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Grumpy Old Man

At 68, legendary Fort Worth sportswriter Dan Jenkins is irritated by pretty much everything. He gets sweet revenge in his aptly named new novel, Rude Behavior.

By November 1998Comments

THE SCENE couldn’t have played any better if Dan Jenkins had conceived it himself. The Fort Worth native is sitting with Edwin “Bud” Shrake, his friend and fellow scribe, at a restaurant in Highlands, North Carolina, a mountainous, golf course—bejeweled enclave he describes as the closest thing the region has to a Santa Fe. As if on cue, the waitress arrives with news of the day’s lunch special: herb-encrusted meat loaf.

“Encrusted with what?” Jenkins asks, eyes crinkling.

“Herbs,” the waitress says.

“Can’t I just get meat loaf?”

Semi-fancy food is just one of the things 68-year-old Jenkins rails against in his eighth novel, Rude Behavior (Doubleday), which was published in September. It has been a pet peeve for most of his career, though as a best-selling author and world traveler, perhaps it’s his own fault that he finds himself in so many restaurants that serve that kind of stuff in the first place. “I have to get off on all the things that bother me these days,” he says. “The older you get, the more irritated you get. I have sport with everything I deal with in this particular life.” In Rude Behavior the list also includes pro football owners and referees, incomprehensible college-sports regulations, diminishing magazine expense accounts, Hollywood producers, traffic, bad barbecue, gold-digging women, adulterous men, West Texas snakes, and political correctness in general.

The third installment in a trilogy that began with 1972’s Semi-Tough and continued with 1984’s Life Its Ownself, Rude Behavior chronicles the latest adventures of Billy Clyde Puckett, the pride of Paschal High, the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs, and the New York Giants. When we last left Billy Clyde, he was enduring a less satisfying stint as a network NFL commentator. In the new book he enters the league’s upper echelons, as he and his financially well-endowed father-in-law, Big Ed Bookman, look to put an expansion team halfway between Lubbock and Amarillo in a town they’ve named Big Food—a tribute to the region’s giant biscuits and gravy. Billy Clyde’s usual coterie (best pal Shake Tiller, ex-teammate T. J. Lambert, wife Barbara Jane Bookman, sportswriter pal Jim Tom Pinch) is along for the ride, and so is “bidnessman” Tommy Earl Bruner, who was imported from 1981’s Baja Oklahoma.

Rude Behavior is Jenkins’ first work of fiction since 1993, a longish time for such a prolific writer but understandable given that he has undergone both a bypass operation and gallbladder surgery in recent years. Anyway, he’s been busy doing other things: As Golf Digest’s reigning wiseman, he pens a monthly column and covers the sport’s four major tournaments, and he has edited a series of biographies of Texas football greats, including Doak Walker, Sammy Baugh, Darrel Royal, and John David Crow. “I write a book when I feel like there’s one I want to write,” he says. “I know how it’s going to start, I know how it’s going to end, and I like to surprise myself in the middle.”

In the case of Rude Behavior, Jenkins’ primary impetus was the chance to revisit old characters. But beyond that, it feels like a long-overdue expectoration of bile from a man who has loved and loathed football for as long as he can recall. The truth is, he has never much cared for the professional variety since the day in 1974 that Sports Illustrated switched his beat from college ball to the NFL. Twenty-four years later, he still thinks the pro game is tarnished by a meaningless regular season, ridiculous financial prerogatives, pampered players, and bloated coaching staffs full of pretentious “strategists.” But mostly he hates the way it dominates the media. “It’s the most overwritten, overcovered sport I’ve ever been around,” he says. He once mocked the media’s coverage in an essay that parodied the daily grind of stories during Super Bowl week:

“NEW ORLEANS—The two Super Bowl teams practiced offense and defense today. They will probably do it again tomorrow.

NEW ORLEANS—Both coaches said breaks would decide Sunday’s game, unless they don’t.

NEW ORLEANS—Injuries could play a big part in Sunday’s Super Bowl, or not.

NEW ORLEANS—An NFL spokesman confirmed today that the Super Bowl halftime show will be more spectacular than ever.”

