FOJ on HBO
Headline: The Murphy family remembers Frank Deford, who helped put FOJ on the map
By Michael J. Lewis
In the spring of 2009, Denis Murphy got a phone call that would change his life, as well as the lives of thousands of others: HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” wanted to do a story on the then-fledgling Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, and they were sending Frank Deford to the Murphy home in upstate New York to report it.
This is kind of like being told Barbra Streisand is coming to teach your kid to sing, or Wolfgang Puck is making dinner for you and your wife.
Frank Deford was then, and always will be, one of the greatest journalists of all time, and having him come do a story on you was an incredible mark of importance.
“I remember the first thing we did was take a walk around the house, and just talk about life and our kids,” Denis Murphy recalled. “He was someone who instantly made you feel like you were talking to a friend, not a legend like he was. You felt comfortable with him right away.”
Deford died Sunday at age 78, but not before leaving an enormous legacy, of beautiful words written and spoken. Among the many lasting monuments he leaves behind are helping, with two nationally televised pieces, to bring awareness of the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation to millions of television viewers.
Before the first HBO piece aired in 2009 (a follow-up piece aired four years later), there were 125 children adopted by FOJ’s teams. Within four years, that number grew to 600. The HBO pieces aired all over the world and into millions of homes, and brought attention to the FOJ cause like nothing else has, before or since.
So many children got to experience the love and affection of high school and college teams during their battle with cancer, in large part to the HBO shows on FOJ.
“We owe him a lot and thank him a lot, and I hope he was proud to see how we grew,” Jaclyn Murphy said. “He was a really great man.”
Denis Murphy recalled that while he’d done some press for FOJ prior to talking to Deford, this was obviously going to be a bigger deal. Denis said he was initially worried that Deford speaking to Jaclyn (then 14) might bring up painful memories for her, but that when he told the family about his own daughter, Alex, tragically dying of cystic fibrosis at age 8, everyone in the Murphy family knew Deford understood what they were going through.
“He had empathy to another degree, and his kindness toward her showed me a lot,” Denis said. “We were all very nervous, because we knew this was a big deal, but he was so soft-spoken and kind that we all relaxed after a little bit.”
Denis remembered that Frank calmly explained to Jaclyn how the interview would go, and told her every step beforehand: The camera people are going to be over there, you’re going to get makeup done from that person over there, the lights will be over here, etc.
“I think Jaclyn came off much more mature than a typical 14-year-old in the piece, and part of that was Frank helping her,” Denis said.
Jaclyn said she remembers being “really calm “when talking to Deford, because he “didn’t treat me like a little kid.”
“I had done some interviews before but a lot of times the interviewers would treat me like a little girl and talk to me like a little girl,” Jaclyn said. “But because his daughter had been sick, he really understood what I had gone through. He got choked up a few times talking about her, and I could see how much he cared about telling our story.
“I knew I could trust him,” Jaclyn said, “and that he would let me tell my story.”
The original HBO piece first aired on July 21, 2009, and Denis remembers vividly what the next day was like.
“I was hit with a tsunami,” he laughed. “I got thousands and thousands of emails, people from all over the world, people from military bases, everywhere. So many people wanted to get involved.”
HBO and Deford came back four years later to do an “update,” and again he impressed the Murphys with his grace and dignity. That story aired on Oct. 22, 2013.
“He was super excited to have seen how much FOJ had grown and how well Jaclyn was doing, health-wise,” Denis said.
“It was like greeting an old friend,” Jaclyn remembered. “He was so warm and friendly toward us, definitely.”
Frank Deford has, in the past few days since his death, been the subject of many tributes and received many accolades.
But what he did for Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, and thousands of families who learned about us, stands as high as anything else he ever did.