Frank Deford, Williams College, and The Frank Deford Award

First Deford Award in 1990:  Jeff Friedman '90  (r) receives a book written by Frank Deford from Williams SID Dick Quinn as Frank Deford looks on - Photo by Stephen T. Bleezarde
First Deford Award in 1990: Jeff Friedman '90 (r) receives a book written by Frank Deford from Williams SID Dick Quinn as Frank Deford looks on - Photo by Stephen T. Bleezarde

On May 28th legendary sports writer and NPR commentator Frank Deford passed away in Key West, FL.

In 2012 Frank Deford was presented The National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama.

WILLIAMSTOWN, MA -- Like many young sports fans growing up reading Sports Illustrated each week I looked forward to a Frank Deford essay. Frank always had a long form piece that made you laugh, cry, stop and think, or just marvel at his use of the English language. Often his piece would make you do all of the above.

In 1989, when I started at Williams as the Sports Information Director, I was hired to work 20 hours a week, covering 30 varsity teams. The job would have been impossible if I hadn't been able to hire and train an exceptional team of student writers. Blown away by their talent, I thought it might be fitting to create an annual award recognizing them for their work.

I came up with the idea of creating The Frank Deford Award to honor the outstanding efforts by the student Sports Information assistants each year. Although in favor of the idea, Williams' Director of Public Affairs Jim Kolesar was somewhat dubious that I could get Deford to let us use his name. I knew very little about Frank personally, but I knew enough. He loved the color purple and bemoaned the fact that his favorite teams who wore purple (the Vikings and Lakers) always lost the big game. I was also aware that, sadly, his daughter Alex had succumbed to cystic fibrosis.

I knew there had to be a Williams connection somewhere—there always is. I soon found an alum that worked at Sports Illustrated, and within hours I was on the phone with Frank. I explained that I was calling from Williams College and wanted to name a sports writing award after him. I told him the Ephs wear purple and almost always emerge victorious. I also mentioned that he and I shared a heartbreaking bond, as my daughter Jennah also had cystic fibrosis.

"Well that's very nice of you to consider naming an award after me," said Frank. "I have a high regard for Williams." He then added, "The last thing named after me was a race horse that lost his first three races by wide margins and then was turned into a gelding, so I guess I can risk this."

I cooked up a grand plan to have the first year's award presentation in the Yankee Stadium Club, owned by another Eph alum, George Steinbrenner.  We got George's approval, and everything was ready to go.

Press conference before 1st Deford Award
Photo by Stephen T. Bleezarde

Meanwhile, Frank had recently left Sports Illustrated to become editor of The National—America's first sports daily. One of his first pieces was a lengthy feature on Steinbrenner. It was a great article, if you weren't George Steinbrenner. A few days later the Yankees organization called to inform me that they were no longer interested in hosting the Deford Award ceremony.

So Frank and I came up with a better idea, to host the annual evening on the Williams campus. It became a tradition, which continues 28 years later. 

When Frank arrived at Williams he was hoping to meet Jennah, but she was away filming a piece for The Bay State Medical Center on a newsletter she had created for young patients at Bay State. Frank graciously invited us to visit him if we were ever in Connecticut. When Jennah, Kathy, and I finally did so, she and Frank exchanged autographs on the new publications they had each created, and had a wonderful chat.

I've been around sports long enough to know that the famous people you respect rarely turn out to be worthy of the pedestal you've prepared for them. Frank was that rare case.

While I'd to think my persuasive talents brought Frank Deford to Williams, I knew in my heart that the real link was between Jennah and Frank's daughter, Alex. He confirmed as much in his opening remarks at the first Deford Award ceremony, when he acknowledged his respect for Williams but went on to say that the real depth of human connection comes from family. I was thrilled when Williams awarded Frank an honorary degree at the 2016 Commencement.

My last communication with Frank was via email a few weeks ago. I told him I had just picked up his book with a collection of NPR commentaries and other great stories and then a few days later was surprised to hear him announce that he was doing his last NPR commentary. I wrote to tell him I hoped I hadn't jinxed anything, and recapped this spring's 28th Deford Award event for him. He wrote back that, "Maybe you won't always have Paris, but you will have my book of commentaries to remember me by, and that's a fair deal."

The Frank Deford Award is the first and only student sports writing award in intercollegiate athletics. It is fitting that it is named for Frank Deford, the first and only of his kind.

VISIT The Frank Deford Award Page 

Dick Quinn, Sports Information Director