In dozens of tributes, Dan Jenkins — who died at 90 on March 7th in his birthplace of Fort Worth, Texas — was cited as the most influential and/or the greatest sportswriter, period, of all time. The author of 23 books and untold hundreds of articles and columns was at the outset most noted for his first novel, Semi-Tough (1971), a groundbreaking, raucous deep-dive into the world of pro football that became a celebrated 1977 film starring Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson and Jill Clayburgh.
Jenkins left indelible imprints in journalism, particularly in his nearly 25 years at Sports Illustrated. His columns and reports for Playboy and Golf Digest have also been saluted as gold standards in the art-and-science hybrids of straight sports coverage and interpretive, comedy-fueled observation.
“Quite simply,” wrote the decorated golf journalist Ron Sirak, “Dan Jenkins invented modern sportswriting. He was the Hunter S. Thompson or Tom Wolfe of the genre.”
Golf and college football were his true loves. But his body of work across sports earned him many honors, including the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing and induction into the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame. In golf especially, he was hailed by most of his comrades as the finest in the trade: “For those of us who type words about sports for a living,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg, “Jenkins was our [Arnold] Palmer. Just as there was golf before Arnold Palmer and golf after him, there was sportswriting before Dan Jenkins and sportswriting after him.”
The roster of sports and cultural writers who looked to Jenkins as a model and mentor was long — Rick Reilly, Frank Deford, Mark Kram and many other sportswriting luminaries have for decades expressed their admiration, and envy, for Jenkins’ work. And his daughter Sally exemplifies how broad his influence really was: She has been a sports and feature writer for The Washington Post for more than 20 years, and the Associated Press has named her the country’s top sports columnist four times.
But though he was widely hailed as one of the good guys underneath his legendary curmudgeon persona, Jenkins had plenty of detractors. As a Texan journalist working across the Fifties into the 2000s, he was “of his time” in all ways. Jenkins frequently and proudly wore his Texas good-ol’-boy heart on his sleeve — some observers called it flat-out racism and misogyny — through his columns in particular and through many characters in his novels. He was an avowed hater of “PC culture” and a writer who leaned, if not veered, into right-wing views. On the sports and pop-culture website the Ringer, Bryan Curtis wrote that Jenkins “insisted that his memoir — the last truly immaculate piece of writing he delivered [2014’s His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir] — include a tirade against political correctness. When his editor said people might be offended, Dan said, ‘Fuck people.’ ”
But humor was at the core of all of his best prose. As SI’s Rosenberg pointed out, “He never forgot the words of one of his creations, fictional running back Billy Clyde Puckett [Semi-Tough]: ‘Laughter is the only thing that cuts trouble down to a size where you can talk to it.’ ”
The fact that Jenkins made it to age 90 was itself a source of much astonishment to his readers. For decades in his fiction and his reporting, he drew vivid pictures of his on-the-road hard-living ways — he was a man whose cigarettes, two-fisted bar menu (scotch and coffee, paired, were his favorites), and lounging on verandas became rough art forms in his depictions. (Sample: The narrator of his novel Dead Solid Perfect woke up after a long night and said, “My cough was right on time, so I treated it with the usual Winston.”)
Jenkins’ sterling-silver anti-PC outlook, crucial to his humor and even to the art of his sentence structures, would very likely be DOA in this era. In fact, to some (including this writer, a longtime fan) his departure from the scene stage-right amid our societal upheavals seems oddly appropriate right now.
But what he did best — demystifying the games, puncturing the pretensions of sports, uniting vastly funny observations with straight-up reporting and storytelling — was unbeatable, and unprecedented. He was indeed the greatest blend of sportswriting, satire, Wolfe-ian New Journalism and pure heart we’ve ever had. For many, make that “the only.”