IOWA CITY — When Frank Deford was here on a Saturday morning last month, 70,000 fans were filling Kinnick Stadium to watch Iowa’s football team play Northern Iowa.
“I was at the Cedar Rapids airport and people were saying to me ‘You’re here for the game, huh?’ ‘Game? What game?’ ”
Deford was here for a far better story than a football matchup. The renowned author/sportswriter/broadcaster came here to record interviews for a segment on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” that premieres tonight at 9. It will re-air several times in the next month.
(For a preview video of the segment, click here.)
Thanks to the deft guidance of Deford and producer Lisa Bennett, HBO will present the story of West High School volleyball and Caroline Found, the West student who died on Aug. 11, 2011 after she lost control of the moped she was driving.
Found was the captain and setter of West’s 2010 state-championship volleyball team. She was, as Deford describes her, “the glue that knit the team together.”
But tragedy strikes American lives and American high schools daily. Deford quickly determined this story had something more, things that will resonate with viewers everywhere.
“A sad story, a real tragedy,” he said, “but at the end there was an uplift to it.
“That’s what separated it from just the usual tragic story. That, and the fact that she obviously was such a terrific kid.”
Deford learned about Found from West volleyball coach Kathy Bresnahan. She sent him a letter describing Found, the grief her school and community felt because of Found’s death, and the resilience and passion her 2011 team displayed in repeating as state-champions without its best player.
“He was the only person I was going to contact,” Bresnahan said. “He writes such humanistic stories. I’ve always been awed by his writing.
“I thought what our kids did, and how special Caroline was, was a story that should be told.”
Bresnahan told Deford how charismatic and big-hearted the girl was, how the team had a slow and difficult start of the season in her absence, and how it battled its way back to a repeat state-championship with a Hollywood-type of dramatic comeback against Iowa City High in the title match.
Deford quickly got in touch with Bresnahan. He said he knew right away that it was a story worthy of a large platform.
“I still do a little work for Sports Illustrated,” he said. “I thought for a minute that maybe it was a story I should write. But for whatever reason, I thought it would play out better as a TV story.”
Deford described it thusly: “A wonderful high school junior going into her senior year. A terrific, though certainly not an All-American volleyball player, but a very, very good high school player. An all-around kid from a wonderful All-American family. One night she loses control of the moped she’s driving and smacks into a tree.”
He sighed, then said “She dies instantly. ... If she’d gone one foot to either side ... It was not a redwood. It was this tiny little tree. It was every bad piece of luck in the world that hit her.
“What makes it worse is she was going to the hospital where her mother (Ellyn Found) was dying of (pancreatic) cancer, and would in fact die in another couple of weeks.
“But the story does not end there, because the team rallies. The team had lost some seniors. They weren’t supposed to be good even despite the fact Caroline was back as the setter.”
“Not that it mattered,” Bresnahan tells Deford in the segment, “but we were going to be horrible.”
They eventually became just the opposite.
“I think by (the state-championship match) this was sort of a team touched by some sort of stardust,” Deford said. “I think they came to believe that there was a mysticism associated with it all. I think in the beginning it was entirely different. They were having a hard time even practicing because the shadow of Caroline’s death hung over them so much.
“It’s also compelling how much the school and everybody got behind them, because you don’t usually find that with a girls’ volleyball team. Football, boys’ basketball, yes. But girls’ volleyball?
“In that sense, it’s a 21st Century story.”
I got to watch an advance copy of tonight’s show. It is understandably sad and emotional, but it isn’t morose. Caroline Found was a spirited young woman, and her spirit isn’t muted here. The piece feels genuine, not manufactured to fit neatly into a television program.
“I’m a little bit nervous about seeing how we’re portrayed,” said Bresnahan, who is featured prominently in the segment and doesn't hide her emotions in it.
“I think there’s been a spike in HBO purchases in the last week or so here. I think a lot of the kids will watch it in groups. Some people absolutely don’t want to watch with anyone else. There’s no way I could.”
Deford lost his 8-year-old daughter, Alexandra, to cystic fibrosis in 1980. He wrote a book about the girl.
“The reason that I wanted to write the story of her life was to celebrate it and let people know who she was.
On this story, he said “We are intruding on grief, and that’s never fair or fun. But it does give an opportunity to the world, if you will, to see what Caroline was like. So that, I suppose, is the trade-off.”