On September 21, 2018, the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Sports Communication & Media honored the recipients of the second annual Dan Jenkins Medal for Excellence in Sportswriting.
The Jenkins Medal jury, made up of renowned sportswriters and editors, chose Dave Kindred to receive the 2018 Lifetime Achievement award and picked Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard’s article “You Can’t Give In” about NBA coach Monty Williams struggle to cope after losing his wife Ingrid in a car accident as the best sportswriting of the year.
The Jenkins Medal holds incredible weight, both because of the prestige associated with being chosen by a jury of peers and because of the incredible legacy of its namesake.
Every sportswriter working today has been influenced, whether they realize it or not, by Dan Jenkins. Jenkins got his first writing job at the Fort Worth Press shortly after graduating from high school and worked there throughout his time in college at Texas Christian. At the age of 88, Jenkins still writes regularly, both for Golf Digest and on his Twitter account, where he has more than 64,000 avid followers.
“Dan changed the way people wrote about sports,” Michael Butterworth, director of the Center for Sports Media & Communication, said at the Jenkins Medal awards ceremony. “He was able to at once convey the seriousness of sports and also poke fun at it, and he did it in such a way that he was a worldly man, culturally literate, but he recognized that sports could feel like a matter of life and death, not only to the participants, but also to the observers. For so long, sports had been treated as the toy department, as something that was not serious, but after Dan and his writing, you didn’t have to apologize to be a sportswriter.”
Perhaps the special ingredient in Jenkins’ writing came from his approach to the work.
“Dan told me that he likes to talk to young sportswriters, but he quits listening as soon as he hears one of them say ‘career path,’ because for Dan, this was never a career,” Kindred said.“This was a life, and he loved the writing, he loved the work, he loved the people. He loved the people in the arena. And whether he knows it or not, his talent, the humor, the insight, the stuff he was able to show is possible to do in writing has inspired generations. Not a single generation, generations of sportswriters.”
Ballard and Kindred are among those inspired and influenced by Jenkins, and each has inherited a little of the Jenkins magic.
Wright Thompson, who received the 2017 best sportswriting medal for his ESPN The Magazine article “The Secret History of Tiger Woods,” introduced Ballard and identified the winning article as “a classic Chris Ballard story.”
“It’s about an ordinary man who is faced with an extraordinary obstacle or situation and as we watch this person struggle, we learn something both about the person the story is about but also about the frailties and limits and power of human nature and ultimately a little something about ourselves,” Thompson said. “The ability to do that is why Mr. Jenkins is in this room, it’s why Chris Ballard is in this room. For all the students here, this is why you’re here, to try to figure out how to do that.”
As a young man, Ballard thought he could never write like his idols Frank Deford, Gary Smith, and, of course, Dan Jenkins. But when he first joined Sports Illustrated as a fact checker, Ballard realized what made those writers so incredible might not be magic after all.
One of the first stories Ballard worked on was by Smith himself, and Smith provided Ballard with pages upon pages of contact information for each of his sources.
“Gary Smith had spoken to 75 people for this magazine story, and as I was calling them, I found out that he had spoken to them multiple times at length,” Ballard said. “And that’s when it started to dawn on me. Maybe, there was no magic. Maybe magic was just another word, at least for some of these writers, for effort. Maybe that is what mattered here. And effort, I was like, well, I can do that, right? I can put in the effort. I can ask questions.”
For “You Can’t Give In,” Ballard asked so many questions the story took 10 months to complete and he turned it in more than 5,000 words over his original assigned limit.
“Was I doing Monty’s story justice? That’s what mattered to me,” Ballard said. “Monty is an incredibly private and humble man, so I knew what it took of him to do this. Not every story is like this. Some other stories are funny or combative, but this is the story I found that I could tell . . . Athletes are raised on a pedestal, but they are still people and they go through the same sh– we go through, and just because they are famous or rich doesn’t mean it’s not hard. Maybe if I got enough specifics about that I could make a universal story out of that.”
The evening’s second honoree, Kindred, has worked as a sportswriter across seven decades. He’s been a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The National Sports Daily, Sporting News, and Golf Digest in addition to writing 11 books. He has received the Associated Press Sports Editors’ Red Smith Award award and the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing and is a member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame.
So it’s not surprising in his speech at the Jenkins Medal ceremony that Kindred said, “Very few things thrill me.”
“I was in bed with Muhammad Ali, one of us had on clothes. I interviewed Charlize Theron in the moonlight in South Carolina. I’ve seen Howard Cosell in his underwear,” said Kindred, recalling some of the most memorable moments in his long writing life.“So things don’t thrill me much, but this does.”
And that’s the magic of Dan Jenkins, grandfather and reigning king of sportswriting.