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Dan Jenkins Was More Than a Sportswriter. He Was a Sportswriterly State of Being.

The legendary author and Sports Illustrated writer died Thursday night at the age of 89

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Dan Jenkins died Thursday night at the age of 89. He wasn’t just a sportswriter. He was a sportswriterly state of being. When seated at a bar, Dan insisted on having three drinks in front of him: a scotch and water, a backup scotch and water, and a cup of coffee. He smoked in his author photos. A cigarette dangled from his fingers when he went on Johnny Carson to hawk one of his books.

Dan succeeded in making the sport of golf both interesting and weird. He helped turn college football into a national pastime. He pulverized athletes with a single line. “Greg Norman,” he once wrote, “always has looked like the guy you send out to kill James Bond, not Jack Nicklaus.” Dan Jenkins was the fucking man.

I got into Dan early, because we both grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. If Dan’s picture was hung in more places in Fort Worth, you’d have mistaken him for a dictator, or maybe a personal injury attorney. There was an 8-by-10 photo of him behind the cash register at Paris Coffee Shop. Another at Paschal High School, on the wall of distinguished alumni. They named the press box at TCU, his alma mater, after him.

In the ’90s, you could find two things on every one of my friends’ dad’s bookshelves. One was a fat, uncreased James Michener volume that was bought out of literary obligation. The other was a Jenkins comic novel—Semi-Tough, maybe, or Dead Solid Perfect—whose spine looked like it had been run over by a Ford F-150 due to excessive reading.

Dan Jenkins with his daughter, Sally, in 2009
AP Images

By then, Jenkins was living in Fort Worth again after conquering New York City and Kauai. Occasionally, I’d see him eating dinner at Luby’s cafeteria. He was instantly recognizable from the snow-white hair and the giant glasses.

As I turned from my fried okra to stare at him, my mom would give me a nudge. “Go introduce yourself,” she’d say. “You’ve read all his books. Your stated goal is to be 1/1,000th of the sportswriter he is.”

I’ve never been so adamant about saying no. What pimply kid walks up to the sportswriterly state of being and just says hi? Dan Jenkins was so cool that he scared me to death.

Dan was like a sportswriter who walks out of a movie from the 1940s, slaps a couple of big bills on the bar, and tells the bartender, “Don’t neglect me.” I’m not vamping here. That was his actual line.

Even by the standards of ’60s Sports Illustrated writers, Dan was a big drinker. But he worked when he drank. When one of his pals impressed him with a good line, Dan would sneak to the bathroom and write it down. Those lines wound up in his copy. He called them “overheards.” It was the original quote-tweeting, minus the quote.

Dan’s métier (a word he’d hate to use) was the comic game story. It hardly mattered whether it was Michigan State–Notre Dame in ’66 or the ’77 British Open. Dan would sit before a typewriter, stick a cigarette in his mouth, and pound out a story riddled with jokes.

“Even if it was a joke, I believed it,” he told me when I finally got up the nerve to talk to him. “I loved that Dorothy Parker line: ‘Wit has truth in it.’ I sort of knew that without her telling me.”

I asked Dan why he avoided writing features. “I don’t know how to say this,” he said, “but I didn’t want to spend that much time with anybody. I’m not Gary Smith. Gary Smith liked to dig deeper. Fuck that. I liked to take my first impression and roll.”

The two definitional writers of SI are Dan Jenkins and Frank Deford. They liked each other fine, but they couldn’t have been more different. Deford’s work was an argument for getting out of the press tent. Dan’s was an argument for staying in.

Deford put a literary cake frosting on sportswriting that made it seem like aspirational art. Dan was a nerd. He could cough up any Heisman or U.S. Open winner on command. He once complained to me that Grantland Rice’s memoir was filled with small errors of fact. The prospect horrified him.

As a novelist, Dan was equally horrified that magic realism was infecting the golf novel. “Every one of them involves some guy playing golf with his dad,” he moaned. “Then Bobby Jones walks out of a sand trap.” He didn’t do sentiment—not in public, anyway.

Dan’s novels were a miracle of regionalism. Just about every one of his characters lived in or was from Fort Worth, and Fort Worth’s native language became a national, comic one. He never showed a trace of anxiety about being from Out There. He once said of one of his books, “I don’t know why what’s in here is of less importance than John Updike writing about a Toyota dealer.”

Dan could be like a difficult uncle. I didn’t love his fire-breathing conservative politics. I didn’t love the transformation that came over his novels. In Semi-Tough, he created two benighted Texas jocks and laid their prejudices bare. He was declaring himself a member of the Mark Twain coaching tree. In later books, Dan seemed to be trying to prove he could still tell a racist joke. He insisted that his memoir—the last truly immaculate piece of writing he delivered—include a tirade against political correctness. When his editor said people might be offended, Dan said, “Fuck people.”

There are certain writers whose style you pilfer. Certain writers whose moral fiber you try to inherit. For me, Dan represented a third category: a writer whose aura you replicate—or, failing that, try to stand in for a while.

A few years ago, I got an assignment to profile Dan, a pretty naked excuse to pelt him with questions I was once too terrified to ask. Dan was 84 years old by then. He was gaunt and hard of hearing, and he’d ditched alcohol and cigarettes for health reasons.

Dan was still turning out books. “How long am I going to keep doing this?” he said over lunch. “Till they carry me out. What would I do? I don’t paint.” I put Dan through the profile paces that day. I asked him to show me the old Fort Worth Press office, the putting green where he first got the nerve to talk to golfer Ben Hogan, and the train station where he watched Hogan disembark after his car wreck.

After a few hours, the sportswriterly state of being was slumped in the passenger seat. Dan was bushed. Summoning a regal dignity, he said, “Take me home, Bryan.” How can I take you home, Dan? I thought. You own this damn city and you always will.