Frank Deford mined one of his human stories here

I remember reading the piece before ever taking note of who wrote it, drawn in by the subject, the setting (southeastern Connecticut), and the accompanying artwork. It begins with a description of Sept. 27, 1980, “a beautiful clear day … kissed by the first crispness of the early autumn.” A football Saturday.

There are only so many days like that. And only so many writers like Frank Deford.

When Deford, whose prose long graced Sports Illustrated’s pages, died at 78 last month, I returned again to the time he applied his deft touch to the region. His “Kenny, Dying Young” appeared in the magazine’s March 9, 1981 edition. On the cover, Magic Johnson’s heading upcourt; inside, Deford uses words to paint Kenny Wright, a former Ledyard High School athlete paralyzed from the waist down in a freakish accident.

In tribute to Deford, Sports Illustrated posted a sampling of the writer’s best-remembered pieces — profiles of the likes of Billy Conn (“The Boxer and the Blonde”) Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight (“The Rabbit Hunter”) and tennis great Jimmy Connors (“Raised By Women to Conquer Men”). Kenny Wright’s story could easily be among them.

It broke in The Day soon after state police found Wright that autumn day, the victim of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, slumped in his wheelchair in woods off Route 214. After an investigation, the two friends who helped him pick up the shotgun, helped him trim eight inches off its barrel and left him with it in a secluded spot were arraigned on second-degree manslaughter charges. Under the law, it was an “assisted suicide.” Those who knew Kenny Wright "for the fine and fearless high school football player he had been," as Deford wrote, considered it something else. Neither Wright’s mother nor his father, who had been divorced before the incident, wanted the friends charged. C. Robert Satti, then the New London County state’s attorney, felt obligated to prosecute.

About six weeks after publication of Deford’s piece, the two friends entered Alford guilty pleas, maintaining their innocence but conceding the state had enough evidence to convict them. Judge Seymour Hendel granted them suspended sentences and probation.

In its obituary of Deford, The New York Times said he “mined the sports world for human stories.”

In southeastern Connecticut, he discovered “the road signs have been dimpled by sharpshooters and there is a Grange Hall. Yet the sense of the sea is great, even in the hollows.” He referenced the Coast Guard Academy; the submarine base; Pfizer, where Wright worked; the Brookside Inn in Preston, where Wright liked to hang out; and the Ledyard football program that Wright's coach, Bill Mignault, built.

“The college boys from Harvard and Yale race their shells on the Thames, just south of Ledyard, every June,” Deford wrote.

If only because of its title, “Kenny, Dying Young” invokes another elegy, poet A.E. Housman’s famous “To an Athlete Dying Young.” That’s another kind of writing, an ode haunting and lyrical in a way prose isn’t quite. Which is not to say Deford was less than a poet.

He could sure tell a story.

Brian Hallenbeck covers gaming and tourism for The Day.


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