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Dan Jenkins, sportswriter and author of comic football novel ‘Semi-Tough,’ dies at 90

Dan Jenkins in 2005.
Dan Jenkins in 2005. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Dan Jenkins, a sportswriter who brought an irreverent flair to his coverage of football and golf for Sports Illustrated and other publications, and whose comic novel about pro football, “Semi-Tough,” became a bestseller and a Hollywood movie, died March 7 at a hospice facility in Fort Worth. He was 90.

He had congestive heart failure and complications from a fall, said his daughter, Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins.

Mr. Jenkins spent more than 60 years as a sportswriter, beginning in his native Texas, and focused mostly on the two sports he knew best: college football and golf. His writing, marked by its casual humor and biting observations, influenced generations of sportswriters, but he found a wider audience with “Semi-Tough” and other wry novels about sports, journalism and Texas, including “Dead Solid Perfect,” “Baja Oklahoma” and “Life Its Ownself.”

After joining Sports Illustrated in 1963, Mr. Jenkins became “perhaps the most influential writer in the magazine’s history,” Michael MacCambridge wrote in “The Franchise,” a history of Sports Illustrated.

Charismatic and known as a remarkable raconteur who always picked up the check, Mr. Jenkins seemed to produce his novels and articles with little effort, following a credo of his own making: “Type fast, get it done and go to a bar.”

Dan Jenkins wrote and said the damndest things

The simplicity and seeming ease of his writing, however, masked a deep knowledge of sports that dated to childhood. He followed college football with a monastic intensity, attending his first Texas Christian University game in the 1930s, when the Horned Frogs’ quarterback was Slingin’ Sammy Baugh.

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Mr. Jenkins was drawn to golf, as a player and a spectator, while growing up in Fort Worth, the hometown of two leading golfers, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson.

A scratch golfer himself, Mr. Jenkins was the team captain while attending TCU and often played practice rounds with Hogan. The first major golf tournament he covered, the 1951 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills Country Club near Detroit, was won by Hogan in a heroic performance after recovering from a near-fatal car accident two years earlier.

“Those who watched the golf at Oakland Hills,” Mr. Jenkins wrote in the Fort Worth Press, “saw the greatest player in the game win on what may have been the toughest Open course ever devised.”

Mr. Jenkins went on to cover more than 200 of golf’s four “major” tournaments, helping to popularize the term “majors” and the sport as a whole. After leaving Sports Illustrated in 1985, he wrote monthly columns for Playboy and Golf Digest, chronicling a younger generation of golfers, from Tiger Woods to Jordan ­Spieth.

Mr. Jenkins published several books on the sport and in 2012 became only the third writer named to the World Golf Hall of Fame. A year later, he received the Associated Press Sports Editors’ Red Smith Award, one of the highest honors in sports journalism.

While writing about college football for Sports Illustrated during the magazine’s heyday, Mr. Jenkins was almost as famous as the players and coaches he covered. In 1966, Notre Dame fans inundated him with angry letters after he questioned coach Ara Parseghian’s decision to settle for a 10-10 tie with Michigan State in a showdown between unbeaten teams.

“A No. 1 team will try something, won’t it, to stay that way?” he wrote in Sports Illustrated. “Notre Dame did not. It just let the air out of the ball. For reasons that it will rationalize as being more valid than they perhaps were under the immense circumstances, the Irish rode out the clock.”

Fueled by Winston cigarettes and endless cups of black coffee, Mr. Jenkins wrote with a blend of breezy confidence, sardonic humor and historical perspective. He “influenced sportswriting as much as anybody who has ever written,” journalist Mike Lupica told MacCambridge for “The Franchise.” Mr. Jenkins’s style was copied by countless reporters and was cited as a forerunner of the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and other writers in the 1960s.

Between his magazine assignments, Mr. Jenkins began to write fiction. He published his debut novel, “Semi-Tough,” in 1972. It was composed in the form of the Super Bowl-week diary of Billy Clyde Puckett, a talented but incorrigible running back for the New York Giants by way of Texas.

In the novel, Billy Clyde and his pal, wide receiver Shake Tiller, prepare for the big game by chasing women and closing bars and occasionally reflecting on the larger meaning of football, life and Texas.

“It is outrageous,” journalist David Halberstam wrote in a New York Times review. “It mocks contemporary American mores; it mocks Madison Avenue; it mocks racial attitudes; it mocks writers like me; and it even mocks sportswriters for Sports Illustrated like Dan Jenkins.”

The book is replete with politically incorrect insults toward almost every ethnic and racial group but nevertheless became a runaway bestseller and was made into a 1977 film starring Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristoffersen and Jill Clayburgh.

Two of Mr. Jenkins’s other novels, “Dead Solid Perfect” and “Baja Oklahoma,” were made into TV movies. He published an auto­biography, “His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir,” in 2014, and his 12th novel, “Stick a Fork in It,” in 2017.

He made no apologies for his quip-laden prose.

“I don’t think I’ve ever sold out accuracy for humor,” he said. “I never wrote a line I didn’t believe, even if it comes out funny.”

Dan Thomas Jenkins was born Dec. 2, 1928, in Fort Worth. (He shaved a year off his true age for much of his life, but his daughter confirmed his date of birth.)

His parents divorced before his first birthday, and Mr. Jenkins grew up primarily in the home of his paternal grandparents and a wide circle of aunts and uncles.

He often remarked on his happy childhood in Fort Worth, where he played golf, listened to football games on the radio and developed an early interest in writing.

“My grandmother bought me a typewriter,” he told The Post in 1984. “It sat on the kitchen table. I would take the paper every day, put a piece of paper in and start copying the newspaper story word for word. One day, I started trying to improve on it. I thought, ‘This guy’s an idiot. I can do better than this.’ It hasn’t stopped since.”

He became a writer for the old Fort Worth Press in 1948, learning his craft from Blackie Sherrod, a major figure in Texas sportswriting, and was quickly recognized for his distinctive style. While working at the paper, Mr. Jenkins attended TCU, graduating in 1953.

After a short stint at the Dallas Times Herald, he joined Sports Illustrated and moved to New York, where he was a fixture at writers’ watering holes, including P.J. Clarke’s and Elaine’s. He returned to Fort Worth about 15 years ago.

Two early marriages, to Pattie O’Dell and Joan Holloway, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 59 years, the former June Burrage of Fort Worth; three children from his third marriage, Sally Jenkins of New York, her twin brother, Marty Jenkins of Fort Worth, and Dan Jenkins Jr. of Jaco, Costa Rica; a granddaughter; and a great-granddaughter.

In later years, Mr. Jenkins had a large following on Twitter, where his humor and retrograde social views sometimes invited a sharp backlash. In 2014, he published a snarky, made-up interview with Woods — accusing him, among other things, of being a bad tipper. The golfer demanded an apology for the “character assassination.”

“I just take pride in being right,” Mr. Jenkins said in 2001, recalling an encounter with an angry stranger in a bar. “He squinted at me and said, ‘Aren’t you Dan Jenkins?’ I nodded. He said, ‘I’ve read some of your stuff. Man, you’ve got a problem.’ I said, ‘No, you’ve got the problem, I’ve got the typewriter.’ ”

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