Remembering Frank Deford, Sportswriting Legend

Frank Deford Pete Marovich/Getty Images
Frank Deford received a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in 2013

Sportswriting great Frank Deford passed away Sunday at age 78. In 2005, I interviewed Deford, who was the screenwriter of the ESPN film Four Minutes, which dramatized Sir Roger Bannister’s quest to break the four-minute mile barrier.

I recall Deford as charming, eloquent and witty — traits which made his writing for Sports Illustrated and his segments on NPR so endearing to his audience. I was especially thrilled when Deford laughed at a tongue-in-cheek question I posed to him. “I can tell the facetiousness dripping over the telephone here,” he told me. I love being facetious.

Here’s my story on Four Minutes, as it appeared in the October 2005 issue of Channel Guide Magazine:

Four Minutes To Fame

Sports Scribe Frank Deford And ESPN Run With Roger Bannister. By Ryan A. Berenz

It seems the most unlikely subject for a movie today, on perhaps the most unlikely of networks. On Oct. 6, ESPN2 boldly premieres Four Minutes, an original movie dramatizing the true story of Englishman Sir Roger Bannister’s 1954 quest to run the mile in under four minutes — widely considered a physically impossible feat at the time.

Four Minutes turns out to be a bit of an improbable feat in itself, according to sportswriting great Frank Deford, who penned the movie’s script. “Even when I was writing it for ESPN, I always thought at the end they wouldn’t take it because it’s so away from the usual ESPN mainstream,” Deford admits. “It’s not American. It takes place 50 years ago and the ESPN audience is very young. It’s a relatively minor sport. Nobody’s ever heard on ESPN of Roger Bannister. There’s no sex. And I think most people probably have no idea what the four-minute mile meant back then.”

Bannister’s four-minute mile, along with Sir Edmund Hillary’s scaling of Mount Everest, is one of those great achievements of the 20th century that often get overlooked in our age of sports superstars. Bannister was the antithesis of the highlight-hungry athletes of today. “Bannister was particularly unusual in that even when he was running, even when he was prepping for the four-minute mile and he was devoting himself to it, in his mind, his primary identity was a doctor,” Deford explains. “If there’s such a thing as a Renaissance man, in the middle of the 20th century it was Roger Bannister.”

And if any barriers exist today comparable to the mile and Everest, Deford hasn’t found them. “There’s nothing like those two standards, like climbing the tallest mountain in the world and running a four-minute mile,” he says. “Nothing like it that I can think of. And believe me, I’d like to have thought of something. I just don’t think there is anything.”

About Ryan Berenz 2128 Articles
Member of the Television Critics Association. Charter member of the Ancient and Mystic Society of No Homers. Squire of the Ancient & Benevolent Order of the Lynx, Lodge 49, Long Beach, Calif. Costco Wholesale Gold Star Member since 2011.