Still Semi-Tough: Jenkins takes the world on a journey through Fort Worth

Dave Montgomery Austin Correspondent

When Dan Jenkins was growing up on Fort Worth’s South Side, an aunt gave him an old typewriter. He taught himself to type by copying stories out of the local newspaper. It wasn’t long before he was retooling those stories in an effort to improve them. Those were early footsteps in a decades-long journey that would ultimately see Jenkins become one of America’s best known sports writers, sports novelists and novelists. Along the way, he applied a timeless literary mantra: Write what you know. Among other things, Jenkins knows golf. He knows football. And he knows Fort Worth.

As his daughter, Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, once wrote in a forward to one of his novels, her father’s “love for and preoccupation with his birthplace exceeds even that of Faulkner’s with his Mississippi or Shakespeare’s with his England.” Starting with his best-selling first novel, Semi-Tough, Jenkins has presented millions of readers with imagery richly drawn from his hometown and a parade of composite characters with names such as Billy Clyde Puckett, Shake Tiller and Jim Tom Pinch. Now, in his latest work, Jenkins has cast himself as the lead protagonist. In the autobiographical Dan Jenkins: His Ownself, the 84-year-old sports journalist retraces a six-decade career that took him from two now-defunct Texas newspapers – the Fort Worth Press and The Dallas Times Herald – to Sports Illustrated in New York and on to literary celebrity as a prolific novelist who saw three of his books transformed into movies. Across 266 pages in what he calls “a semi-memoir,” he tells of his friendship with legendary Fort Worth golfer Ben Hogan and replays vignettes of other sports greats such as Texas Christian University’s back-to-back quarterbacks Slingin’ Sammy Baugh and Davey O’Brien, Southern Methodist University’s Doak Walker and the University of Texas’ Bobby Layne. Jenkins, who proclaims himself “semi-cynical,” also sounds off on political correctness, tuneless modern music, “editors with tin ears,” and funny-colored health drinks that “could pass for A-Rod’s specimen.” There is a pervasive suggestion that he longs for an earlier era of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, good manners and stiff backbones.

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At his home in Fort Worth’s River Crest neighborhood – and later over lunch at Colonial Country Club – the white-haired octogenarian readily displays plenty of his trademark prickly humor and shows no interest in retiring. He has another book coming out next year – a collection of humorous golf vignettes – and covers all the major tournaments for Golf Digest. He is also the official historian for national college football. “A lot of it’s my temperament,” he said in explaining his nonstop work ethic. “I’d rather be doing something than not doing something.” Jenkins works out of a home office filled with awards, Hall of Fame citations and photographs of old friends and sports figures, many of whom happen to be both. There’s even a Dan Jenkins bobble-head. Other hallmarks from his career, including cover jackets of his novels and a gray typewriter spattered with residue from Wite-Out correction fluid, are on display in a window exhibit at the Colonial, not far from the Ben Hogan room that pays tribute to the late Fort Worth golfer. In 2013, Jenkins won the highest honor in sports writing, the Red Smith Award, named after the late New York Times sports writer who has served as one of Jenkins’ leading role models. Jenkins also received the PEN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing and, in 2012, was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, becoming one of only three writers to receive the honor. Jenkins says it took a year and a half to write His Ownself, which a mostly favorable New York Times review described as a “casual and sly sportswriter’s memoir” that displays the author’s ability to capture a personality “in a few comic strokes.” “I resisted it forever,” said Jenkins, explaining that he originally didn’t want to inject himself into a book. “Publishers kept asking me to do it. I couldn’t think of an idea for another novel, so I said OK.”

— Early chapters detail Jenkins’ youth and teenage years in the Depression-era thirties and wartime forties. His parents divorced and he was raised by his grandparents, but Jenkins stayed on good terms with his mother and father. He recalls a happy childhood in what he called the family compound. “A baby Lab couldn’t have had it better,” he writes. He went to R.L. Paschal High School and TCU and became an avid golfer in his teens, a pursuit that would help forge his friendship with Hogan. He was 18 when he landed his first newspaper job on the Fort Worth Press, the feisty and now-extinct rival of the larger Fort Worth Star-Telegram. No one knew it at the time but the seedy, smoke-filled newsroom at Fifth and Jones streets was the launching pad for a cadre of distinguished Texas writers that included Jenkins, Gary Cartwright, Bud Shrake (who died in 2009) and Blackie Sherrod, who was then sports editor of the Press. Their collective body of work over the years has included at least 54 books and countless awards. Jenkins was still in Paschal when Press staffer Julian Read spotted his work in the high school newspaper and insisted that Sherrod give him a job. “As I reflect back on it,” recalled Read, who went on to become a prominent public relations executive, “we didn’t realize what we had when I was there. We had enough talent to put out The New York Times.” At the center of that ‘50s-era talent pool was Sherrod, whose later columns and sports coverage in the Dallas Times Herald and Dallas Morning News made him one of the most celebrated sports writers in the country. An East Coast writer once described Sherrod’s craftsmanship this way: “John Kennedy once said Winston Churchill marshaled the English language and sent it into battle. Blackie invited the English language up on the porch, gave it some four-alarm chili and a Dr Pepper, and sent it out to make the sports world laugh.” After Sherrod left the Press for the Times Herald, he recruited Jenkins to join his team on the other side of the Metroplex. They have remained close friends. “Blackie was my guru and godfather, and when he wasn’t leading by example, he was pointing me toward the masters of our craft to study and learn from,” Jenkins writes in his book. Sherrod, who is now 94 and lives in North Dallas, has lost his hearing and no longer gives interviews, said his wife, Joyce. But she speaks in his behalf about her husband’s continuing devotion to Jenkins and others from those days on the Press. “They were just kids when they started with him, but Blackie has always had the greatest respect for these guys,” she said by phone. “He’s as proud of Dan as if he would have been a son.”

