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: