Photo by Steph Langan
Friday, Deford was given the Red Smith Award at the APSE convention in Chicago, accepting the honor with a speech that started and ended with standing ovations and included stories of his career, wisdom about the profession and more than a few jokes that left a rapt audience roaring.
APSE President Michael Anastasi introduced Deford, the first magazine writer to be honored. Anastasi talked about a friend who is a chemistry professor in California, who does not know anything about sports, but was impressed that he was going to be introducing Deford.
"He showed us that in sports, we find life," said Anastasi of the recipient.
Deford started his speech by remembering one of his co-workers at The National, Tom Patterson, who passed away earlier this month. He spoke about the pride of receiving the award the day before the 40th anniversary of Title IX, paying tribute to tennis legend Billie Jean King by saying "If there was a Title IX, she was Title VIII." Deford also noted the impact Title IX has had on the makeup of sports media as well as sports on the field.
Receiving an award named after Red Smith brings great meaning for Deford. He recalled a class in college where he was asked to name three writers who influenced him. He named Shakespeare ("the freebie in the Bingo game") and JD Salinger. The third, he said, was Smith.
Deford's resume is beyond reproach. From his time at Sports Illustrated, commentaries on NPR since 1980 and work on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, to his 18 books, including "Everbody's All-American."
But it was newspapers that started his journalism career, first working as copy boy for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He joked about being paid $32.50 per week in his first newspaper job and at his final newspaper job — as editor of legendary sports publication The National — spending $150 million in 18 months.
"Now that's the alpha and omega of sports," Deford said.
"The secret, if you will, if you can't write sports you can't write anything else. You have to get out of the writing business," he said. "… The best writing, sports and otherwise, is seduction. Texting is the literary equivalent of air kissing. I simple cannot conceive of people being wise and clever who don't read anything substantial."
"APSE has put me in very, very esteemed company and that really matters to me," said Deford, concluding with "It leaves me nothing but appreciative. So good afternoon, and for those of you who still remember what this means … " holding up a piece of paper with '-30-' written on it, a final, fitting flourish.