You didn’t have to be a sports insider to love the work of sportswriter Frank Deford. You only had to appreciate drama and the human heart and expert storytelling. I’ve been thinking about him with a mix of sadness and profound gratitude since he died on May 28. Back when I was in college (ahem, decades ago) I started listening to his penetrating essays for NPR on the deeper meaning of athletics; moving meditations not only on great achievement but on great struggles. Such compassion came through in his voice and his words.
I saw another side of his extraordinary generosity when he gave me two of the greatest gifts an author can receive: early support, and a blurb.
Since it was clear that Mr. Deford had an eye for elegance of motion and for the inspiring grace that humans can achieve, I had hoped he might enjoy my book, “The Art of Grace,” especially given my focus on athletes. I wrote to him to ask if he would take a look at the manuscript.
Joy of joys, he quickly agreed, making my heart leap, and a short while after receiving the manuscript he followed up with my editor at W.W. Norton to say that he was “thoroughly taken” with it.
“It’s not the sort of work that I’m usually sent,” he wrote in an email, “and I’m delighted to have had the chance to read it.” And he included the following endorsement:
“So that’s it. It takes only a short while in reading ‘The Art of Grace’ to realize that Sarah Kaufman has nailed it, that she has detected precisely what it is that has changed us so for the worse. We are suffering what she calls, simply, a “grace gap” –– and it is not just that Cary Grant, her hero, has gone, with few enough Roger Federers left to remind us of that easy elegance. Rather, grace in all its manifestations has given way to coarseness and impatience, and, for all our vaunted technology, she shows us to be a more diminished species. Ms. Kaufman’s book is itself most graceful, ever knowing.
Mr. Deford also suggested that he be identified on the book jacket not only as a sportswriter but as the author of “Alex: The Life of a Child,” the memoir he wrote in 1983 about his daughter Alexandra, who struggled with cystic fibrosis and died at age 8. Of the many books he’d written, he explained, this was the one that dealt with grace. The book is almost unbearably beautiful: the composure of a wise innocent, the helplessness of love, and the grace that endures. It’s no wonder he was so generous with others. I’ll always feel fortunate and so very grateful to have briefly crossed his path, and to have felt the lasting grace of his great heart.
For a good account of Mr. Deford’s life and a passage from “Alex: The Life of a Child,” read The Washington Post’s obituary.
For more about Alex and her father, read this Washington Post feature from 1986.