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The root beer and the starlight: A tragedy, a legacy and the lesson of Frank Deford

The legendary Sports Illustrated writer was also the editor of The National, where he passed on his love for his craft to a new generation, and a book author who faced his pain the only way he knew how.

It is the root beer that stays with me. It stays with me because I have become a father since I read about the root beer, and the starlight, and the little girl whose life was ending inside the house. It is about her, and the night, and the root beer. I will leave it to her father’s words to explain why and, if you cannot see the immortality bestowed on the little girl by the words of her father, her life rendered as timeless as the stars in deepest space, then I don’t know what to tell you.

And, as I walked, I poured out a bottle of root beer on the lawn all around the house. I don’t even remember Alex caring for root beer one way or the other, but, for some reason, she had asked me, that morning, to go out and get her some. How odd that felt, to go to the store. There were all these other people in the store, going on about their lives, buying things, standing in line, living a Saturday. It was so strange, what went on in my mind. I kept thinking there must be something wrong with everybody else in the store, because they weren’t buying root beer for a child of theirs, dying back at the house, a few blocks away.

So that’s why I had the root beer that night, walking around the house, pouring it out. Alex had only has a few sips before she died, and I’d bought her a whole quart bottle. Or a liter. Quart or liter. I don’t remember if there were liters yet, in January of 1980. But, anyway, there was a lot left and I couldn’t just put it back in the refrigerator, next to the milk and the orange juice. So, it was in the manner of some sort of consecration that I walked about, spreading what was left of the root beer upon the earth where Alex had played.

It was bitter cold, and still, the way most winter’s nights with clear skies are, and now, finished emptying the bottle, looking up one more time, I remembered one of my father’s favorite quotations, from Shakespeare. He had recited it to me when I was a boy. It was Juliet, talking of her love:

“When he shall die,

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night

And pay no worship to the garish sun.”

Much as I loved to hear my father say that, I could never really visualize the imagery until that night, when I could see Alex up there, cut out in all those stars. So that is the way the day ended when my child died. I said goodnight to the stars, put the root beer empty in the trash, and went back into the house where the three of us lived.

Years later, when I came to having to write about the night my father died, I thought about that immortal little girl, and her father with the root beer, and the deathless light of the cosmos that had kept him company on that strange, but utterly understandable, circuit around his yard. It was a constellation, vivid against the black night of the writing mind, that let me navigate my own father’s death onto the page.

SI Remembers: Past and present writers on the impact of Frank Deford

I first met Frank Deford when he hired me, in 1989, to write for The National, the great, doomed experiment that remains the best job I ever had. Our first meeting lasted approximately 11 seconds. The National was working out of temporary quarters in some nondescript office building in midtown Manhattan; the individual offices were designated with pieces of paper stuck to the doors with tape. (Later, we moved to the Tishman Building at 666 Fifth Avenue, the tower that currently is at the bottom of Jared Kushner’s problems with just about everybody. It’s that number, I tell you.) I was interviewing with Rob Fleder, who would become my editor. Frank stuck his head in the door and said,

“Hey, gotta run to a meeting. Glad you’re joining us. We’re going to have fun.” And then he was gone.

Of course, I’d known him for years, he and the rest of that crazy talented staff that legendary SI managing editor Andre Laguerre had loosed upon the world when he pretty much helped invent the modern magazine. A generation of sportswriters—hell, a generation of writers, period—grew out of what Laguerre wrought. We went to Norman, Okla., with Dan Jenkins. We went to the Final Four with Curry Kirkpatrick. And we went everywhere with Frank—to Pittsburgh with Billy Conn, hunting with Bob Knight, on the road with Irvy The Whale, and into the tangled mind of Jimmy Connors in one of the best profiles of any individual anyone ever has written. (My heart, however, forever belongs to two less-cited stories: first, his paean to Boston sports, "Who Are The Hub Men?", in the July 13, 1970 issue; and second, to his vivid profile of Al McGuire, "Welcome To His World," from Nov. 29, 1976. Of course, it was a Kirkpatrick story in 1971—"Curious Cat And His Curious Warriors," from Jan. 25, 1971—that made me choose Marquette as my college. ) After all that, it didn’t matter much that our first actual encounter was as short as it was.

SI VAULT: Little Irvy (08.11.1969), by Frank Deford

We talked at length over the 18 months it took The National to blow through $150 million of a Mexican billionaire’s dollars. The funny thing was that Frank and I quickly came to realize that we were from different parts of the jungle. He was as elegant as his prose, Princetonian to his core. He had walked into SI practically straight off the campus. I was a product of the alternative media and a tabloid sports section. I was louder than he was by training. I had the edge of polemic to what I wrote.  We were different, and that was good, too, because American journalism thrives on the diversity of its bastard children. We talked for an hour one day about how different our respective paths had been that led to 666. (I was writing a column at that point. Frank wanted me to write in a more “balanced” fashion, and “quieter.” Yeah, that was going to happen.)  He loved hearing about the renegade spirit of The Boston Phoenix. It wasn’t until the conversation was halfway through that I realized that, in some way, I was being interviewed by a master. His was an encompassing, devouring curiosity, so we had that in common, and that was by god enough for him, and for me.

'He wrote like he was shooting for something': Remembering SI legend Frank Deford

After The National augered in, I saw Frank every now and again—at a party they threw for me when I published the book on my father, at various writer’s conferences, but never at a ballpark. The last time I saw him, he was as elegant as ever, but noticeably frail at his edges. But there always was an air of royalty to him, always, in the way he spoke, and the way he carried himself, in the words he wrote, and even in the notes he would write if he particularly liked something you’d written. His name was always signed in purple. We are his heirs now, the sons and daughters to whom he has handed the duty of creating what immortality we can and bestowing it on the people and the events that we chronicle. It is a fearsome, loving commission, as old and endless as starlight in a cold winter’s sky, where the ones who have gone before wait now, whispering the stories for the rest of us to tell.

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