Frank Deford, among the most venerable and versatile voices in sports journalism for the past half-century, died Sunday at age 78.

The news left a nation of sportswriters an unenviable task: writing about a writer better at writing than the rest of us.

Many tributes seemed to accept that reality and honored Deford simply by linking to some of the many memorable stories he wrote over the decades.

But while he was a six-time Sportswriter of the Year best known for writing and reporting, he also made a mark on television, primarily with HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," on radio, primarily in 37 years on NPR, and even as an executive.

Gumbel said Deford joked with him a week ago about finally being released from the hospital. "In addition to being an immense talent, he was a consummate gentleman, a dear friend, and a beloved, original member of our 'Real Sports' family," Gumbel said. "Frank was a giant in the world of sports. His loss is immeasurable."

In 1990 and '91, Deford was editor-in-chief of the National, an ambitious attempt at a national sports daily.

Deford also was national chairman in the 1980s of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a disease that killed his daughter, Alexandra, at age 8 in 1980, and inspired him to write a book about her that became a television movie.

Deford wrote books, both fiction and nonfiction, but most sports fans will remember him best for his 50 years at Sports Illustrated, where, as his SI colleague Tim Layden put it on Twitter: "Frank Deford was longform before Longform. In many ways, he invented the genre and let future generations play with it."

Never was that more evident than in a 1984 feature on a Mississippi junior college football coach headlined, "The Toughest Coach There Ever Was," a guy so tough he required two nicknames: Bob "Bull" (Cyclone) Sullivan.

Or his 1999 profile of Bill Russell. Or one on Bobby Knight in 1981. Or Jimmy Connors in 1978.

Sports Illustrated used to call them "bonus pieces," and Deford took to them from the start, enabled by editors who could see what they had in him.

Deford recalled in a 2010 essay about his early years at SI a conversation he had with managing editor Andre Laguerre:

"The time he gave me advice was when I wondered whether writing about sports was really substantial. Laguerre simply said, 'Frankie, it doesn't matter what you write about. All that matters is how well you write.' I suppose that has helped sustain me all these years."

Deford authored the last of his 1,656 commentaries for NPR earlier this month. He closed with this:

"Thank you for listening. Thank you for abiding me. And now, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, I bid you goodbye, and take my leave."

Deford grew up in Baltimore, graduated from Princeton and lived in Key West, Fla., at the time of his death. President Barack Obama awarded him the National Humanities Medal in 2013.

Deford is survived by his wife, the former model Carol Penner; two children; and two grandchildren.