The Franchise’s Icon
Finding Dan Jenkins’s Saturday’s America in a used bookstore in Williamsburg, VA was a triumph. Though the book represented a master sportswriter at the peak of his powers, it was nearly impossible to find. That was one of two cherished souvenirs I brought back from the historic town. The other was a desk clock shaped like a book. Clearly, I will not be appearing in Williamsburg's next promotional package. “Sure, Williamsburg brimmed with historical significance, but look at what I found in a dilapidated strip mall.”
Jenkins first came to my attention in 2006, after reading The Franchise, Michael MacCambridge's wonderful history of Sports Illustrated. During his heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, Jenkins’s coverage of football and golf made him more than SI’s most popular writer, according to MacCambridge:
His writing possessed an assured attitude and sardonic tone that would become the crucial final element in the emerging SI news story style . . . [Jenkins had] the ability to render a strong point of view without using the first person. His stories read like a combination between a column and a game story, with more analysis than the former and more humor than the latter. Implicit in any of his pieces was that it was the definitive, last word on whatever event was being covered . . . He had an uncanny knack for the sportswriter’s first rule, boiling down a week’s build-up and an afternoon of action into the essential, pertinent elements.
Because of Jenkins’s lengthy stay at SI, some youngsters who revered his work wound up working alongside the legend. To quote former Washington Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser, he and his fresh-faced colleagues (e.g., future media heavyweights Mike Lupica and Rick Reilly) were reduced to “acolytes” in Jenkins's presence. “. . . When you go to dinner with Dan, all of us who idolize him start doing his lines,” Kornheiser told MacCambridge. “Dan just sits there. Dan doesn’t say anything. And then in the middle of dinner, Dan will say something, one sentence, maybe even one word, and it will just kill everybody. I wonder if it was torture for Dan to go out with us . . . We were trying overly hard.”
What’s even more remarkable is that Jenkins produced his prose despite a rock star’s sleeping schedule and a diet consisting of cigarettes, coffee, and J&B. His reporting style was laid back and conversational. George Plimpton, a longtime SI contributor, believed that Jenkins “wrote his stories by osmosis.”
Those are great anecdotes, but the issue with Jenkins’s sportswriting (he also wrote the classic sports novel Semi-Tough) is the same as any pioneering source: Does it still impress? There’s always the threat that years of imitation and improvement will make the original material obsolete. Jenkins’s legacy doesn't suffer because college football, which he covers in Saturday’s America, still has the same significance. For three months every Saturday is a big deal; every game means something. The annoyances that Jenkins writes about forty-plus years ago (the inexact method of determining a national champion; how the Heisman Trophy, awarded to the best player in college football, rarely does) still exist. Just the years and the names change.
Besides, good writing doesn’t tarnish at the same accelerated rate as classic movies or television shows, and Jenkins is a hell of a writer.
What stands out in Saturday’s America is how Jenkins captures the scene, including anecdotes and observations—before, after, and during the game—that give the stories color and depth. These pieces feel like beautifully observed slices of life more than game recaps. A stadium announcer agonizes over his team’s fate. Like an actor looking for inspiration, University of Texas head coach Darrell Royal has to manufacture anger before facing the University of Arkansas. A Michigan State co-ed bemoans her team tying Notre Dame (“Damn, damn, damn.”) during their famed 1966 contest. For an aspiring writer in the 1960s, Jenkins must have been all four Beatles with a notepad. He showed that sportswriters could enjoy the games and have fun writing about them. Lupica, Kornheiser, and the rest learned that they didn’t have to serve as stone-faced summarizers who lived and died by the five Ws template.
Part of Jenkins’s permanent appeal lies in how he savors words. His sentences wink at you, urge you to have a good time. After Michigan State’s gigantic Bubba Smith injures Notre Dame quarterback Terry Hanratty, Jenkins observes: “It looked as if Hanratty had been smacked by a giant swinging green door.” On the Sinatra-like, youthful cool of Joe Namath, Jenkins knows where he stands: “The best we could do was catch a slight glimpse of him as he sped by us in this life, and hope that he would in some way help prepare us for the day when we would surely elect public officials who wore beanies and had term themes to write.” His parody of two announcers shamelessly promoting their school’s hero for the Heisman is completely accurate in its hyperbolic stupidity: “Rare to find a kid as ferocious on the football field who finds time to paint and play the violin and write poetry, wouldn’t you say?” Jenkins never ventures into joke writer’s territory, a location that Reilly, who writes like he gets paid per pun, now calls home.
Today’s sports fan has information literally at his or her fingertips. It’s easy for slow-cooked sports reporting like Jenkins to get lost in the rush of mouse clicks, God knows how many TV channels, and talking heads. We need more writers like Jenkins who can take a step back and give us the details and the drama. His work in Saturday’s America should be savored and studied by future acolytes, not relegated to the occasional used bookstore with poor foot traffic.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.