I bring no special journalistic insights into what made his reporting and writing so special. In this case, the word "great" is simply inadequate.
In fact, much of the mainstream coverage of his passing focused on a much loftier question: Where should Deford be listed among the greatest sportswriters of all time? But why limit this discussion to sportswriting? Many would argue that we need to open that discussion up to his legacy in long-form, American magazine journalism -- period.
I never met Deford. However, we has a friend of close friend of mine -- the late sports-media executive and writer Bob Briner, the long-time leader of Pro-Serv Television. Briner was best known for writing a prophetic little book called "Roaring Lambs," which described the various ways that modern Christians -- his fellow evangelical Protestants especially -- had retreated from the hard task of doing constructive, first-rate work in mainstream literature, music, movies, the fine arts and other forms of mass culture.
Deford was among the diverse circle of people who endorsed the book, writing:
Too often, the message of Christianity today is promulgated by 'professional' Christians, smugly preaching to the converted. More difficult and more noteworthy -- even more Christian -- is what Bob Briner advocates: that what matters is to carry the Word and its goodness into the skeptical multicultural real world.
Briner, in turn, offered an interesting nod to Deford in the pages of "Final Roar" -- a book completed by editors and friends after he died of cancer in 1999.
In that collection of notes and writings, Briner discussed a variety of ways that Christians in the business world and academia need to step forward to help young professionals who are trying to do solid, mainstream media work (as opposed to remaining in the safe, niche world of "Christian" media). Briner added:
I have a long-shot dream of a Christian Media and Arts summit. If this dream ever were to come to fruition, here are some of the people and institutions I, at least, would invite.
It's a long and interesting list (one that Briner and I talked about on several ocassions), especially looking back nearly two decades later. Deford is in the list, of course.
No one, during his career, would have dared call Deford a "Christian" journalist, because that label was way to narrow to describe what he did as a journalist.
Briner told me that Deford would never try to wear his beliefs on his sleeve. They were simply part of what he did. They helped inform the questions that he asked. What happened on a kneeler at church (Deford was a layperson chosen to read scripture from the pulpit at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Westport, Conn.) was part of his life and went into the mix when he took pen and reporter's notepad in hand.
In other words, Deford was a reporter who dug into the finest of fine details of what made athletes and public figures tick and, if faith was part of that equation, then Deford gracefully included that in his feature stories. He asked questions. He listened.
Editors at Sports Illustrated ran, of course, a large collection of features honoring Deford the week after his death. I was struck by this passage in one of the tribute essays, written by Alexander Wolff:
For the last 30-plus years of Deford’s relationship with the magazine, Gabe Miller served in the copy department, where he was privileged with a first look at what he would file. “He’s sensitive,” Miller says. “In the right way -- in the human way, on behalf of others -- because of how much he has felt himself.
“In his writing, he would go places nobody else went, and he gave you the sense that what he was writing about was meaningful and important, without it seeming self-important. He wrote like he was shooting for something.”
Then there was this passage, leading to a quotation that showed up in several other mainstream media obituaries. It mentions sports, of course.
A few weeks ago, after more than 1,600 commentaries for NPR, he recorded his last one. His voice was just regionalist enough, with a trace of his native Bawlamer, to sound like a guy down at the corner bar. (“You don’t talk that tall,” a listener once said upon meeting him.) But it had the requisite public-broadcasting erudition, as well as the insouciance that comes with not giving a rat’s ass that uncountable brows in numberless Volvos will cloud over because you’ve said you don’t like soccer, and don’t intend to try.
As he told NPR’s Tom Goldman earlier this month, “sports are part of your life -- it's the second tier. The first tier is eating, drinking and procreation. The second tier is religion, the spirit, music, art and the physical. Sports. It deserves to have as much attention paid to it, seriously.”
Some may want to debate the fact that he put sports in the same category as faith. But, honestly people, look at modern America. It was a blessing that Deford did his work day after day -- as one of the greatest reporters of all time -- with a view of life that was both practical and spiritual.