By John Sahly
Frank Deford knew he could never do just one thing in storytelling.
He knew it when he won a short story contest at 13 years old. At the same time, he worked for his school newspaper.
He knew it when he wrote a play at 16. He later was a copy boy at the Baltimore Evening Sun, all before the legendary Sports Illustrated features, his weekly commentaries on National Public Radio, his stint as the editor in chief of the influential sports newspaper The National and his contributions to HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.
The author of 18 books, including the 1981 novel "Everybody's All-American" that was later made into a film, Deford has been named the 2012 Red Smith Award winner by the Associated Press Sports Editors. The award is given annually by APSE to a person who has made major contributions to sports journalism.
"[Smith] had an influence on me because he told me by his words that journalism could be well-written. That it wasn't just reporting, that it could be literature," Deford said. "That's what Red at his best wrote, daily literature."
The APSE executive committee expanded voting for the Red Smith Award this year, opening it up to a much broader segment of APSE membership. Joining past APSE presidents and previous Red Smith Award winners in a transparent voting process were national officers, active members who have belonged to APSE for at least 10 years and alumni members who belonged to APSE for at least 15 years. Each news organization was limited to one vote, and past presidents and Red Smith Award winners retained their vote and were not included in the limit of one per organization.
Eligible voters nominated 13 individuals for the 2012 Red Smith Award. The top five vote getters behind Deford will automatically be on the 2013 ballot. They are (in alphabetical order): Henry Freeman, Dan Jenkins, Bob Ryan, George Vecsey and Mark Whicker.
Deford will receive the honor at the Red Smith Award luncheon on June 22 at the APSE convention in Chicago.
Deford said he was surprised to learn he received the honor because he was always under the impression that it was a newspaper award. He has been honored extensively for his magazine and television work. Six times, he's been voted as the U.S. Sportswriter of the Year. He's won an Emmy, a Cable Ace award and a Peabody Award.
His time in newspapers consists of 18 months at The National and his copy boy days racing back and forth between the Evening Sun and the local police stations to grab copy. The list of Red Smith Award recipients includes the late Jim Murray from the Los Angeles Times, Dave Anderson from the New York Times and the Miami Herald's Edwin Pope.
"It's wonderful to be in such esteemed company," said Deford, who started at Sports Illustrated in 1962. "I know an awful lot of those people who have won that award, and I'm all the more honored that they reached beyond newspapers to give me this award."
Former Red Smith Award winner Dave Kindred said Deford will forever be a giant in the sports journalism industry.
"Frank wrote with intelligence, grace, wit, and an unerring eye for the human condition," Kindred said. "We're all in his debt for the example he has set for a half-century, beginning as Sports Illustrated's clean-up hitter."
Part of Deford's legacy always will be tied to The National, a daily sports newspaper that redefined the coverage of American sports. With an all-star group of sportswriters, it's been credited for launching the national careers of several of its employees despite lasting 18 months.
The paper made such an impact on sports journalism that 21 years after it folded, it is still a popular subject to write about, evidenced by a recent oral history of the paper by Grantland.com. Tony Kornheiser was quoted in the piece as calling The National, "… the great and noble experiment of sports writing in America."
"That's fair. Unfortunately, it was a lost experiment," Deford said. "We failed. We failed as a business, but I never felt that we failed as a product. We had some terrific writers."
Deford is the fourth former member of The National to win the Red Smith Award, joining Vince Doria (2009), the late Van McKenzie (2007) and Kindred (1991).
We were a tremendous critical success," Deford said. "But there are a lot of plays that are critical successes, a lot of books that are critical successes and don't sell. But at least, I think we can all be very proud of the product we put out under very difficult circumstances."