Writing about writing, revealing the greats, including one, "His Ownself."
Editor’s Note: I’m in a reflective place. Though a Sooner football column’s up next, my head’s currently in the craft, spurred by an old-sportswriter’s “Semi-Memoir.”
I used to write funnier.
More sarcasm. More one liners.
More rim shots, like the one I wrote the week after Jason White tore one of his ACL’s and Bob Stoops referred to it as a mere “sprain” only to have the Oklahoman — had to be George Schroeder reporting — put out a story the next day, White family members as sources, that he’d actually torn his ACL and would have season-ending surgery soon.
In The Norman Transcript’s Gameday section that week, I rhetorically asked if Stoops would next try convincing us professional wrestling was real.
I wasn’t trying to kick Stoops after he’d been embarrassed, but explain to him and the world that that’s a great way to lose the folks who cover your program and you shouldn’t want to do that.
After the next game, if you can believe it, Brent Venables sort of congratulated me for coming so strong with it.
Had to be after a 58-0 win over Tulsa, Nov. 3, 2001, which made me 33, in my fourth year as the Sooner football beat writer, my fifth at the paper, at time I had a once-a-week column, almost two years before becoming sports editor.
I appreciated a coach read me when he didn’t have to, and appreciated his understanding we all have a job to do and, though what the program might hope gets written and what gets written may sometimes overlap, it’s purely coincidental.
I worry what’s made me less funny, or more stuffy, more something — I can feel it; hard to define it — is so many years of editing so much copy at The Transcript and almost three years as adjunct professor at Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, where the whole idea was brevity, brevity, brevity, clarity, clarity, clarity, just the facts, facts, facts; exactly what ought to be taught, but easy to get trapped within and, being trapped within, harder to recognize other more readable and fun ways to tell the story.
I’m still very cutting, I think, which I like, but less playful, which feels like a loss.
I’ll give you an example (in a minute or two).
Dan Jenkins may be the greatest sportswriter who ever lived.
Others in the conversation include Red Smith, Frank Deford, Jim Murray, Gary Smith, Rick Reilly*, Mitch Album, Joe Posnanski, Mike Lupica** and, though it may be hard to put him on all-timer list given he’s been trapped here in Oklahoma with the rest of us, Berry Tramel*** has been fabulous for decades.
* Reilly sort of became a caricature of himself in his latter days at ESPN, after he’d left Sports Illustrated, after ESPN The Magazine ceased to be a thing and the Worldwide leader worked hard to find places for him, whether he added any value or not. Still when Sports Illustrated was king, he was the best and I don’t mean for the back-page column that made him famous. Go find his long form feature on Bryant Gumbel, because it’s amazing, or read his hilarious novel “Missing Links,” the book I was reading on my flight to a job interview at the Lincoln Journal Star in 2001 or ’02, when I could barely stay upright in my seat, it was so funny.
** Oklahomans may hate Lupica, remembering the time on “The Sports Reporters” he took on Sooner football for running up the score against Text A&M, when in fact OU had popped A&M 77-0 despite taking the air out of the offense early in the third quarter. Still, there’s something about the guy who’s had the best column in New York going back to the 1970s when he was in his 20s. Don’t read one of his columns, it may throw you. Read 10, or one of his sports novels and you’re bound to understand.
*** I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ve always believed had Tramel not written this column, OU might have been stuck with two more years of John Blake, ergo no national championship. That and he’s funny, almost always right and both of us agree it’s Posnanski who’s the best going now (and who writes on Substack here). Anyway, Tramel’s been must reading for me forever and, in my vanity or confidence, feel free to judge, I’ve long hoped I might be the second best sports read in our fair state. Though I was in the wrong place to build stature, I’ve long thought I had the words
Back to Jenkins, whose memoir “His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir,” I’m about 100 pages from finishing.
He wrote for the Fort Worth Press, Dallas Times Herald, Sports Illustrated, Playboy and Golf Digest.
His thing was college football, golf, and sidesplitting sports novels; none, perhaps, as hilarious as Reilly’s “Missing Links,” tough that’s like complaining, among Bill Murray movies, “Caddyshack” falls short of “Stripes,” or, among baseball movies, “The Bad News Bears” falls short of “Major League” when all of them are terrific.
The screen adaptation of Jenkins’ “Semi Tough,” with Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson and Jill Clayburgh, was the first R-rated movie my parents took me to see.
I’d recently turned 9.
Years after seeing it, I read the book, much of it during biology class my sophomore year at McGuinness.
Couldn’t put it down.
“Dead Solid Perfect,” another of his novels, became an HBO movie, Randy Quaid in the lead, and every bit as funny as “Tin Cup.”
Already a frequent contributor to Sports Illustrated, when the magazine asked Jenkins to use his connections to the game and contribute reporting to a story about the trials and tribulations of putting, Jenkins decided to do the whole thing himself — 3,000 words without asking permission — sending it in and seeing what happened.
With slight eventual help from editors, this was his first paragraph, written in 1962, recounted in his 2014 memoir, five years before his March 7, 2019, death.
“The devoted golfer is an anguished soul who has learned a lot about putting just as an avalanche victim has learned a lot about snow. He knows he has used putters with straight shafts, curved shafts, shiny shafts, dull shafts, glass shafts, oak shafts, and Great Uncle Clyde’s World War I saber, which he found in the attic. Attached to these shafts have been putter heads made of large lumps of lead (“weight makes the ball roll true,” salesmen explain) and slivers of aluminum (“lightness makes the ball roll true,” salesmen explain) as well as every other substance harder than a marshmallow. He knows he has tried forty-one different stances, inspired by everyone from the club pro to Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio, and as many different strokes. Still, he knows he is hopelessly trapped. He can’t putt, and he never will, and the only thing left for him to do is bury his head in the dirt and live out the rest of his life like a radish.”
It won him a job then and offers inspiration now, because I still want to write like that, or in the ballpark of that, find the funny for which I once had more.
Even though such words like that aren’t particularly valued any more.
Via social media, hundreds and thousands of web sites, innumerable sports radio outlets and what gets said before noon each day on ESPN, it’s stupefyingly difficult to recast what’s already been “taked” over so many times and get readers to want to read it.
It worked for Sports Illustrated wonderfully for decades. Events we’d already read about in our daily newspaper and may have watched live, it would come with a retelling a few days later and we’d love it there, too, eager to learn all we’d missed in the limited space of immediacy the times then gave us.
It may be out of vogue but that’s what I want to do still, well enough to get people to want to read it, because it’s too smart or too fun, or both, to not.
Doing it, I’d like to find all the old voices I believe I once had. When, though they all sounded like me, they were still not the same.
Getting there’s likely to require reading the work of those timeless names all over again.
Sometimes the journey’s the reward.
Thanks for reading Oklahoma Columnist, by Clay Horning! Subscribe for free and not miss a post the rest of the month.