SATURDAY’S MAN (Dan Jenkins, R.I.P.)

(From “The President’s Game of the Decade,” Sports Illustrated, Dan Jenkins, 1969, reprinted in Saturday’s America, 1970)

On the first three plays of the drive Steve Worster, who somehow tore out ninety-four yards rushing during the day, made six steps and Ted Koy made one. A fourth down had come up, with three yards needed for new life, and the ball was on Texas’s own 43-yard line. Less than five minutes were left. If Texas punted, it might never see the ball again. It had to gamble.

The Longhorns called time-out and  (quarterback James) Street went to the sideline to confer with Darrell Royal.

“Can you get it on the keep?” asked Royal.

“Yeah,” said Street.

“Is Steve tired?” the coach wondered.

“Nobody’s tired,” said James.

Royal looked up at the scoreboard clock and the down and distance.

James said, “They’re gettin’ tired, Coach. I think we can option ’em.”

“Hit Peschel deep,” said Royal.

“Huh?” said Street.

“Tight end deep,” Royal said.

Street started onto the field, stopped, and came back.

“Are you sure you want me to throw, Coach?” he said.

Royal nodded and waved him onto the field, and turned and walked away.

When Street got to the huddle and started jabbering about how this might be Texas’s last play of the season, and then called the pass play, saying he thought they could surprise Arkansas with a long bomb to the tight end, Bob McKay shrieked.

“Geead damn, James. You cain’t throw it that far!”

Once while perusing a bookstore (my notes say it was 2004), I chanced on an anthology of 20th-century sports writing and, thinking it might be worth buying, glanced through the table of contents.

Later on, I recorded my reaction:

An anthology of 20th-century sports writing without Dan Jenkins?

Isn’t that an impulse you really should resist? Kind of like the urge to put together a rockabilly box without Carl Perkins?

Jenkins, who passed away last week at age 90, is probably best known to posterity as the author of the pro football satire Semi-Tough (among many another rowdy, raunchy sports novels, my own favorite being the pro golf satire Dead Solid Perfect) and the father of long-time Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins.

Those are worthy things to be known for, and I’m glad he’s known for something.

I only wish it was for being the best sportswriter America produced after Ring Lardner.

You can read a lengthy sample here (his classic piece, “The Disciples of St. Darrell”–I spent many a Saturday afternoon sitting next to my own southern football factory’s version of these people and that anyone in his right mind would endure them without a second thought says all you need to know about the hold college football has on the faithful down here).

Jenkins may not have been the stone cold genius Lardner was. Few were, even in the literary world. But Saturday’s America, a collection of his Sports Illustrated stories which, in addition to being the best book ever written about its ostensible subject, college football, is as essential to understanding the second half of “the American Century” as Lardner’s best work is to understanding the first.

He lived just long enough to see the world he both covered and represented so comprehensively, rendered incomprehensible. As someone who read Saturday’s America every August when I was in high school and college, getting ready to count off the days to some big game in November upon which life and death would hang, all I can say is I ain’t forgot and I’m sad beyond words that I never got a chance to tell him so.

INTEGRITY, THAT OLD THING (Occasional Sports Moment #36)

There used to be a general agreement on what integrity was and what it was worth. It was one of those old-timey common assumptions that provided the glue for various civilizations, including our own, right up until yesterday.

Today? It’s just another word to dismiss if it gets in the way of your precious feelings.

Regarding Serena Williams’ latest emotional meltdown on a tennis court (Saturday evening at the U.S. Open), here’s the conclusion of the formerly estimable Sally Jenkins, reached in the heat of a moment which I already knew everyone else would use to score points with their side of the political divide. I pulled up her take expecting a little sanity and perspective. No such luck:

Male players have sworn and cursed at the top of their lungs, hurled and blasted their equipment into shards, and never been penalized as Williams was in the second set of the U.S. Open final

This was probably the most widely circulated of a number of like-minded opinions. Integrity–were it still in force–would have compelled Jenkins (or her editor), to provide an example of some male (and presumably white) players getting away with the violations of integrity which occurred in the womens’ final of this year’s U.S. Open.

She did not. We don’t live by yesterday’s rules any more.

And “never” being such a long time, social media took about four minutes to provide links to articles recalling when a certain little known or remembered white male named John Patrick McEnroe, Jr., was penalized in precisely the same manner (warning/point/game)….at the 1987 U.S. Open no less.

And then, about four minutes later, you could find links to an article recalling him being penalized worse (warning/point/game/match) at the 1990 Australian Open….when (unlike Serena on Saturday) he was leading.

For racket throwing and abusing the umpire no less.

Old-fashioned integrity might have also compelled Jenkins to admit what integrity–or at least the illusion of it–is still worth to people who make their living as officials in major sports.

She’s my age (we were born six weeks apart). Her father was one of the best and most famous sports writers of the twentieth century. She knows what I know. Even if she never heard this exact quote, she’s surely heard many like it:

You can question my eye sight. You can question my ancestry. I won’t let you question my integrity.

That was former NBA ref Mendy Rudolph on an NBA broadcast in what (according to Wikipedia) must have been some time between 1975 and 1977 (which sounds about right). Rudolph, who passed away in 1979, was a gambling addict. He once turned down an offer to shave points as compensation for his considerable debts. In those days, even gambling addicts knew what integrity was–even if they didn’t or couldn’t practice it well enough to not become a gambling addict in the first place, they knew it was the last thing you could afford to lose.

We all knew that once. Nobody seems to know it now.

Sally Jenkins (who was hardly alone this weekend) now thinks cursing an umpire and throwing things at him is worse than calling him a thief (as Serena, reacting to a question about her own integrity, did to chair umpire Carlos Ramos just before he docked her a code violation, which, being her third, after one for illegal coaching so obvious even her integrity-challenged coach didn’t bother with a the usual pro forma denial, and another for smashing her racket, cost her a full game).

Guess she forgot. Or–remembering who signs her paychecks–chickened out.

And if Dan Jenkins’ daughter forgot and/or chickened out, you can bet forgetting and/or chickening out is a thing now.

Tell ’em where we’re headed Eddie….