Mississippi tale showed Frank Deford at his best

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Frank Deford

Frank Deford, a splendid writer who happened to write mostly about sports, died Sunday at the age of 78.

Deford, the New York Times obituary read, “mined the sports world for human stories and told them with literary grace over six decades in Sports Illustrated, a shelf of books and many years of radio and television commentary.”

That’s a perfect description of a professional life well-lived.

Deford’s sentences and paragraphs almost always were perfect, as well. He wrote of the human condition of humans who happened to be coaches and athletes.

Once, he wrote of an obscure, long dead Mississippi football coach, a man named Bob “Bull” Sullivan. At least Bull Sullivan was obscure until Deford wrote of him. Sullivan then became larger than life, as well he should have been.

I had a hand in that one and Deford always made sure people knew it.

Deford was working on a story on Bear Bryant in 1984 when he boarded a plane in Birmingham. Another passenger had left behind the Saturday Clarion-Ledger, which happened to include a story I had written about Sullivan, one of the longest I wrote in my 33 years at that newspaper. The story detailed the bizarre, old school coaching methods of a man who was far ahead of his time when it came to spreading the field and throwing the football.

Deford showed the story to his magazine editors and proposed that he expand the story. Months later, after much research, Deford wrote “The Toughest Coach There Ever Was.” It was then – and still is – the longest cover story in the magazine’s history.

It just might have been the best.

He brought Sullivan back to life and introduced him to millions upon millions who never would have known of him. It was a masterpiece. Google it. Read it. You’ll see.

Deford and I stayed in touch through the years. He included his Sullivan story in an anthology of his magazine stories – titled “The World’s Tallest Midget” – and told of how he first learned of Bull Sullivan.

He wrote of it again in 2010 for Sports Illustrated: “I boarded a plane in Birmingham bound for Atlanta. The plane had previously stopped in Jackson, Miss. On the seat next to mine someone had left that morning’s edition of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. Idly, I picked it up. There was a long story on the sports page — exactly, I’m afraid, the kind of feature that has since disappeared from sports pages.

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

“I read the piece. It was by a fine writer named Rick Cleveland, about a football coach named Bob (Bull) Sullivan. Bull — or Cyclone, as he was also known — had coached only at a little junior college, but he had become something of a legend in the oral sports history of Mississippi. He had been dead for several years, and this was the only article of any substance that had ever been written about him.

“’The Toughest Coach There Ever Was’ was the expanded version of Cleveland’s story of Bull Sullivan that I wrote for SI. Bull was as fascinating a figure as I ever heard tell of. The article made him famous. I went to Jackson a year later when, because of that piece, Bull was put in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Today I still get the cover of the magazine mailed to me to autograph. It struck a chord. Bull was the archetype of the coach for whom men of a certain age had once played. In a way he was a purer Bear Bryant, because he had never been anything but a coach, never been sidetracked by fame and glory. Bull’s widow believed that I was some kind of divine messenger who had appeared to give her husband the acclaim he’d never had in life. I agree with her premise, but I think that the divine messenger was that unknown passenger who left the copy of The Clarion-Ledger on the seat next to mine. I just dug into a story that had been dropped into my lap.”

A few years ago, Robert Khayat brought Deford to Ole Miss to speak and feted him with a dinner. It was my honor to introduce Deford that night and he entertained everyone with his tales and stories about he came upon his tales.

He talked that night about writing about people, not x’s and o’s. He talked about telling stories about people, who happened to be athletes and coaches. Nobody, meaning nobody, did that better than Frank Deford.