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In the long list of bad things that happened over the past week, it's hard to say the passing of a retired writer had the most tragic implications.

It didn't, of course. Even for someone firmly in his 50's with an inside track on his 60's, the idea of passing away at the age of 78, especially when your life has been full and your final days spent in the company of your wife of 52 years at your home in Key West, Fla., seems like a pretty reasonable deal.

Still, I couldn't help being sad to hear that Frank Deford had died.

He hadn't written for a while and had retired from doing commentary for NPR (yes, I listen to NPR. Next stop: birdwatching) in May. So the impact of his passing on the world of journalism or sports writing is, at least at this point, more reflective than contemporary.

And yet ...

Once upon a time, if you wanted to find out the score of a ballgame, you picked up the local paper. But if you wanted to know what happened, wanted to feel as if you were there, capture the magic and meaning of a Super Bowl or an NCAA basketball championship or the 18th at Augusta, you read "Sports Illustrated."

And, likely as not, if the article was beautifully written with prose that bordered on poetry and took you inside the very soul of the moment, it was written by Frank Deford.

He was tall, with a magnificent shock of hair appropriately grey at the temples and a pencil-thin mustache that looked like old pictures of Lionel Barrymore. He lived in New York and drank at Elaine's and married a fashion model and wrote about boxing and horse racing and the sorts of things that seemed a world away to a kid in a small town in Michigan.

He seemed, genuinely ... nice. Maybe it was his upbringing in Baltimore (or, as he called in his Maryland accent, "Balmer, Merlin."). Maybe it was the tragedy and setbacks of his own life, a daughter who died early of cystic fibrosis, a magazine that failed less than a year into publication, the realization that the craft he loved was falling out of favor in a world of bloggers and 140 characters.

Maybe he was just a good guy, and while those things colored him, they didn't alter him. Whatever the case, I read everything Frank Deford wrote. And it's safe to say he's one of the major reasons I set out to be a sports writer many, many years ago.

Arkansas fans may remember him from his amazing piece about Nolan Richardson. What was supposed to be your standard, boilerplate analysis of the Razorback coach turned into a play focused on his rise from tough circumstances in El Paso and the impact of the death of his daughter, Yvonne.

In retrospect it might have been a little gimmicky, but as someone covering Richardson during that period, it was riveting. Even though I knew the story, it was a hard read, both for the sadness of the events and the professional envy I felt that a man could fly in from halfway across the country and capture the essence of someone I followed on a near-daily basis.

I remember seeing Deford at a basketball game in Fayetteville, probably in town to interview Richardson for the article. I was covering the game, wearing tennis shoes and sweatshirt. He was covering the man, wearing a suit and tie, complete with a pinstripe shirt and pocket square. Of course, I didn't try to meet him. Professional courtesy and all. Or, more likely, fanboy awe.

Time moves on. I worked as a sports writer for long enough to determine it was less leaning on the rail at Belmont and more weekends and holidays away from your family, eating hot dogs in a press box somewhere like Lubbock or Shreveport.

It was the right call for me, right call for my family. Leave while you still love it and never look back. As fun as it might have been to try, only one person at a time gets to be Frank Deford, and for most of my life, that job was taken.

We all come with an expiration date, and 78, well, that's a good long run. Safe to say there were some miles on Deford's odometer and a body of work anyone who fancies himself a writer would love to claim.

It's fashionable now to say that we don't mourn someone's passing as much as we celebrate that he lived. Well, in Deford's case, we are happy he lived. And happiest he spent that life writing.

Commentary on 06/02/2017

Print Headline: A near-poetic life

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