A toast to the best

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Apologies in advance for how personal this tribute will be but I don't know how else to do this. When I was 20 years old, I was scared, confused, entirely unsure about what I could possibly do with my life. All of my childhood dreams -- to play second base for the Cleveland Indians, to play wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns, to play point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers, to be Elvis Presley -- had been popped long before.

And the adult routes all seemed pretty well closed off to someone of my meager gifts. Doctor? No. Lawyer? No. Engineering? Please. Accounting classes had been a bust. Business principles eluded me. Couldn't draw. Couldn't sing. Had no ideas. My one summer in the knitting factory had been eye-opening in so many ways. I lacked stamina.

I had, by then, lucked into a part-time sportswriting gig for the local Charlotte Observer but I had no faith that I could actually make a living doing that. I was of the belief then that talent was what mattered, talent was what made the winners in life. And I had no talent. My educational road was littered with Cs in English and teachers who seemed to believe I was lucky to get those. Every day, I waited for someone at the paper to pull me aside and say, gently: "Uh, you will of course want to find another line of work."

And then -- well, I bought this book. I'm holding it right now. I pull it out of the bookcase every three or four months just to remind myself. There are chocolate stains on pages 70 and 71. This book changed my entire life. More than that: One paragraph in this book changed my entire life.

The day remains crystale clear. It was afternoon; my guess is it was Sunday. I was reading in bed at my parents house in the room that would have been a garage had I left home when I was supposed to leave. And I was reading a story about a boxer named Billy Conn. The story was called "The Boxer and the Blonde." I thought it was interesting. I had never heard of Billy Conn. And then I got to the paragraph.

To set it up: Conn was fighting Joe Louis on June 18, 1941. The war had begun but the United States was not in it. Joe DiMaggio was in the midst of a 56-game hitting streak. And to end the 12th round, Conn landed a left hand flush, rattling Joe Louis. Conn was leading the fight. He was three rounds away from the heavyweight championship.

And this is the paragraph I read:

"Louis was slumped in his corner. Jack Blackburn, his trainer, shook his head and rubbed him hard. 'Chappie,' he said, using his nickname for the champ, 'you're losing. You gotta knock him out.' Louis didn't have to be told. Everyone understood. Everyone in the Polo Grounds. Everyone listening through the magic of radio. Everyone. There was bedlam. It was wonderful. Men had been slugging it out for eons, and there had been 220 years of prizefighting, and there would yet be Marciano and the two Sugar Rays and Ali, but this was it. This was the best it had ever been and ever would be, the twelfth and thirteen rounds of Louis and Conn on a warm night in New York just before the world went to hell. The people were standing and cheering for Conn, but it was really for the sport and for the moment and for themselves that they cheered. They could be part of it, and every now and then, for an instant, that is it, and it can't get any better. This was such a time in the history of games."

I read that paragraph. Then I read it again. And then I read it again. And then I put the book down by my side, and I closed my eyes. I felt as if I had been struck by something like lightning. And with that one paragraph, I suddenly knew what I wanted to do, saw the mountain peak that I would climb toward for the rest of my life.

I just wanted to write LIKE THAT, even once.

That was Frank Deford.

Frank was the greatest sportswriter that ever was. It's a silly thing to ponder because the greatest sportswriters were so different, Red Smith was literary and Jim Murray was a Dorscht Belt comic and Dan Jenkins was so bawdy and hysterical and Bill Nack could take you into a person's heart (or a horse's heart) and Gary Smith's stories were magical and W.C. Heinz and Ralph Wiley and Mark Kram and both the Lardners and a thousand others including so many who write today. You can't choose one.

And yet Deford was the one, the best of the best, because no one could reach his heights, nobody could reach out from the page and grab you and pull you down into the words the way he could.

When he wrote about Bob Knight 35 years ago: "The real issue is the rabbits. And Knight knows that. In the Indiana locker room before a game earlier this season, Knight was telling his players to concentrate on the important things. He said, 'How many times I got to tell you? Don't fight the rabbits? Because, boys, if you fight the rabbits, the elephants are going to kill you.' But the coach doesn't listen to himself. He's always chasing after the incidental; he's still a prodigy in search of proportion."

What he wrote about the horrors of boxing in his classic "The Anglo and the Indian" What a shame it was that the two boys, the Anglo and the Indian, never knew each other except for two minutes and fifty-seven seconds one night in a boxing ring, pummeling each other's faces in the haze, for the roar of the crowd and something dark in all our souls."

What he wrote about the wonder of Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First:" "On the afternoon of March 3, 1959, right after the Dodgers went off to spring training, Bud Abbott turned on the television in L.A. to watch an old Abbott and Costell movie. Who's on First? was in the film. Near the end of the routine, the phone rang, and Abbott answered it. He was told that Lou Costello had died. 'Tell me,' Abbott would often say after that, 'why did I happen to be watching that picture at that time? Will you tell me why?'

"Probably because all along, surely, the rightfielder in the routine was God."

It seemed like everything Frank ever wrote was like that, every word in its perfect place, every phrase as lyrical as a Cole Porter song. I asked Frank about that once, about music in his writing, and he said that it was very different from music but perhaps he had a knack for pacing, a talent for making the words read faster and slower and then faster again. He was right, of course. Pacing was the purest of his many talents.

And endings. Nobody wrote more gripping endings.

I think often of this one about Jimmy Connors: "It is strange that as powerful as the love is that consumes the Connorses, Jimbo has always depended on hate in order to win. And all along that must have been the hard way. There is no telling how far a man could go who could learn to take love on the rise."

Frank died on Monday at the age of 78. A full remembrance of Frank Deford would note his countless classic stories -- Bill Russell, Al McGuire, "Bull" (Cyclone) Sullivan, Pete Dawkins -- the truckload of awards, his success as an author and writer for the screen, his accomplishments as a television correspondent and radio commentator, his 10 honorary degrees ... but, as mentioned, this is a personal tribute. Frank Deford was my friend. But, even more than that, he was my North Star, the writer I have never stopped trying to be even though I figured out long ago knew that I would never get there.

Heck, I knew even 30 years ago, when I was on my bed in my parents would-be garage that I would never get there. But those words about Billy Conn gave me purpose, and that's what my life needed. I told Frank Deford that story once. I knew, even while telling it, even while I was reciting the "Boxer and the Blonde" paragraph word for for word, that it was a silly thing to do, that Frank had heard similar stories again and again in his life, and that there's really nothing to SAY when someone says, "This is how you changed my life." But I wanted to tell him anyway. I thought he should know.

"I'm proud that the words meant something to you," Frank told me. It was just the right thing to say. But, of course it was.