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Writer shares anecdotes on sports, life

November 11, 2003|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

bonnieb@herald-mail.com

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Sportswriter Frank Deford recalled the magazine story that generated the most mail in his career, all of it favorable.

"It was about Bull Cyclone Sullivan, a man so macho he had two nicknames," Deford told the audience at Mercersburg Academy. "He was a coach in a little junior college in the backwaters of Mississippi. And most of the mail said, 'I had a coach like that. My coach taught me those values.'"

Involved with sports all his life, Deford, an author, screenwriter and longtime writer for Sports Illustrated, pointed out what he said are some inconsistencies in the American high school and collegiate sports system.

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"Only in the U.S. do we mix education and sports," he said. "There are no soccer games between the Sorbonne and Oxford."

"It's a shame that our concentration is on spectator sports," he said.

"We showcase an elite few athletes, not the whole student body. Physical education classes are being cut back drastically in schools. Kids are fatter, less active, have cardiovascular disease and diabetes. You are the first generation in American history that it appears will live shorter lives than the preceding generation," he told the audience made up mostly of students of the academy, a prep school in southern Franklin County.

Deford presented his lecture Monday in Boone Hall as part of the Class of '48 Lecture Series. Provided by an anonymous donor from the class of 1948, the series is intended to bring speakers of national renown to the school's community.

Deford is the author of 14 books, various screenplays and numerous magazine articles. He has written for Sports Illustrated for many years, is a commentator on National Public Radio and is a regular correspondent on the HBO show "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel."

The award-winning journalist decried the view that sports are better and different from other extracurricular activities.

"We should reward excellence," he said. "Recruit athletes, but don't give them scholarship assistance unless you are giving it to the cellist, dancer, writer and sculptor."

Deford said red flags to watch out for in high school and college sports include:

  • "When you hear about 'revenue' sports, you're on a slippery slope. Have you ever heard of a 'revenue' department?"

  • The use of the term "program" and the disuse of the term "varsity." "Programs sound like something the government funded. Stay away from them," he said.

  • "Conferences with macho-sounding names. When Mercersburg Academy is in The Big Middle-Atlantic Prep League, I'll start worrying."

  • "Beware of transfer students wearing uniforms."

  • "Beware of coaches who become more important than their teams."


The tall, graying Deford related an anecdote from his high school basketball days. In a big, close game, Deford's teammate, a 6-foot-7-inch center, had four fouls on him when the whistle blew again. Deford knew that he then would have to play center.

"I put on an act, I raised my hand and the ref called the foul on me. The center stayed in, and we won the game."

"I cheated," he continued. "Why did I do it so easily and spontaneously when I wouldn't do it in other areas of my life? I had been inculcated. If this corrupted me, it could tempt others. It made me a better sports journalist. It didn't make me cynical."

Deford summarized his overview of high school and college sports with a story about Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra.

The baseball greats were traveling by car to New Jersey when Rizzuto said, "I think we're lost." Berra reportedly replied. "Yes, but we're making really good time."

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