Last Call

The career of Dallas sportswriter Jim Dent was skyrocketing, then booze and bad behavior caused a hard landing

"For as long as I've known him," says Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist and ESPN-103.3 talk show host Randy Galloway, "Jim's been one of those guys who never seemed to have any kind of stop sign in his life. Everything he's ever done, he's done to excess. And it would only get worse when alcohol came into the mix.

"I know there are people out there who are taking some degree of pleasure in the situation Jim's gotten himself into. And there are those who are fascinated by the downfall of someone who has had the kind of success Jim's had. Maybe he did bring it on himself, but I still hate that kind of thinking.

"There's far more than a career at stake here; there's a life that has to be turned around and saved."

In happier days Jim Dent had best sellers like The Junction Boys to celebrate. And in the acknowledgments he always credited his companion cat, Rolly, right.
In happier days Jim Dent had best sellers like The Junction Boys to celebrate. And in the acknowledgments he always credited his companion cat, Rolly, right.

Others are more hard-line. Khris Thurmond, victims assistant coordinator for the seven-county Brazos Valley chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MAAD), was in the Bryan courtroom in October when Dent received his sentence. And, while she heard him apologize to state District Judge Rick Davis for his behavior and promise to "get straightened out," she says, "If he had truly been sorry, he would have already changed. Instead, he obviously felt he was above the law and wouldn't be caught."

In spite of whatever personal demons haunted him, Dent prospered professionally for two decades. From the Star-Telegram he moved to the Dallas Times Herald, where from 1980 to '89 he continued to chronicle the Cowboys. When the Herald ceased publication, he quickly switched gears to become a nationally syndicated talk show host for Prime Sports Radio Network and started gathering material for an unauthorized biography of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Though copies hardly flew off the shelves, King of the Cowboys not only got Dent's foot in the book-writing door but re-emphasized that he was no student of the gee-whiz school of sports-writing. He was applying the same reporting skills that had earned him state and national journalism awards, among them one for a revealing profile of Jones.

Initially, he remembers, Jones had been receptive to the idea of his book, even granting a series of lengthy interviews. "Then," he says, "he became aware I was talking to other people, delving into his private life, and quit returning my calls." Soon, Dent says, there were rumors of a lawsuit and that a private investigator had been assigned to follow him as he gathered material. In time, his then-editor Edward Walters received a call from a Washington, D.C., attorney who said his client, Jones, was highly upset by what he was hearing would be in the book and demanded a prepublication look at the manuscript. Adams Publishing ignored the request, and the less-than-flattering bio was published in 1995. "All I ever told Jerry," says Dent, "was that it would be fair and objective." No legal action was ever taken, and Sports Illustrated eventually cited it as one of the three best sports books written that year.

Next, he teamed with colorful Major League Baseball umpire Durwood Merrill to write his biographical You're Out and You're Ugly, Too! And there was more hot water to tread. This time, however, the angry roar was directed more at Merrill--primarily for making critical statements about everything from the talents of several of the game's superstars to the league's commissioner and what he perceived as the outdated structure of Major League Baseball. "I have to admit," Dent says, "I was pleasantly surprised when it became obvious Durwood was willing to do a book that was something more than funny stories and stuff straight out of the box scores."

Soon came an offer to serve as a lead sports columnist for the San Antonio Express-News. That the job lasted only briefly, he insists, had nothing to do with drinking or rumors of dry-lightning fits of anger directed at his editors and co-workers. "What it came down to," he explains, "was a decision I made to write books, rather than a daily column. I knew I couldn't do both, so I made a choice."

Word rapidly spread through the sportswriting community, however, that the choice was, in fact, not Dent's. Instead, the story was that his welcome had quickly grown threadbare. Whatever the truth, his daily journalism days were at an end.

Yet it did nothing to slow his career. With praise already abounding for a third book that would elevate him to sportswriting stardom--The Junction Boys, a story of a legendary time in Texas A&M football history--he was anxious to get to work on yet another historical college football tale that had fascinated him for years.

"What I like," he says, "are sports stories that you can turn into good period pieces, filled with the lives and struggles of the people who were participants.

"When Gene Stallings was an assistant coach with the Cowboys," Dent recalls, "we'd sit around talking, and invariably the conversation would turn to his days as a college player at Texas A&M, where he was coached by Bear Bryant." Of particular interest to Dent were stories Stallings told of a brutal, inhumane 1954 summer training camp in Junction, Texas, where, for 10 hellish days, Bryant determined who would make his Aggie football team. Stallings would tell how two busloads of players left College Station for the dry, barren town on the edge of the Hill Country but only one, not completely filled, was necessary to bring the survivors home. Forming the foundation of championship A&M teams to follow, they were lionized as "the Junction boys," and Dent wanted to know more about them and their remarkable story ("Time of Their Lives," by Carlton Stowers, December 12, 2002).

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