Asking me to review Frank Deford's autobiography is tantamount to asking an altar boy to assess the Gospel of Matthew.
Deford is sportswriting royalty, dare I say a demigod of the craft. Who am I to read his memoir and judge it?
The thing is, everyone can judge Deford. That's the beauty of his work, which became famous on the pages of Sports Illustrated. He tells elegant stories that are so remarkably accessible. It's not easy for a writer of Deford's vocabulary to avoid pretentiousness, yet that's why he's so brilliant.
Deford's charm and anecdotes from 50 years in journalism make "Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter" a wonderful memoir. The book is fun, and it makes you feel smarter for having read it.
"Over Time" is a substantial 351 pages, but the 46 chapters are breezy enough that you can put it down multiple times – if you want to – and pick it back up later without losing the flow.
This isn't a strictly linear autobiography. Deford weaves back and forth between his personal and professional life, picking spots all along his timeline and opining about sports journalism before he was born.
Deford came from a blue-blood Baltimore family whose prominent leather company got dashed as his father was about to enter college. Deford didn't experience a life with mansions and butlers, but his father did. As such, Deford was raised by sophisticates of modest means. It's easy to see how he developed his writing voice.
Deford is alternately poignant and humorous throughout the book. Some passages, particularly about the loss of his 8-year-old daughter, Alex, to cystic fibrosis, moistened my eyes. Other passages made me laugh aloud.
He offers fascinating accounts of Muhammad Ali, Wilt Chamberlain, Arthur Ashe, Bill Bradley, Ted Williams, Vince McMahon, Howard Cosell and even Colonel Sanders.
Deford shares marvelous behind-the-scenes stories from his days with the Miller Lite All-Stars – the gang from the "Tastes great! Less Filling!" commercials. And, boy, does he have a serious disdain for Rodney Dangerfield.
On the topic of no respect, Buffalo is the setting for one of his self-deprecating anecdotes.
In lamenting how his name so often ends up misspelled "De Ford" or "DeFord," he recalls appearing on the front page of The Buffalo News a day after delivering an NBC Sports report that defended Buffalo's weather as no worse than Cleveland's, Detroit's or Boston's and explained most of the snow often falls in the Southern Tier.
"The Erie County Executive called me up and personally invited me to come to Buffalo for the Bills' next home game, and – here my legs went limp – he and the mayor of Buffalo wanted to give me a day .…. Never before (or since) had I ever been awarded a Day."
Dec. 11, 1988, was declared "FRANK DeFORD DAY." The banner read "WELCOME FRANK DeFORD."
"Even on my own Day," Deford writes, "they misspell my name."
"Over Time" also provides a terrific overview of the history of sports journalism, which is appropriate because that narrative can't be told without Deford. In addition to his prolific work for Sports Illustrated, he has been a long-time commentator for National Public Radio and a correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel."
Deford has written 18 books, including "Everybody's All-American." He was editor in chief of The National, the ambitious, start-up daily sports paper that folded after 18 months.
Deford traces the profession back to Richard Fox's seminal "National Police Gazette," up through such pioneers as Grantland Rice, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon, Sports Illustrated's rise from Time-Life afterthought to an iconic magazine and The National's inevitable demise.
Deford makes the wry analogy that sportswriting for newspapers and magazines is like burlesque, a once "honorable profession." Without knowing about those glory days, he writes, "I fear all you'd know would be blogs and/or statistics – the pole dancing of sports journalism."
And that brings us full-circle to my original point. I started off with an awkward religion reference, while Deford is able to pull off a pole-dancing analogy with incredible charm.
This pole dancer twirls in admiration.
Tim Graham covers the Bills and other subjects for The Buffalo News.
Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter
By Frank Deford
Atlantic Monthly Press288 pages, $25