Jenkins’ real grudge against pro football, however, is that it has overshadowed the college game. “[The NFL] has turned college football into what high school football used to be,” he says. But if he is somewhat disillusioned with NCAA regulations (a bumper sticker in Rude Behavior reads “I’d Rather Be on Probation Than Lose to Baylor”) and the increasing commodification of the “amateur” game, he still finds resonance in college ball’s fan allegiances and regional significance. He even prefers the annual drama of the “poll bowls” to any kind of playoff system. “I’d rather have two teams claim the national championship and let people argue about it,” he says.

Jenkins, who has a collection of college football annuals going back to the thirties, calls himself a “historical nut” when it comes to the sport. “It’s my hobby and my passion,” he explains. “It’s a lifelong love affair. On Saturdays, don’t talk to me. I’ll even watch Maryland—Wake Forest.” Although it’s painful for a TCU alumnus to admit it, he lives in college ball’s current cradle—the Southeast, specifically Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida—which puts him within easy distance of Gators, Seminoles, Hurricanes, and (Georgia) Dawgs. “It’s like being in Texas in its college football heyday,” he says. “National championships stacked up like old tires. I keep telling everyone, ‘Hey, this don’t happen forever.’”

If anyone should know, he should. “I’ve been around college football my whole life,” he says. “If you grow up in Texas and you’re not interested in football, they drown you at an early age.” In a Playboy column a decade ago, Jenkins rhapsodized about a “gigantic struggle” he attended in 1938, when he was eight. The opponents were Baylor and TCU. Davey O’Brien’s Horned Frogs won the national championship that year, despite the season-long efforts of the pollsters to anoint Notre Dame. It was that season, Jenkins wrote, that made him want to become a sportswriter, “if for no other reason than to help combat Notre Dame’s clout in the polls in future years.”

Like Billy Clyde, Jenkins would go on to star at TCU, albeit on the greens rather than the gridiron. And even as he captained the Horned Frog golf team, he began his journalism career, taking a job at the Fort Worth Press alongside Blackie Sherrod, who hired him on the strength of an article he had written as a senior in high school in 1948. For the next decade-plus, at both the Press and the Dallas Times-Herald, Sherrod, Jenkins, Shrake, and Gary Cartwright turned the Metroplex into a home for the nation’s best sportswriting. Among their most famous achievements was the invention of Rickie Ron and Dickie Don Yewbet, two nonexistent West Texas running backs whose incredible stats sizzled off the sports page every Saturday morning. But Jenkins didn’t have to cross the line into outright fiction to produce imaginative, entertaining work that was a few steps to the left of the usual breathless, reverent game story or armchair quarterbacking column. “Dan Jenkins was doing [New Journalism] when he was nineteen years old, and he didn’t know it,” Sherrod says in The Franchise, Michael MacCambridge’s history of Sports Illustrated magazine.

In 1959, after two mulligans, Jenkins married his third wife, June Burrage, who’d been a high school friend. (The couple, still together, have three children: two sons, Marty and Danny, and a daughter, Sally, a celebrated sportswriter in her own right.) Three years later, they moved to New York, and Jenkins went to work at Sports Illustrated. Despite his innate Texanness, he was destined for a city more on a par with his outsized personality. “He’s the most confident guy I ever met,” Cartwright says. “It never occurred to him he couldn’t do anything. He got to New York and in two weeks every maître d’ in town knew his name.” Along with Shrake (who joined the SI staff a year later), Jenkins embraced the hard-bitten, hard-drinking life of an ink-stained wretch. He became a legend at such places as “21” and Elaine’s, not only for his wit and charm but also for his impressive stamina and readily available expense account.

Of course, there was also the work. The sixties were SI’s golden years, and as the country’s leading college football expert as well as a preeminent golf writer, Jenkins was untouchable. As MacCambridge notes, his combination of clout and creativity was so potent that he was able to cover the Masters, an event he has now documented for 47 straight years, seemingly without ever leaving the clubhouse. Instead, the story would come to him between alternating doses of J&B and coffee. (These days, Jenkins decries the clean-living modern sportswriter—“They don’t drink and smoke anymore. They jog and shit!”—though he now takes his coffee half decaf, half regular.) His work at SI ultimately earned him a place in the pantheon of America’s greatest sportswriters. Jenkins “influenced sportswriting as much as anybody who has ever written,” veteran sportswriter Mike Lupica says in The Franchise.

