.09.07