Deford's wife confirmed to the Washington Post that he died on Sunday in Key West, Fla.
Deford first began writing for Sports Illustrated in 1962 not long after he was graduated from Princeton University and for the last three decades was a reliable presence on National Public Radio. Deford eventually returned to Sports Illustrated, where he most recently held the title of senior editor emeritus.
Deford retired from NPR earlier in May, after 32 years with "Morning Edition".
Deford was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2013.
Obama said Deford transformed "how we think about sports".
"He could watch the grittiest game and zoom in on the moment that made it important", said Jim Litke, a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.
The author of 18 books, nine of which were novels, Deford was also a Peabody, CableACE and Emmy Award victor; the latter for his work as a writer during the Seoul Olympics. "Nobody was better at connecting sports to the culture at large".
"I'm stunned by Frank's passing". The acclaimed journalist has several television credits including his time as a correspondent for "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" on HBO between 1995 and 2015. He delivered 119 segments for the show and was a feature reporter at Wimbledon in the 1990s.
"In addition to being an enormous talent, he was a consummate gentleman, a dear friend, and a beloved, original member of our "Real Sports" family", Gumbel said. "The world of sports commentaries will never be the same". Deford also hosted HBO documentaries. "His loss is immeasurable".
Deford is survived by his wife Carol and two adult children, Christian and Scarlet.