Obituaries

Dan Jenkins, Sports Illustrated writer known for irreverent prose, dies at 90

Dan Jenkins (right), with his daughter, sportswriter Sally Jenkins, in 2009.
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press/File
Dan Jenkins (right), with his daughter, sportswriter Sally Jenkins, in 2009.

NEW YORK — Dan Jenkins, a sportswriter whose rollicking irreverence enlivened Sports Illustrated’s pages for nearly 25 years and animated several novels, including “Semi-Tough,” a sendup of the steroidal appetites, attitudes, and hype in pro football that became a classic of sports literature, died Thursday in Fort Worth. He was 90.

He had experienced heart and renal failure and had recently broken his hip, said his daughter, Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist for The Washington Post.

Mr. Jenkins was among a cadre of Sports Illustrated writers — including Roy Blount Jr., Mark Kram, and Frank Deford — who were recruited by André Laguerre, the managing editor who oversaw the magazine’s emergence as a leader in sports journalism as well as a powerhouse in the Time Inc. stable. Mr. Jenkins joined the magazine in 1962.

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A Texan, Mr. Jenkins brought a Southern wiseacre erudition to the pages of a magazine not exactly used to the arch or earthy or impolitic remark. Opinionated, more than occasionally snarky, he wrote with an open appreciation of athletes and coaches, bars, pretty women, and chicken-fried steak, replete with clever put-downs and outlandish metaphors.

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His main beats were golf and college football, sports he grew up with in Fort Worth.

“The devoted golfer is an anguished soul who has learned a lot about putting just the way an avalanche victim has learned a lot about snow,” Mr. Jenkins wrote in an article for the magazine that earned him a full-time job there.

Mr. Jenkins was fond of toying with racial, ethnic, national, and social stereotypes in a distinctly non-PC manner, and was especially defiant in doing so outside the stricture of magazine journalism, particularly in “Semi-Tough,” his first and best-known novel, published in 1972.

Set in the week leading up to an all-New York Super Bowl in which the Giants are to face the Jets, the novel is a pouring out of observations and attitudes — brash, cynical, boastful, charming, shrewd, rip-snortingly vulgar and often hilarious — as the narrator speaks into a tape recorder for the purpose of publishing a book.

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What results is a hyperbolic, first-person report on a world whose lexicon involves all manner of stereotype and slur and whose concerns are more or less confined to food, drink, drugs, money, sex, digestive excretions, and football. Often cited as among the funniest sports books ever written, it came in at No. 7 on Sports Illustrated’s 2002 list of the top 100 sports books of all time.

Dan Thomas Jenkins was born in Fort Worth on Dec. 2, 1928, although many sources list the year as 1929. His father, E.T. Jenkins Jr., known as Bud, was a salesman, a gambler, and evidently a charmer who left the family when Dan was a toddler, though he showed up now and then to take his son to sporting events.

In a 2014 book, “His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir,” Mr. Jenkins expressed a fondness for his father, as well as for his mother, Catherine (O’Hern) Jenkins, whom he described with arch affection as a self-indulgent character who sold antiques and remodeled houses “and ultimately invented the migraine headache.”

From the age of 2, Mr. Jenkins grew up — contentedly, he wrote, despite the Depression — in the home of his father’s parents. He became the first member of the family to go to college, — at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, where he played on the golf team. One of his early heroes, golfer Ben Hogan, also lived in Fort Worth, and Hogan became something of a mentor, admired by Mr. Jenkins for his work ethic, perseverance (Hogan returned to championship golf after nearly being killed in a car accident in 1949) and devotion to excellence.

Mr. Jenkins got his first job in journalism in the mid-1950s, at The Fort Worth Press, hired by Blackie Sherrod, a writer and editor who would himself become celebrated in Texas as a Southern Damon Runyon. Mr. Jenkins succeeded Sherrod, whom he cited as an influence, as sports editor before landing at Sports Illustrated.

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Mr. Jenkins’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In 1959, he married June Burrage, whom he had known while growing up in Fort Worth. He leaves his wife, his daughter, his sons Marty and Dan Jr., a granddaughter, and a great-granddaughter.

Mr. Jenkins plumbed the homey if earthy wisdom of Fort Worth in a number of books after “Semi-Tough,” including the novels “Dead Solid Perfect” (1974), about a professional golfer, and “Baja Oklahoma” (1981), about a feisty waitress and single mother with aspirations to be a country singer; both became television movies.

Another novel, “You Gotta Play Hurt” (1991), a sendup of the sportswriter’s life, tells of a cantankerous Fort Worthian and the stuffy, big-time magazine he works for. Mr. Jenkins wrote it after leaving Sports Illustrated in the 1980s in a dispute with the managing editor at the time, Gilbert Rogin.