Dan Jenkins passed away during the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which is terribly sad but also fitting, and not just because Jenkins knew Palmer longer, and covered him better, than just about anybody. For those of us who type words about sports for a living, Jenkins was our Palmer. Just as there was golf before Arnold Palmer and golf after him, there was sportswriting before Dan Jenkins and sportswriting after him.
Jenkins was the most influential golf writer ever and the most influential college football writer ever, but if you dwell on that, you somehow undersell him. He was simply the most influential sportswriter ever. His work unquestionably begat the generation that followed him: greats like Tony Kornheiser, Rick Reilly, Mike Lupica and Bob Verdi, and also Sally Jenkins, who managed the damn-near-impossible feat of being so good that nobody in the business thinks of her as Dan’s daughter first.
For many of us who followed, Jenkins is the one we read most, though in my case, at least, “read” is a laughable understatement. I studied his work. There are Dan Jenkins lines that I have read 50 times, just to try to understand what made them work, and I’m sure I’m not the only sportswriter who can say that. Humor writing is a craft that seems like an art. Jenkins was a master.
Dan Jenkins stories were easier to read than the six-inch putt at the end of his novel Dead Solid Perfect. The only reason to stop in the middle of a Jenkins story was if you were having a coronary episode. He was the one who taught the rest of us to try not to write any dull sentences. Jenkins did not just tell readers what happened in a game; he made them feel like they were there. He put his signature on a story without making it about him.
Before Jenkins, games were seen as athletic competitions between athletes. Jenkins treated them as spectacles featuring characters. It made sense that his favorite sports were college football and golf, for those are the two that give us the strongest sense of time and place. Before the Internet shrunk the world, one Jenkins novel could make a kid in Fargo feel like he’d been to Fort Worth.
If you talk to elite athletes regularly, as sportswriters do, you realize that they hold the best in their profession in a different light than fans do. Great golfers understand how difficult it is to win one major, so they appreciate Tiger Woods’s 14 even more than the rest of us. For all the talking-head blather about LeBron James, I have never heard a single NBA player, on or off the record, say he is overrated.
That’s how some of us feel about Dan Jenkins stories. We understand the observational skills, societal understanding, reporting, empathy and writing skill required to lead a profile of Joe Namath like this:
Stoop-shouldered and sinisterly handsome, he slouches against the wall of the saloon, a filter cigarette in his teeth, collar open, perfectly happy and self-assured, gazing through the uneven darkness to sort out the winners from the losers.
And we appreciate the range of a man who could write that sentence and also this one:
I personally didn't know any two players on the tour who were so close they could both fart in the same Coke bottle.
Like the best writers, Jenkins could have written about anything. But sports were perfect for him. He reveled in them without revering them. He reminded readers, many of his colleagues, and even the participants themselves, that sports were supposed to be fun.
He called the 1960 U.S. Open the most astonishing four hours in golf since Mary, Queen of Scots found out what dormie meant and invented the back nine. He wrote: I am sure that the longest hole we ever played was from the first tee at Goat Hills to the third green at Colonial Country Club. It was about 10 blocks, regardless of whether you went down Stadium Drive, past the TCU football field, left on Park Hill and over the houses, or down Alton Road and Simondale.
Jenkins became a famous character himself, manning the bar until obscene hours and shaming anybody who tried to leave before him. But it was his work that made him a star. All around the country today, dozens of sportswriters can recite the opening lines to You Gotta Play Hurt, his classic year-in-the-life-of-a-sportswriter novel:
Here’s how I want the phony little conniving, no-talent, preppiewad ---hole of an editor to die…
I have read my copy of You Gotta Play Hurt so often that the cover is in tatters and the pages have pulled off the binding. You could wedge a chicken-fried steak between pages 200 and 201. It’s not the publisher’s fault. I just read the thing to death.
If any of Jenkins’s lines seem dated now, it’s largely because people have mimicked them for 40 years. No sportswriter ever had so many acolytes. But in a sports-media world that increasingly rewards relentless self-promoters and social-media “presences” over substance, we could still learn from Dan Jenkins. He was opinionated without being obnoxious, funny but rarely mean. He mocked those who most deserved a good mocking, but his work was infused with the understanding that life was a son of a bitch sometimes. Athletes and coaches respected him because of what he did and how he wrote. His work was his brand.
Jenkins was 90 when he died, and he wrote to the end. His Twitter feed was a master class in concise, witty writing. He never lost his fastball, though he did throw a few too many in the stands in his later years, mostly because of his myopic fight against political correctness. There are lines in You Gotta Play Hurt that make me wince now. Some of them should have made me wince in 1991, when it was published. But … well, here we quote Jenkins again: A man can travel far and wide—all the way to shame or glory, and back again—but he ain’t never gonna find nothin’ in this old world that’s dead solid perfect.
We will remember the best of Dan Jenkins: the stories he wrote, the world he captured, and the profession he changed. He never forgot the words of one of his creations, fictional running back Billy Clyde Puckett: Laughter is the only thing that cuts trouble down to a size where you can talk to it. That’s a thought we should all remember, and a Dan Jenkins gave us a joy that we should all aspire to create.