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.

KING OF ‘EM ALL, YA’LL (Burt Reynolds, R.I.P.)

John Lennon–an actual child of the working class–once sang about a working class hero being something to be. Burt Reynolds, middle class as they came (his dad was a police chief), was a Working Class Legend.

He built that legend in the seventies with a long string of good ol’ boy roles–White Lightning, Gator, The Longest Yard, Hooper, Semi-Tough, and, of course, Smokey and the Bandit, all among the most entertaining of their day and often better “social” commentaries than the Film School crowd ever managed–which belied his training (he was first spotted, and sent on to New York, by an acting teacher who was impressed with his Shakespeare).

It’s called acting for a reason. When he got a chance to stretch out, he proved himself adept at black comedy (The End), romance (Starting Over), drama. There’s no better–or trickier–performance from the seventies than his “Lewis” in Deliverance, and no better film in the justly celebrated 70s cannon. It’s not every actor who can give his breakthrough performance, and anchor an era-defining movie, playing an asshole-nobody- likes-but-you-still-don’t-want-him-to-die.

It’s not every actor who can play that part at all.

But, really, his best acting was probably his persona. That happens a lot with those select few who can manage it, and Reynolds was more impressive in this respect than even the old-time Hollywood stars because neither the business of movie making, nor the culture within which Old Hollywood operated, had anything like the hold on us during that hellish time they had even a minute earlier.

“I’m Burt Reynolds. I used to be big in the 70s,” he would tell people he just met in the nineties and beyond.

No doubt with a smile the Bandit would have appreciated.

And boy was he big in the 70s.

Based on that decade alone, he’s still the most famous attendee of my alma mater, FSU, which, being among the strangest of all state schools, has a celebrated drama school and an even more celebrated football program.

He played football, too (career was cut short by injuries). Used to see him with his entourage at the games. He couldn’t have been happier to represent us.

And we couldn’t have been happier to have him represent us.

We got Burt Reynolds, we used to like saying to all the other drama schools, with our own Bandit smile. Who you got?

Nobody ever had a real good answer.

Bet they still don’t.