An evening with His Ownself

ST. PETERSBURG — Two aging sports writers stood on the front porch of the venerable, semi-magnificent Vinoy Hotel on a semi-magnificent April night, declaring their sport of choice.

Junior geezer said to senior geezer, “What do you feel was your best stuff?” Meaning writing.

“College football,” said the man self-nicknamed His Ownself.

“I do love college football, even though I never won an award for (writing) it.”

His Ownself didn’t say this, but of course, he had won a gazillion awards for his writings for about small-ball.

“I love college football, too,” said junior geezer. “What was it Roy Hobbs said in ‘The Natural’? ‘God, I love baseball!’”

To which senior geezer replied: “What did Patton say, talking about war? ‘God, forgive me. I do love it so!”

“Count me as one of those with a sinful lust for college football. And yet I’ve never painted my face purple and white. Never worn a pig on my head. Never wheeled a two-ton smoker into a stadium parking lot and tried to barbecue a duplex. I’ve only occasionally contemplated whether life was more rewarding for a Cornhusker than it was for a Boilermaker, and rarely wondered what you’d get if you crossed a Hawkeye or a Buckeye with a Jayhawk or a Hokie. For that matter, what is a Hokie?” – Dan Jenkins, College Football Encyclopedia

That same passion comes across in most of the books by Dan Jenkins, along with wit, wisdom, sarcasm and quite a few undeleted expletives.

Overindulgence being mostly the theme of his books and screenplays, Jenkins researched them by enjoying the good life for most of his 78 years, living like a Hollywood star amongst the stagehands of sports writing.

In his early years, before the construction of an expansive new media center, Jenkins covered the Masters from the verandah of the Augusta National clubhouse while the rest of us slugs were hoofing it through the dogwoods and azaleas in sneakers, eventually returning to the old Quonset hut for typing duties. As far as I know, Ownself hasn’t walked the course to see a single live shot in 40 years, but he writes the game like he mowed every blade of grass and had played the final round out of the same bag with the last group.

On Sundays, Jenkins would suddenly appear in the Quonset hut for an hour, play his typewriter keys like Mozart and then depart before we had even figured out our middle paragraphs. And, of course, Ownself’s words would read like Wolfgang’s Marriage of Figaro sounded.

Once asked what phrase he had written most after covering more than 50 Masters, Ownself replied with the answer that only a writer struggling for transition would appreciate: “Earlier in the week, comma …”

Ownself also once wrote of seeing Amen corner on that first trip to Augusta National in ‘51:

“The first time you soak in the beauty and dangerous options of those magnificent holes – the greatest four-hole stretch in all of golf – well, that’s when you gasp the loudest, or blurt out something like, ‘Whoa, wow.’

“Excuse me. Did I just say ‘whoa, wow’? Summon the nurse.”

An evening with Dan Jenkins, whether over chicken fried steaks and cheeseburgers—or even just turning the pages of his work – is a treat. In any fantasy foursome for golf or grub, he would make most people’s dance card. And not just because he’s often funny or famous.

Ownself is a grand story teller, but even a grander listener and will challenge dinner guests in a subtle way to “tell us something you know.” Have a point of view, but at least make it a semi-educated one.  Otherwise, on occasion he will call B.S. on you.

Being a scholar of college football history, he leans heavily on the topic, but also enjoys delving into playful banter on such stuff as bad movie titles, greatest sports writers of all-time, most overrated/underrated writers, or anything that requires list-making.

He’s got one foot stuck in 1938, one foot stepping toward 2009 and both feet firmly planted on Fort Worth dirt, where from the vantage point of his front porch he can see the press box at Amon G. Carter Stadium, home of his beloved TCU Horned Frogs.

Just as Jenkins avoids the use of first-person in his writing, he also doesn’t care much for talking about his lifestyle with the rich and famous. As one might deduce by his very nickname, His Ownself talks of Dan Jenkins in the third person. He’s just not a first-person guy, to the point where he almost never uses the pronoun. (The nickname is taken from the title of his book Life Its Ownself: The Semi-Tougher Adventures of Billy Clyde Puckett and Them.)

The most famous sports writer of our time has played golf with presidents, spanned the globe covering the sport, authored 20 books and 20 screen plays and has his speed dial set for Hollywood producers and actors. (But doesn’t own a cell phone.) Despite this, and despite the co-nagging of his daughter Sally and My Ownself for more than 15 years, he sees no merit in writing his autobiography. “Nobody cares about any of that,” he said.

If he wouldn’t share his life story in the printed word, then, perhaps it could be coaxed out of him bit by bit through oral history. Thus the plot began for getting Dan Jenkins to the Sports Journalism Summit for just that purpose.

