College football lost one of its great writers on Thursday. Maybe it's greatest.
Dan Jenkins holds that title for me. Sports Illustrated, Jenkins' home for much of his career, described him as a legendary "golf writer and best-selling novelist," and that's all true. I would read Jenkins on golf, despite having only a passing interest, because it was Jenkins. I have the novels, too. It's all as good as advertised.
But the work I always return to at least a couple of times a year is Saturday's America, a collection of Jenkins' writing on college football for SI, published in 1970. Here you get the full effect of Jenkins' plain-spoken, country-intellectual, damn-that's-how-it-is style of describing a scene that made him the perfect chronicler of the college game.
If you're not familiar with his work, or if it has simply been a while since you've read it, here are four grafs of Jenkins on Nebraska's 16-14 win over Missouri in 1965. This version, an excerpt from the book, differs slightly from the version that appeared in SI on Nov. 8, 1965. (You can read the original story here.)
From Saturday's America:
Missouri's Dan Devine looked like a man who had just learned that his disease was incurable. He was leaning against a table in the silent gloom of his locker room, a towel around his neck, a paper cup of water in his hand, whip-dog tired, and his large brown eyes fixed vacantly on a lot of things that could have happened. He talked softly and very, very slowly. "I don't think . . . I can remember . . . a team of ours ever playing this well . . . and losing," he said. "But, well, they . . . they just . . . they somehow do a number of things real well." They were the ponderous, relentless, ill-attired Cornhuskers of Nebraska, and this is how they left you after a football game.
Devine had got them in his own stadium on a warm, picturesque homecoming day before the largest crowd, 58,000, ever to see a sports event in his state. It was the perfect upset situation. He had also got them 14-0 down in the first quarter with a poised, vicious, thoroughly dedicated team of his own that featured the talents of Gary Lane and Johnny Roland. But he had somehow lost, 16-14, in the last five minutes, and the only explanation seemed to be that Nebraska was overwhelming. Clumsy but overwhelming.
Indeed, this was the kind of team Bob Devaney had put together out in Lincoln: big, mobile, deep, patient, mysteriously unemotional, workmanlike and confident. Nebraska was so big that when the Cornhuskers ran out there, you could see the field tilt. Their uniforms were ugly with skinny numerals and their socks slipped down, and they stood around a lot at times, but there were moments when the ball was snapped that wild, wonderful things happened. They were headed for a 10-0 season, and when a young man named Larry Wachholtz place-kicked the winning field goal, a couple of Nebraska players were actually seen jumping up and down on the sideline.
Upstairs, Don Bryant, the Nebraska publicity man, was startled. "Look,” he said. "They almost look like students."
Jenkins and I disagree on the sartorial suitability of those mid-1960s Nebraska uniforms––they're my personal favorite––but I like to think it's the only point of contention we might have had. Or maybe I just need to think that.
I'll never be able to write a sentence like this, Jenkins' opener from his story following The Game of the Century in 1971 . . .
In the land of the pickup truck and cream gravy for breakfast, down where the wind can blow through the walls of a diner and into the grieving lyrics of a country song on a jukebox—down there in dirt-kicking Big Eight territory—they played a football game on Thanksgiving Day that was mainly for the quarterbacks on the field and for self-styled gridiron intellectuals everywhere.
. . . so instead I imagine that we would've been friends, me and this person I never met. And never will.
Except for every time I pick up Saturday's America again. It's a beautiful friendship.
Thanks for that, Dan.
Additional (Essential) Reading: The Disciples of St. Darrell, Pursuit of a Big Blue Chipper
The Grab Bag
- Tanner Farmer had himself a day at Nebraska’s Pro Day on Thursday.
- Jacob Padilla recaps day one from the Nebraska State Tournament.
- And here’s some more Jacob as he looks at the Huskers’ prospects at inside linebacker this spring.
- Greg Smith on Cam Jones, Nebraska’s ace peer recruiter, and Tony Tuioti’s approach to the trail.
- Nebraska women’s basketball fell in the Big Ten Tournament to Purdue.
Today’s Song of Today
This always struck me as a Dan Jenkins story in song form . . .
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.