— Jenkins began his love affair with golf as a boy when he built a three-par course on the side lawn of his grandparents’ house, with soup cans for the holes and flagsticks made from limbs with handkerchiefs tied to them. He honed his skills at courses around town, and when he was assigned to cover golf for the Press, his prowess with a club became his entree to Ben Hogan. Jenkins said he spotted Hogan alone on the Colonial course and worked up the nerve to introduce himself. He was surprised – and elated – when Hogan told him he recognized his byline. Jenkins went on to cover most of Hogan’s major tournament championships and played “30 or 40” rounds with the golfing great, once beating Hogan to win $6. He was one of the few writers, if not the only one, who became friends with the sometimes aloof golfer. Hogan sent Jenkins thank-you notes for his coverage and penned a foreword in Jenkins’ first book, about the country’s 18 best holes of golf. “If it hadn’t been for Ben Hogan, I’d still be with the Fort Worth Press. He got me out of the box, covering majors and stuff,” Jenkins said over scrambled eggs and bacon at the Colonial, a meal similar to one of Hogan’s favorite menu items. “He was nice to me because I understood the game. He knew I understood what he was about, how much hard work it took.” — In 1963, Jenkins left the Times Herald and headed for Manhattan to become a staff writer for Sports Illustrated, where he spent 24 years and wrote more than 500 stories about golf, college and professional football and other sports. Semi-Tough, his breakthrough novel about professional football, hit the shelves in 1972, producing critical acclaim, runaway sales and a hefty financial boost for its author. More money followed when Semi-Tough became a movie starring Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson. Over the years, Jenkins has written nearly two dozen books, including 11 novels that tapped into his memories and experiences from Fort Worth. Billy Clyde Puckett and Shake Tiller – the irreverent central characters in Semi-Tough and its sequel, Life Its Ownself – are former TCU stars playing in the pros. Fast Copy, set in 1930s Texas, is filled with Fort Worth landmarks such as sand-paper colored grain elevators, the T&P Railroad Station and the minor league LaGrave Field. “The fact is that Dan not only loves his hometown but he’s proud of it,” said Jeff Guinn, another Fort Worth author who has written best-selling nonfiction books about Charles Manson and Bonnie and Clyde. “Of all the great artists who have come out of Fort Worth – and by artists I mean writers, musicians, composers – I think there are two of them, and only two, who have gone out of their way to say this is where I’m from, this is the place I love. One was Dan Jenkins and the other was Van Cliburn.” Jenkins says he realized how much he was tied to Fort Worth when he and his family were living in New York. “When I was at SI 25 years ago,” he said, “everybody there came from somewhere else. They weren’t anchored. I was anchored to Fort Worth for the first 30 years of my life. I grew up here, I went to grade school, junior high, high school, college, and I had nothing but fun, either playing sports or being with friends, or sitting around drinking, dating or whatever you did. “So I had all that to relate to. And I have called on that in every book I’ve ever written. I’m not saying that’s a particularly good deal. It just happened to be my deal.”

