Writer Frank Deford Takes His Tale of Love and Loss Onto Tv

updated 04/21/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/21/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Five-year-old Scarlet Deford is tugging on her father's hand as if it were a bell rope. "Tell him," she pleads, beaming a klieg-light smile up to her dad and then toward the visitor in their Westport, Conn. home.

"You tell him," says her father, longtime SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer Frank Deford.

"No, you," insists the girl bashfully.

"Scarlet has a boyfriend," says Deford finally. "His name is Andrew."

"Tell him," repeats Scarlet, not yet satisfied.

"They kiss," says Deford, prompting a convulsion of giggles from down near his knees.

Scarlet, a native Filipino, was adopted by Deford, 47, and his wife, Carol, 43, less than a year after the death of their natural daughter, Alexandra. Born with cystic fibrosis, Alex Deford had battled CF's assaults on her lungs and digestive system for eight years before finally succumbing in 1980. The story of her struggle—and Scarlet's subsequent adoption—were touchingly chronicled in Deford's 1982 book, Alex: The Life of a Child, and on April 23 a moving dramatization of the book will appear on ABC-TV.

To the family members who lived through Alex's ordeal, the prospect of seeing such a personal story played out on television at first stirred apprehensions. "I'm a very reserved person, very protective of my family and my feelings," says Carol. "It seemed that being so exposed would be really difficult." As for son Christian, now a 16-year-old high school junior, Carol says, "I don't know whether he has ever read the book. He has never discussed it, and I think it may just be very hard for him."

A promise of script approval from producer Leonard Goldberg finally tipped the family debate. One of the film's by-products, Deford now hopes, will be increased public support for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. He has been the organization's national chairman since 1984; last year the foundation channeled $18 million in contributions toward CF research and education. With the disease striking one of every 2,000 newborns, much of the money has gone to genetic scientists seeking to isolate the CF gene. A seemingly futile quest only a year ago, the search "has turned 180 degrees in the last six or seven months," Deford says. Finding the faulty gene, he adds, could help scientists identify its 10 million carriers in this country, improve treatment of the disease and perhaps one day even lead to a cure.

Surprisingly, Deford's preoccupation with medical matters has scarcely affected his work as a writer. He spends up to 80 days on the road each year gathering material for his SPORTS ILLUSTRATED stories, delivers a weekly sports commentary over National Public Radio and has recently completed a fourth novel, The Spy in the Deuce Court, due to appear in June. Last week he collected his third Sportswriter of the Year award from the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. Even a critic like Howard Co-sell finds nothing to fault. "In my lifetime he is one of the great journalists," says Cosell. "He's far more than just a sports journalist; he's a transcendental writer to sports."

Deford is also a writer whose office transcends mere clutter. The walls, bookshelves and desk of Deford's SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cubicle are covered with cheap collectibles accumulated during his travels. "This is a museum to tacky stuff," he proclaims, proudly pointing to a 1973 prom-queen trophy from Naples High School, a pair of fuzzy dice, a Red Auerbach cocktail napkin, a 1922 senior class picture from Bangor High School, a photograph of Graceland at Christmas and other junk. ("I have this fear," confides Carol, "that someday all those...little things...are going to come home.")

Home is where Deford does most of his work, understandably preferring a tidy office in the family's four-bedroom colonial dwelling to all the tacky memorabilia. An early riser, he prepares the family breakfast every morning, then adjourns to his ground-floor quarters and the old manual typewriter he has been using for years. "It's very, very good that I can write, because I don't know what else I would have done on this earth," he confesses. "My father had a green thumb; I can't grow anything. My son has an interest in cars; he might as well talk in Sanskrit to me. If we ever have a turkey, my wife carves that. In the summertime I cut the grass because that's the one other thing I can do."

Baltimore-born, Deford came to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED right after his 1962 graduation from Princeton. Three years later he married Carol Penner, then a New York fashion model. A wall jammed with photographs in the couple's family room includes several pictures from Carol's runway days—she is still often mistaken for actress Linda Evans—as well as photos of Frank at work. He is framed with Victor, the bear he once wrestled while researching a story, with a group of Miss America judges(he wrote a book about the pageant in 1971 and was a judge himself for three years) and with Little Irvy, the 20-ton frozen whale he once accompanied on a cross-country tour.

Despite occasional forays off sporting subjects, Deford has no intention of abandoning his beat. Still, there are plans for another novel once the Alex TV-movie is behind him. The film has been a family project in many ways, with Frank and Carol monitoring script changes and with Chris doing a walk-on, for which he earned $82.

All say they are pleased with the final result; all, that is, except Scarlet, whose character appears in a carry-on role as a newborn baby. While her parents had fretted over the exposure given the family, their adopted daughter had other concerns. When she saw the film, reports Deford, "the only thing that pissed her off was the fact that there wasn't more of Scarlet. I would say that's a very healthy attitude."

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