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….

IT ISN’T ONLY ELVIS THEY SAY STUPID STUFF ABOUT (Sports Division…Occasional Sports Moment #16)

In case you want to prep yourself for this small rant, the article it refers to  (by Robert Samuels of the Washington Post) is here

Now to the confessional bit: I had no particular rooting interest in the Women’s Figure Skating competition at the Sochi Olympics this week. Busy last couple of weeks so I missed everything but the women’s long program. Usually try to catch a bit more but it just wasn’t feasible this time around.

As a rule, I have the common habit of not following figure skating any place outside of the Olympics or (maybe) the Olympic trials. I can appreciate the skill and artistry required–and, on average, its the greatest Olympic drama (which means the greatest sports drama) there is–but I’m certainly no expert.

I do follow a lot of other sports, though, and I’m always fascinated by the psychology of “judged” sports–by the sense that I’m being allowed every so often (in skating, gymnastics, diving) to look in on a very insular world with very peculiar, roiling passions.

Not having any idea of what the real technical issues are–let alone being qualified to judge them–I have to fall back on knowing what I like…and on guessing how the human aspects will play themselves out if several closely matched competitors all perform well.

Which is another way of saying I–like Samuels (who is a self-avowed amateur skating enthusiast but does not cover the sport for a living)–expected Kim Yu-na to win following her clean final skate based on one set of usually reliable, though purely psychological criteria. She was the overwhelming favorite and she had done well–certainly had made no serious errors and had been calm, composed and regal.

That’s usually enough.

Except in this instance, another set of usually reliable criteria (and one which I happen to favor and which thereby suddenly gave me a rooting interest) was in play.

The Russian teenager in question, Adelina Sotnikova, had clearly taken bold risks and, more importantly, had radiated joy.

In a judged sport that usually translates into victory, as well…all other things being equal.

Watching the event on replay (but without knowing who had won) and waiting for Kim’s final score to come up, I had what turned out to be a prescient feeling which translated itself thusly:

I watched Kim’s face in repeated close-ups and I could practically see a thought balloon above her head, which read:

“I didn’t skate well enough to beat her.”

And I watched Sotnikova’s face in repeated close-ups and I could practically see a thought balloon above her head, which read:

“She didn’t skate well enough to beat me.”

Later on, I kind of analysed it along the lines of risk/reward, daring versus caution, a triumph of strategy over tactics (admittedly one had to read between the lines, but it was pretty clear from post-competition commentary that Kim had basically built minimal risk into her own program because she assumed all those who did not would fall–as all but Sotnikova, who has evidently fallen in every other major world competition she’s ever competed in, in fact did).

But in the moment all I really had to go on–being as I said, no expert–was those reactions and those competing psychologies based on long observation of sports in the world (i.e., the athletes usually know best and are usually not very good at hiding what they know).

Even then, I thought there was a fifty-fifty chance Kim would win because, well, I’m a pessimist.

So, having nothing for or against either skater, but preferring always to see boldness rewarded, I was pleasantly surprised by Sotnikova’s win.

But I wasn’t really surprised when a fuss was kicked up almost immediately.

Or when Washington Post “reporters”–in this instance, as so often, recording opinion as fact–and other members of the crit-illuminati (journalists’ division) reported it as a “controversy.”

Or when they then reported it as no controversy at all, but simply a travesty, since “controversy” would imply a diversity of reasonable opinion and the only opinions they reported–or held reasonable–were those that mirrored their own.

Certainly from reading Samuels’ article linked above (and his was only one of many that deployed the same tactics) one would never guess that the three NBC commentators who happened to be former Olympians themselves (Johnny Weir, Tara Lipinski, Scott Hamilton, the latter two gold medalists)–that is, the people who, by virtue of their life experience, training and presence in the venue, were best qualified to make the call for American audiences–were unanimous in saying they believed Sotnikova should have won.

And one would certainly never guess that two of the three (Weir and Lipinski) said precisely what a casual fan like myself had presumed without knowing a thing about skating: that Kim had played it safe, which is its own kind of gamble.

Out of all the various quotes I read, therefore, I liked Lipinksi’s (who won a controversial decision in her own Olympics with some of the same elements in play) reaction best, even if it was only mostly true: “You cannot skate safe in the Olympics.”

Actually you can.

You just have to hope everybody who doesn’t falls down.

(NOTE: Hilariously, if you follow Samuels’ first link, you’ll find a much more balanced article by Sally Jenkins, which does not at all make the point he implies it does. But then, Jenkins is rather well known for being an actual journalist. That does tend to confuse people who live in the crit-illuminati bubble.)

(NOTE: Extra booby prize to The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson, who called Russia’s fifteen-year-old phenom Yulia Lipnitskaya an “apprentice assassin” and referred to American Ashley Wagner’s smile as a “Dick Cheney-like crooked grin,” which I’m guessing is a much greater insult at The New Yorker than merely comparing a fifteen-year-old who skates to the theme from Schindler’s List to an assassin.)

As always, I ask you to remember that those who provide this sort of commentary on sports and pop culture are from the same gene-pool as those who “report” on politics and news.

And, as always, I leave you with my usual cheery thought…Goodbye us.