So he helped with the creation of modern Roller Derby but didn’t know it: Frank Deford


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Frank Deford passed away yesterday.

Frank has been a friend for longer than either of us want to think about. And he laughingly said “You will always be the Commissioner.”

I related elsewhere how we met in Oakland and he ended up writing the longest piece ever for a single issue of Sports Illustrated to date about the Roller Derby The March 1969 article was read by 10 million people, a different 10 million than the 15 million that watched our games every week on television across America and Canada. He created a whole new base of understanding about our strange game.

Had he been a fan of Roller Derby when he wrote it? No, he was fascinated with the concept of “barnstorming”, the one nighters we did across America for 4 months of the year; the people who were in it, behind it, who came to watch and why. And Roller Derby was a working class sport, without the high salaries and ticket prices that folks even then were complaining about. And service charges were not outrageous then, but still higher than the 99 cents that Brown Paper tickets charges on all tickets.

And after I had spent time cautioning the skaters about what they said to Frank (as he put it) “they opened their guts” and he got everything he wanted to write for the article and the book….and one prominent male skater made a pass at him, which he was kind enough not to mention to me until years later…..not a great tolerance by society for gay athletes at that time. And he seemed to have captured a pretty accurate image of me in that era.

Frank wasn’t a skater outside of occasional sojourns to a skating rink. He played basketball in high school and in college until his coach told him he wrote better about the game than playing it. And he developed as a writer and today writes about a lot more than sports, delivers an occasional piece for Sports Illustrated, has a weekly commentary on Wednesdays for NPR radio, and does occasional features on HBO Real Sports…..this time of year he and Carol are in Key West where he is working on his 19th book.

Out of the article came “Five Strides on the Banked Track”, the seminal book on Derby that is in such demand that it disappears from libraries and sells on Amazon for as much as $650. Little Brown did an initial small printing, and the book disappeared (including my copy).

So after all these years after the demise of the original Roller Derby, after Rollerjam came and went, modern Roller Derby is here. And Frank is thrilled. He has watched games on the internet and is amazed that a successful game can be played on a flat track and that, different from the original enterprise, it has become a movement, a therapy, for those engaged.

Shortly after Joan Weston’s tragic death from a debilitating disease, Frank was asked to write her obituary for the New York Times magazine, and he wrote such a beautiful tribute that the genesis for Rollerjam developed for the two producers in Tennessee. That the game ultimately failed was really a fault of the attraction they ultimately presented: a writer-created banked track story of good and evil with cages, helicopters, you name it. But the skaters were wonderful; a number are in Roller Derby, and three of the men were important parts of the World Cup Champion USA team.

http://i.cdn.turner.com/si/2010/writers/frank_deford/05/19/roller.derby.revival/Joan_Weston.jpg (Please click link to see Frank’s article on Joan Weston and the return of Modern Roller Derby)

It was just a few years after Rollerjam ended, with the memory of a skating game in people’s minds, that April and her crew brought in modern Roller Derby. I mentioned this connection to Frank and he was very pleased.

“If anything I wrote helped to results in the reincarnation of Roller Derby in the 21st century, then I am happy. I loved meeting and traveling with the Derby skaters of the earlier generation, and there seems to be such a bonding and almost a therapeutic connection in today’s game that most don’t realize.

And for even more of a connection, Timothy Travaglini, an MRDA skater and member, has been instrumental in having this classic book available to today’s Derbyites, followers, and all. He is with Open road media who has just issued on line a kindle (through amazon.com) and e-book version. Please click on the link at the top of the page.

And they asked the Commissioner to write a foreward.

2 comments on “So he helped with the creation of modern Roller Derby but didn’t know it: Frank Deford

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