The sad passing of iconic wide receiver Dwight Clark on June 4 was preceded by this emotionally fraught piece in Sports Illustrated — “The Last Huddle” by Chris Ballard — a reminder of the great work that the magazine has done over the years.
Younger sports fans who never saw Clark in action missed seeing the most dramatic catch in NFL history but also SI in its heyday, when the publication dominated sports journalism.
Its great strength has always been its writing, with a staff that’s featured some of the best yarn spinners to have put pen to paper. William Nack, Rick Reilly, S.L. Price, Curry Kirkpatrick, Gary Smith, to name just a few in its legendary roster.
The impact they’ve had on readers is profound.
My brother-in-law told me that he wept after reading this Reilly classic about a Mexican priest who took to wrestling to raise money to support an orphanage. My sister’s husband quickly sent off a sizable donation to help out the padre known as Fray Tormenta (Brother Tempest).
But in a class all to himself was the late Frank Deford.
If there’s one person who sealed my fate, my inescapable attachment to this profession, it was Deford, a master storyteller who brilliantly brought you into the private lives of public stars. His nickname was “Frank Defreud” for his skill at penetrating each subject’s psyche.
He was an expert at using nicknames, catchphrases and colloquial language — while focusing on the content of the character of those he portrayed.
Deford worked at SI for 55 years and did so till he passed away last year. The guy published 18 books, won Sportswriter of the Year six times and is the only two-time winner of magazine writer of the year by the Washington Journalism Review.
And the story that hooked on me on writing for life was Deford’s tale of love-struck prizefighter Billy Conn, “The Boxer and the Blonde.” It’s the kind of piece they could turn into an Oscar-winning classic, if they only knew enough to stick to the facts. (Regrettably, “The Pittsburgh Kid,” based loosely on Billy Conn and featuring Conn himself, was a misguided dud.)
Study Deford’s story. Pull its parts apart. Look how he guides you through the players in this drama and weaves in and out of time, dates and places. It’s writing genius.
That piece wasn’t his only gem, of course. Or the lone standout among many great tales published by Sports Illustrated during its 68 years of brilliance. If you want to spend a wonderful afternoon laughing and crying, I recommend a twirl through some of the magazine’s memorable yarns on this site.
And, if there’s a next place from here, if somewhere “Frank Defreud” is still conjuring analytic magic, you can bet he’s got a crowd of followers eager to read whatever he might divine.