George Solomon Remembers Dan Jenkins

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George Solomon Remembers Dan Jenkins
Mar 8, 2019

It was late in the evening — back in 1971 — when two veteran quarterbacks for the Washington Redskins named Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer were sitting at the bar of establishment enjoying each other’s company and talking about sportswriters — who they liked and who they didn’t. I was not in the first category, but nevertheless, as a 31-year-old sportswriter, I was simply pleased to be part of the conversation.

“Dan Jenkins,” said Jurgensen. “He’s the best.”

“Dan Jenkins,” said Kilmer in agreement.

They looked at me with some disdain, and without saying much of anything, suggested Jenkins was the one sportswriter a young scribe should aspire to be.

“I could never be Dan Jenkins,” I said, resulting in the two of them agreeing with me for probably the first and only time of what turned into a long if not always cozy relationship.

These two quarterbacks, like so many professional athletes of that era, loved Dan Jenkins. They loved him because Jenkins knew his stuff, understood the games he covered, knew what made athletes tick, understood the nonsense and knew how to make them and the rest of us laugh.

On Thursday, in his beloved home city of Fort Worth, Texas, Jenkins died at the age of 90. He leaves behind his wife, June; sons, Danny and Marty; and daughter, Sally, of The Washington Post and one of the best sports columnists in the country.

Jenkins wrote more than 20 books in his lifetime — one better and funnier than the next — and won every sportswriting award available in six decades of sports journalism.

He started out in Fort Worth as a teenaged sportswriter for the local paper while playing golf in high school at a level good enough to get him to TCU. He made his mark at the Fort Worth Press before moving to New York to write for Sports Illustrated, where he starred for more than two decades covering mostly college football, golf and some professional football. After Sports Illustrated, he became Golf Digest’s “Writer-at-Large,” while continuing to write books and taking to Twitter to entertain his legion of fans at major golf events.

Anyone who covers college football for a living — or watches the games regularly — must read his anthology, “Saturday’s America.” When today’s college football coaches, with their multi-million dollar contracts, continue to limit media access to their teams, I would poke Jenkins. He loved to tell the story of walking on the field at TCU before a big game in the 1950s, in the middle of warmups, trading one-liners with both coaches.

In an interview last fall with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Jenkins said he was still writing and using Twitter because, “I can still type, and the reason I still write is because I don’t want to lose this,” he said, tapping his head, according to the interviewer. “I want to keep my mind active. I don’t believe in retirement. Everybody who retires too early dies too early.”

Tom Callahan, whose excellent appreciation of Jenkins in Golf Digest soars beyond my modest letters, told me, “Dan loved golf, college football and words. I think the hardest thing to be in print is funny. Like home run hitters, humorous writers are entitled to strike out more than those of us just trying to make contact. But Jenkins led the league in average. I like what the old Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith said, ‘What I love about Dan is he takes himself funny but the games serious.’”

A friend of mine and fan of Jenkins and sportswriting sent me this Jenkins’ creed that should go to every aspiring freshman journalism student:

“Be accurate first, then entertain if it comes natural. Never sell out a fact for a gag. Your job is to inform above all else.

“Know what to leave out. Don’t try to force-feed an anecdote If it doesn’t fit your piece, no matter how much it amuses you.

“Save it for another time. Have a conviction about what you cover. Read all the good writers that came before you.

“And make the profession worth being part of – (Ring) Lardner, (Red) Smith, (Damon) Runyon, etc. Don’t just cover a beat, care-take it.

“Keep in mind, you know more about the subject than your readers or editors. You’re close to it, they aren’t. I think I can say in all honesty that I’ve never written a sentence I didn’t believe, even if it happened to be funny.”

Objectivity maintains that it should be noted Jenkins’s work often was not very politically correct, although he softened that aspect of his game in later years, likely due to his daughter’s influence.

Jenkins was always approachable, never boastful about anything he’d written or done. Except the day in 2013, in Detroit, moments before received the Red Smith award from the nation’s sports editors for his extraordinary career in sports journalism.

“Here’s something that’s a fact,” he said with pride. “Sally Jenkins in the best sports columnist in the country.”

Homepage image: Dan Jenkins with his daughter, Sally.

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