Jenkins says his characters are composites often patterned on people he knew in Fort Worth, as well as himself. His ideas frequently come from “just hanging around and listening,” he said. “I think I wrote one novel just based on one thing I heard.” His novels’ unvarnished locker room language, including Puckett’s repeated use of the n-word in Semi-Tough, has prompted rebukes from some critics. But Jenkins said his narratives and dialogue were drawn from years of behind-the-scenes exposure to players and coaches. “Most of them contributed unknowingly,” he writes saying that he “borrowed or stole lines” from gridiron heroes including Don Meredith, Sonny Jurgensen, Bubba Smith and others. “A cast of thousands, really,” he said. After two amicable divorces early in adulthood – he describes the splits in his memoir as “You Take the Books, I’ll Take the Records” – he reconnected with June Burrage, “girl of my dreams since high school.” They have been married for 54 years and, Jenkins writes, are the parents of “three wonderful kids” – Sally, who lives in Sag Harbor, N.Y.; Danny, who runs a travel-tourist business in Costa Rica, and Marty, who has been a producer for the PGA Golf Tour and the Golf Channel and a project manager for a San Diego construction company. Like her father, Sally Jenkins is an award-winning sports writer and the author of several books. Her dad has been a positive influence on her career and offered constructive guidance over the years, she said recently, but he didn’t overtly try to push her into the business. “I was just a voracious reader and so I think that made him think I might be a writer,” she said. “But he never pushed it – he never said you know you should think about being a writer.” After her first story appeared in the campus newspaper at Stanford University, Dan Jenkins told his daughter, “You’ve got flair. You seem to have a natural touch.” “He would give gentle pieces of writing advice,” Sally Jenkins recalled. “Shorter quotes are better. Break up your statistics. Break up your quotes. He would teach me things about pace. “One piece of advice he gave me very early my freshman year that I’ve never forgotten – the best piece of advice anybody ever gave me – was you better interest yourself first because if you’re not interested in what you’re writing nobody else is going to be either.”

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— Dan and June Jenkins returned to Fort Worth in the late 1990s, reconnecting with a diminishing circle of old friends. One of Dan’s closest friends is Jerre Todd of Arlington, a Paschal alum and a former Press colleague who became a successful public relations man. Others, such as Shrake, have died. The Jenkinses share their west Fort Worth home with Anabel, a 9-year-old Yorkie. Marty – who Dan Jenkins says is “between pictures and lady friends” – has also stopped over for awhile. A painting in the entry hall captures Fort Worth from a bygone era, depicting downtown Seventh Street in 1941, when there were three downtown movie houses and upscale department stores. Jenkins commissioned the painting several years ago and has dubbed it “The Street of Dreams.” Although Jenkins writes of his fondness for bars – at least those without “a mindless din” of blaring modern music and “yelling, chirping, screeching” – he says he typically drinks milk shakes and root-beer floats at home and never touches alcohol while he’s working. Sally Jenkins says her parents never had alcoholic drinks at home when their children were growing up. “I just wanted to get the story done and then I’d go have a cocktail,” he explained. “I was a social drinker. I drink to make other people interesting.” He likes Scotch but sometimes has a martini with five olives “in case I don’t like the menu.” Another vice – a 60-year, three-pack-a day smoking habit – slammed to a halt in 1995 when Jenkins had triple bypass surgery after his surgeon warned him of the risk of a heart attack. “Look, you never had a heart attack but if you ever do have one it’ll be the only one you ever have,” Jenkins quoted the doctor as saying. “Take me in,” Jenkins said he replied Jenkins says he does his best work in the morning and has come to discover that anything written later than mid-afternoon “had to be rewritten because I got tired without knowing it. I’d go back and look at it the next day and say, ‘What maniac slipped into my office and wrote this crap?’” Jenkins says he has never done outlines for his novels because “that would make it carpentry. “I’d have in my mind who the main characters were, how it would start and how it would end,” he said, “but I liked to surprise myself in the middle.” Jenkins’ admirers marvel at his work habits, literary output and mastery of the language. “I think he’s America’s premier sports writer and nobody knows more about golf and college football than Dan,” said his long-time agent, Esther Newberg, president of New York-based International Creative Management. “And he’s fast. Really fast.” He never uses a tape recorder, relying on his recall and some notes scribbled after an interview or conversation. He’s never been accused of a misquote, says his daughter.

“His memory is the best tape recorder in the world,” said Sally Jenkins. Asked whether she uses a recorder, she replied, “Oh god yes.” Guinn, a former Fort Worth Star-Telegram book editor who has gone on to become a best-selling author, calls Jenkins “an encyclopedia of writing technique” who is always accessible to younger writers. “I don’t know how many cheeseburgers at the Colonial Country Club he has bought kid writers, but he will always do that,” Guinn said. “Any time I ever asked Dan Jenkins to do something for literature in Fort Worth, he always volunteered to do.” One block of advice to aspiring sports writers might be found in the closing chapter of His Ownself as Jenkins offers a “final word’ about sports writing. “A sportswriter’s life means never sitting with your wife or family at the games. Still working after everyone has gone to the party … Digging beneath a coach’s lies, not to forget those of athletic directors and general managers and owners of pro teams. Keeping a confidence. Risking it. “And too often building heroes out of the undeserving – and for the good of something you’ve never quite known how to define. “It’s been all of that for me,” he sums up, “but waves of laughter came with it.”