Frank Deford, Master of Longform Sportswriting at SI, Dies Aged 78

Frank Deford, left, with 44th President of the United States Barack Obama.
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with sports writer Frank Deford after awarding him the 2012 National Humanities Medal during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 10 2013. Deford died on May 28 aged 78. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Frank Deford, who as a journalist for Sports Illustrated was known as a master of long-form storytelling and as a regular commentator for National Public Radio brought sports to life for many listeners with only a passing interest in athletics, has died at age 78, his wife said on Monday.

Deford died suddenly on Sunday at his home in Key West, Florida, after an illness, his wife Carol Deford said by phone.

In 2012, then-President Barack Obama presented Deford a medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which honoured him "for transforming how we think about sports." He also was named to the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame.

Deford retired from NPR earlier this month after 37 years with the broadcast network.

"Nothing has pleased me so much as when someone, usually a woman, writes me or tells me that she's appreciated sports more because NPR allowed me to treat sports seriously as another branch on the tree of culture," Deford said in his final commentary.

A native of Maryland, Deford attended Princeton University and began his career as a reporter and researcher for Sports Illustrated magazine in 1962.

He excelled at long-form profiles of major sports figures, such as tennis star Jimmy Connors, college basketball coach Bobby Knight and the late professional football quarterback Johnny Unitas.

Deford was known for musing philosophically about the role of athletics in American life.

Writing in Sports Illustrated about his boyhood hero Johnny Unitas, who played for Deford's hometown Baltimore Colts in the 1950s, Deford said he wondered how people "in olden times connected back to their childhoods."

"After all, we have hooks with the past," Deford wrote. "When most of us from the 20th century reminisce about growing up, we right away remember the songs and the athletes of any particular moment. Right?"

Deford wrote more than a dozen books, including several novels such as "Bliss, Remembered" set during the 1936 Olympic Games, and the football saga "Everybody's All-American"—made into a 1988 movie starring Dennis Quaid and Jessica Lange.

In "Alex: The Life of a Child," Deford described his daughter who died at age 8 of cystic fibrosis.

Deford is survived by his wife Carol and two adult children, Christian and Scarlet.