When Jenkins sat down to write his first novel in the early seventies, he ended up producing something with just as much impact. “It was a revelation, that goddamn book,” says Herman Gollob, the Waco-born, Houston-raised Jewish Aggie who edited Semi-Tough. “It revolutionized sports novels.” A rave review by David Halberstam in the New York Times helped land it on the best-seller list—even though, as Jenkins puts it, the book “led the league in profanity for its time.” Its unadorned racial banter was also praised by the likes of Alex Haley and Gore Vidal. Jenkins himself thinks Semi-Tough was popular because “people thought, ‘Well, this is what pro football is really like behind the scenes,’ which wasn’t what I intended. I thought I was writing a romantic comedy, if you’ll forgive me for using the phrase.”

Whatever the case, a significant Texas writer had arrived. “Dan’s books are rich,” Gollob says. “He would never want to say these are books of social criticism or morality, but that’s exactly what they are.” Jenkins captures and lampoons a certain bombastic breed of Texan better than anyone, whether the big bucks and big egos of men or the big hair and big hearts of women. His reach extends well beyond sports into country music (Baja Oklahoma), Texas history (1988’s Fast Copy), and even network TV politics (1976’s Limo). The latter, coauthored by Shrake, is his personal favorite. “It’s the funniest book either one of us ever wrote,” he says.

It’s the only book they ever wrote together, though all of Jenkins’ novels are filled with the comic fruit of their relationship, particularly in 1993’s You Gotta Play Hurt, his rollicking satire (via Jim Tom Pinch) of sports journalism. And Semi-Tough’s infamous girl-rating system (with ten as the worst and one as the best, just like the college football polls) came straight out of life. In essence, Jenkins and Shrake are Billy Clyde and his wide receiver compadre Shake Tiller (though Jenkins says that, in reality, Big Ed Bookman is the character he most resembles). If their paths have diverged professionally and geographically since their days at SI, the two remain quite a pair: Shrake tall and dry; Jenkins ruddy and barbed. They are the kind of friends who can finish each other’s stories and swap verbal darts without ever drawing blood.

“Dan throws away more golf balls than most people own in their lifetime,” Shrake says after lunch, as he and Jenkins move from downtown Highlands to the leafy peaks and valleys of the Cullasaja Country Club.

“We play here because nobody f—s with us. We hit as many balls as we want, and we don’t keep score,” says Jenkins, now decked out in a purple TCU cap, white TCU golf shirt, and TCU glove.

Jenkins can be plenty competitive if circumstances (i.e., a personal wager) demand it, but on this day, it’s all about fun. That means proceeding straight to the back nine when the first few holes turn out to be logjammed. It means being on what passes for his best behavior. “I have a reporter watching,” he cracks, “so I have to repair my divots.” It means hitting multiple balls off the tee, then picking the best one. (In print he lists “hit till you’re happy” as one of the “great modern inventions,” and he means it.) On the course there’s a generous mulligan policy. “It’s mountain golf,” he says. “Nobody can read these greens.” Then, on a downhill hole that includes a rough, a sand trap, and two water crossings: “Here’s another one of the greatest golf holes in America we don’t know how to play.”

After Jenkins launches a particularly big boomer off the tee, Shrake mentions that in his younger days his friend “could hit it as far as Hogan.” He’s not joking. Jenkins has golfed since he was eight and starred in college, though full-time devotion to the game was never in the cards. “I think everybody who knows how to play golf at an early age fancies himself a pro golfer some day, but at fourteen you run into guys who can beat your ass,” he says. “I was a scratch player, but my game didn’t travel. And by then I wanted to be a sportswriter.”

He still does. On a Sunday night after a major tournament, Jenkins’ Golf Digest deadline looms as large as a twenty-foot putt, but that’s when he’s truly in his element. “It’s like you’ve seen this theater, and now it’s time for you and your trusty Olivetti—or your trusty Toshiba—to perform,” he says. The only trouble is that he’s been performing for nearly half a century. Being mythic has its price. “I’ve become the guy I used to run from: the old fart standing under the tree on the clubhouse verandah telling stories. ‘Oh, you think these greens are fast …’”

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