By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It was one of those cool-breeze, sunny mornings in Thousand Oaks, California, and before the Dallas Cowboys were to begin another preseason practice, a tennis match was under way on the Cal Lutheran campus. On one side of the net was coach Tom Landry and his assistant Dan Reeves. Opposing them were Fort Worth Star-Telegram sportswriter Jim Dent and network broadcaster Pat Summerall.
"Pat and I had several pregame Bloody Marys," Dent recalls, "then, after we won, we had a few more to celebrate." It was the late '70s, and for the young and promising writer still in his 20s, life was rich. Serving as a beat reporter assigned to America's Team was a glamour job, offering expense-paid travel, daily above-the-fold exposure and the day-and-night opportunity to rub shoulders with celebrity athletes and their star-studded hangers-on. The good-time kid from Arkansas, a graduate of SMU, had already come a long way.
He was, without doubt, a writer of great promise, destined to win awards and gravitate toward things bigger and better. In time, there would be even more high-profile newspaper stints, his own coast-to-coast radio show and, ultimately, best-selling sports books and a made-for-TV movie. As the intoxicating journey proceeded, Dent kept ordering another round.
And spiraling toward a self-imposed nightmare. The happy-hour social drinking morphed into an out-of-control habit. The day-after stories quit being funny and instead painted troubling pictures of a man with a serious problem. Too often there were rumors of angry, booze-driven verbal assaults on friends and let's-take-it-outside confrontations with strangers. And then, in the same flash with which the incidents occurred, things would quickly calm. Unfortunately, the span of time between such roller-coaster activities soon began to shorten.
Although his old tennis partner Summerall eventually woke to the realization that he had a drinking problem, checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic and launched the sober life he continues today, Dent sped hell-bent forward as the eternal frat boy, living with what he jokingly would refer to as a "sunrise curfew." Today, at age 50, he's behind Texas Department of Criminal Justice bars, facing eight years' imprisonment for misdeeds ranging from driving while intoxicated to parole violations and bail-jumping spread across four states.
Instead of traveling here and there for autograph sessions and meeting with interviewers eager to help boost sales of his latest book, Monster of the Midway, the story of NFL legend Bronko Nagurski and the 1943 Chicago Bears, he's awaiting word of which Texas prison unit he'll soon be assigned to, wondering what manner of career might be left to him.
Talking with the Dallas Observer in a recent series of phone calls from jail, before his transfer to an interim TDCJ facility, he spoke of the good times that led to bad; of buying into the romantic legend of the hard-drinking, bottle-in-the-bottom-drawer newspaperman. "I got swept up in trying to keep up with the fast pace set by a lot of my friends," he says. Then, in a somber tone, he notes that with the exception of Summerall and an old buddy, actor and Cowboys fan Gary Busey, most of them are now dead. Though he blames none for his own shortcomings, he recalls long, boozy nights spent in the company of hard-drinking Steve Perkins, former editor of the Dallas Cowboys Weekly, Doug Todd, the team's fun-loving, keep-'em-coming public relations director, even the Cowboys' late president and general manager, Tex Schramm.
Schramm, 30 years older than Dent and a man the author/journalist long called a friend, saw his Hyde-like side one evening following too many cocktails. A good-natured argument over something trivial soon turned into a profanity-laced shouting match keynoted by Dent's offer to fight. Only the fact there were others nearby who calmed the waters prevented another embarrassment.
As I told Dent when we began the interviews, I've spent a great deal of time during our 25-year relationship torn between urges to shake his hand in response to some new achievement or punch him in the nose for his senseless behavior--and now feel no small degree of guilt that those of us who are his friends didn't intervene long ago, confronting him with a tough-love demand that he seek help for his problem. But mending fences came easy for Dent. Friends and family have always been quick to forgive and forget, which is to say he's a man hard not to like; a warm, personable, do-anything-for-you kind of person when sober and someone I purposely distanced myself from when he was drinking.
"I wasn't ready to listen to anyone," Dent now confesses. "I was too damn stubborn. I've been an alcoholic for years, one of those who had to hit rock bottom to wake up."
He admits there were too many hard hangover mornings when he'd awake to the realization that he'd have to make a series of apologetic phone calls to those he'd cursed, belittled and egged into fights the night before. "I've spent far too much of my life trying to fix things and asking myself how many friends I'd lost," he says.
"And there was a time," he says, "when I was quick to blame other people, other situations for my own behavior. That was just the booze talking. Believe me, I've had a lot of time to think about things like that in the last few months, and I've finally come to the realization that I've got to take full responsibility for the things I've done."