It was the Life and Good Times of a Sportswriter which he lived that led him to write about the bawdy lifestyle of golfers, football players, coaches, sports writers and Texas cowboys. One night in New York – probably at one of his favorite haunts like P.J. Clarke’s – Ownself ran into book editor Herman Gollob and told him about an idea he had for a book called Semi-Tough. Gollob responded enthusiastically, “I’d publish anything with the title ‘Semi-Tough,’ even if it had blank pages.

Semi-Tough became a best-seller and a movie and Billy Clyde Puckett a famous mythical sports figure.

Now, after a literary partnership in which Gollob has edited almost of his novels, Jenkins calls Herman the “Best Texas Aggie I have ever known and one of the smartest people on the planet.” Ownself and Gollob agree on everything from football to politics, which is why Herman comes out of retirement with the completion of every manuscript, just to edit the Jenkins novels.

“Herman is a serious Shakespeare scholar, so naturally he understands Billy Clyde Puckett,” said Jenkins.

Over the years, we have dined at various sites of U.S. Opens, from San Francisco to Pittsburgh to Pinehurst to Tulsa; in the clubhouse at Augusta; at his former home and restaurant in Ponte Vedra; and even a few New York eateries. My most memorable visit with my favorite sports writer, however, was a seven-hour road trip from Augusta to Washington, with Ownself behind the wheel while I held him hostage, chewing off his ear off about sports writers and sports. He talked about Hogan. About Bear Bryant, Darrell Royal and Barry Switzer. About starting Sports Illustrated. And even a little bit about his new third favorite sport – women’s basketball.

Ownself surrendered such choice stories about growing with his grandmother, at age 11 re-typing stories about World War II from the Fort Worth newspapers and falling in love with TCU football before puberty. That’s the closest I could ever get to getting Ownself to talk about Himself.

Since this material was far too rich not to be shared, we began to campaign to somehow convince Jenkins to share his wisdom and storytelling with the younger generation at Poynter Media Institute. We kept running into excuses like: He couldn’t do it because he was working on his latest novel, The Franchise Babe, about an 18-year-old female golfing hottie. Or he couldn’t do it because he would be at the Masters the week before and would be doing his Golf Digest piece. He couldn’t do it because he really wasn’t one much for lectures or speeches. Or he couldn’t do it because of El Niño.

Ownself The Curmudgeon is a hard man to convince, just as he was when he was dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming about the idea of swapping his beloved Underwood typewriter for a computer.

I once begged Dan Jenkins for five years to play one of my favorite golf courses, Black Diamond, in Lecanto near Ocala. Once he teed it up there, Black Diamond became to him what the Internet was to Al Gore: “I not only love it, I invented it,” said Ownself.

We talked for years about him coming to “The Swamp,” which he almost did several times while living in Ponte Vedra, but most likely will never do now that he’s stopped traveling very much. But after TCU, he admits to being a Semi-Gator fan.

It only took three years for us to get him to Poynter.  Eventually, Jenkins acquiesced and made the trip to St. Pete this spring, agreeing not only to do the Friday morning panel discussion on storytelling, but arriving three days early. He was lured to St.  Petersburg by his famous author-daughter Sally, who was in on the scam, and the two of them drove down from Augusta, Ga. after the Masters.

Once there and touched by the giving spirit of Poynter, he asked, “Would it be okay if I sat in with that group about writing a daily sports column?”

At Poynter, Jenkins soon fit like an old pair of house slippers. He was both brilliant and terse in his comments, causing daughter Sally to marvel, “Dad says more in just a few brief comments than we can say in several minutes.”

By his second day at the Sports Journalism Summit, Jenkins was hooked and Sally knew it because, “he’s not complaining about anything.”

On the story telling panel, he explained that he was a journalist first and a fiction writer second. When asked if he used an outline for his novels, Jenkins revealed that he planned a beginning and an ending, “but I leave the middle open because so many interesting characters seem to show up.”

Then Ownself was presented by Poynter Senior Scholar Roy Peter Clark with a special commendation for a lifetime achievement of sports writing excellence, the first of its kind in Poynter history.

Once back in Fort Worth, he emailed back his thanks “for treating me like an endangered species . . .”

Senior geezer also wrote:

“Poynter is better than we journalists deserve. Wonderful facility, and Roy Peter Clark is a prince among ink-stained wretches.  Having been there and met many of them, I no longer feel as hopeless as I did about the younger generation of typists.”

Seven years ago in an interview with Golf Digest colleague Guy Yocum, when Ownself was asked about what kept him going, he replied:

“I love what I do. The journalism, the deadlines, the books. The travel. The people. The conversation. I don’t believe in retirement. I believe when you retire, you die in many ways. I hope I’ll be slumped over my laptop or my desktop when they carry me out.”

Asked what he would want written on his headstone, Ownself replied to Yocum:

“’Sorry if you couldn’t take a joke.’ That would be the first line. Then I’d steal from my daughter and add, ‘Hey, it was only a sports event–it wasn’t child-birth.’”