Last Call

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

"After a while, though, I started looking deep inside, and a new reality set in. The time had come for me to face the music," he says. "I'm losing ground as we speak," he says. "It hurts to know that I've got what I believe to be a really good new book out there that I can't promote. Oh, I've done a few radio interviews, things like that, but mostly what people want to talk about isn't Monster of the Midway but me getting ready to go to prison." Since jail rules forbid inmates to receive hardback books, he's not yet even held a copy of his latest effort in his hand. "I have seen the cover, though," he says. His 82-year-old mother, Leanna Dent, brought it with her on one of her Arkansas-to-Texas jail visits.

So how does he deal with the limbo, the regimented isolation and removal from a freedom he once embraced with such abandon? There are the televised football games on weekends, the brief twice-a-week visits to a small, fenced-in outdoor recreation area for fresh air and a quick game of hoops with fellow prisoners. Each evening, as mail is delivered, he receives The Dallas Morning News and a steady stream of letters from friends and strangers, family and fans. This time, however, there are no special privileges, no trusty status. The system--from judges to prosecutors, bondsmen to jailers--is angry at him for his senseless list of missed court appearances, bail jumpings and refusal to abide by rules of his earlier probation. Just listen to what they were saying during the time he was avoiding arrest: "He's just kind of rubbing it in the face of authorities," said Arkansas prosecutor Miller. "Obviously," added Oklahoma County Assistant District Attorney Peter Haddock, "he has no respect for the court system."

The eight-year prison sentence he ultimately received, says Brazos County Assistant District Attorney Granberry, is a "proper result." "Jim Dent showed a total disrespect and arrogance toward his court-ordered obligations and the criminal justice system."

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.

Now finally behind bars, he spends most of his time doing what he does best--writing.

"I've finished the first draft of a novel," he says, "a wild tale about a bunch of good-ol'-boy Texas gamblers who set out to fix a football game." He sent The Perfect Fix, written in longhand on stacks of legal pads, to sister Janice in Arkansas, who had it typed, then forwarded it to his Dallas literary agent, Jim Donovan.

"What I'm hoping," Dent says of his first attempt at fiction, "is that this will keep my career from being interrupted."

"That he's continued to write," Donovan says, "is the best thing he could be doing. It's helped him maintain his sanity. Jim's always talked of wanting to write a novel, and I think he has the talent to do a good one."

Meanwhile, in New York, his St. Martin's editor expresses a willingness to patiently await his return to the free world. "The way I look at it," Wolverton says, "he has a problem he has to get straightened out and behind him. Once he's done that, I'm ready for him to get back to work. He's a friend. I'm not going to abandon him."

Nor is Frank Luksa, the longtime Dallas sportswriter whom Dent has admired for years and always kindly addressed as "Uncle Frank." "Just look at [former Cowboys linebacker] Thomas Henderson," Luksa points out. "There was a time when it looked as if his life was just going to be one disaster after another because of drugs and alcohol. But he turned it around, got straight and has now been sober for 20 years.

"I was talking to him recently, and he passed along an interesting quote from Albert Einstein: 'You can't solve a problem with the same mind that created it.' Jim's got to come out of prison with that kind of attitude, a new mind-set, and be willing to make a lot of changes."

Today Dent says he's been amazed by the steady flow of encouragement that has come his way since he's been in jail. He estimates that he's received 300 to 400 letters, many from friends, some from people he doesn't know. Recently one arrived from a young West Texas man who had spent two years in the prison system Dent will call home. In great detail, the ex-con outlined what Dent might expect after being moved from jail to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and offered a lengthy list of go-along and get-along suggestions that would make serving time easier.

Then there are the old SMU frat brothers. As soon as word spread that Dent was in jail, a letter-writing campaign got under way. "I've heard from people I hadn't heard from in years," he says. "It has been that kind of support that's gotten me back on my feet."

Now, he says, he's ready to stop looking back and start focusing on the future. "I'm not going to be in prison forever," he says, "and I've still got a lot of things to do. I've got a lot more books to write." While most estimate he'll serve at least 18 months to two years of his sentence, parole could be possible in as little as a year. And while Dent plans to enroll in the prison AA program and do whatever is required to earn as early a release date as possible, he's also aware that his legal fate is now out of his hands.

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