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."
"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."
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).
Then, it was another Cowboys assistant coach, Jerry Tubbs, a linebacker on a series of great University of Oklahoma teams in the '50s, who had sparked Dent's interest in their story.
What ultimately resulted were back-to-back sports books now acclaimed as among the best in modern times. When, not long ago, USA Today listed what it judged to be the five top sports books published in recent years, not only was Dent's The Junction Boys included, but his The Undefeated, a detailed telling of the University of Oklahoma's 47-game winning streak, also made the list. There were superlative-laced reviews, sales enough to make national best-seller lists, a flow of sizable royalty checks and a movie deal with ESPN. "What Jim has done with Junction Boys and his subsequent books," says Peter Wolverton, his St. Martin's Press editor, "is create a new genre of sports book, taking milestone historical events and the people who participated in them to a new level of quality." Today, he says, every publishing house in New York is searching for similar books to mimic the sales success Dent has enjoyed.
Suddenly, he had money enough to buy rounds for the house. And a new venue to display the still-growing dark side--book-signing parties. Dent clearly put the emphasis on "party," and more than once, after too many scotches, too many beers, wound up in loud, profane arguments--not the best sales techniques.
Perhaps the greatest irony of his battle with booze was the fact no single incident resulted in any major consequence. Whatever damage might have been done was minor and quickly repaired. In the minds of many who knew him, it was just Dent being Dent. The true depths of his problems remained his well-kept secret.
In truth, many of his drinking antics were little more than mischievous--like the night years ago in Thousand Oaks when he and another writer helped a passed-out member of the Cowboys front office back to training camp. Instead of taking him to his dormitory room, however, Dent and his accomplice placed their drinking partner in the hatchback of a car parked in front of the team's temporary headquarters. The following morning, as a young rookie player made his way toward the dining hall for breakfast, he passed the scene Dent and his fellow prankster had staged, then raced into the office to report that he'd "found a dead man lying in a car outside." "That sort of thing," Dent says, "was pretty routine. Everyone was trying to beat the boredom of training camp." Dent, however, worked at it harder than most.
Over the years, the laughter began to disappear, and a cloud of legal troubles began to form.
He was in College Station on an autumn Friday in 1999, there for a bookstore signing the following day for the just-published Junction Boys, when he was arrested for late-night drunken driving and taken to jail. Since it was the third time he'd been ticketed for driving under the influence, a three-strike state law demanded that the charges be elevated from a misdemeanor to a third-degree felony. But, in the traditional dodge-the-bullet Dent style, he was bailed out by 5 a.m., got to his signing on time and sold 500 copies to the long line of die-hard Aggie fans in attendance.
Still, his legal problems were finally becoming serious.
To research, write and ultimately promote his book on the University of Oklahoma's record-setting winning streak, the Dallas resident of 28 years moved to Oklahoma City, adopting an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude toward his Texas troubles. When he didn't appear for a scheduled Brazos County court appearance, authorities were told to start looking for him.
Along the way, Dent says, they got some help from a small group of OU exes who were irate over some things he'd written about the long-deified Sooner coach Bud Wilkinson in The Undefeated. Days before the 2001 Texas-OU Weekend in Dallas, authorities received a tip that the man they were looking for was scheduled to appear at a Dallas book signing.
The signing went well. Immediately afterward, however, members of the Dallas County Sheriff's Department served the surprised author with an arrest warrant.
Finally, in 2002, Dent stood before a Brazos County judge who sentenced him to 40 days in jail and 10 years' probation for the DWI he'd received in College Station three years earlier.
"I think everyone was hoping that spending a lengthy amount of time in jail would give him the opportunity to think about the troubles he'd been creating for himself," says literary agent Jim Donovan, who recalls his client stopping in Dallas for a breakfast visit on the morning Dent was released. Dent, clearly thrilled to be free and eager to return to work, assured Donovan he planned to be on his best behavior before leaving for Oklahoma City.
But later that day, just five miles from his front door, Dent was pulled over by an Oklahoma City police officer suspicious that the writer was driving while intoxicated. In Dent's lap was an open can of beer; nearby the emptied remainders of a six-pack he admits purchasing before leaving Dallas.
His excuse for the terrible lapse in judgment is flimsy: a low blood sugar problem he's suffered with for years. "I'd been a night trusty at the jail," he says, "and worked right up until the time they released me. So, I hadn't had any sleep. On the way home, I convinced myself that a few beers might help me stay awake."
He posted a $3,000 bail bond and was set free, pending trial.
To compound his problems, Dent ignored the provision that required him to inform his Texas parole officer of his latest arrest. He continued to dismiss appearance demands of the Brazos County judicial system, and he put Oklahoma City in his rearview mirror as quickly as possible, moving to Hot Springs, Arkansas, as warrants again began flying.
His life had become a traveling paradox as his professional career continued to bloom even as his personal life became stormier by the day. The Undefeated was nearing the 25,000-copy sales figure and ESPN-TV had begun filming the movie version of The Junction Boys. Work on the Nagurski book was going well despite myriad distractions, and ESPN.com had hired him to write a weekly online column.
Dent, however, says he would have exchanged it all for a few more years of good health for his 84-year-old father. Suffering from congestive heart failure, the elder Dent had only a short time to live.
"That," his son says, "is why I went to Arkansas. There've been all these stories about me being on the run. The fact is, it was very important for me to be able to spend some time with my dad before he passed away. And, despite the fact it added to my legal troubles, I'm glad I did it. Instead of being in jail when he died, I was there to help with funeral arrangements, to give the eulogy at his service and to help my mother through some rough days."
Dent's explanation earned him little sympathy from those convinced he was merely running from the inevitable. After he didn't show up for one scheduled Arkansas court appearance, Garland County deputy prosecuting attorney Brent Miller lashed out: "He ought to be man enough to own up to what he's done, but I guess he's not," Miller told The Bryan-College Station Eagle. "He needs to get his comeuppance."
Even Dent's attorney, Q. Byrum Hurst, admitted at one point that he had no idea where his client was.
Trouble, meanwhile, was never far away. There would soon be another arrest, this time in Hot Springs on the Texas warrant. A staggering $1 million bail was set while officials awaited a hearing to determine if Dent would be extradited. After he'd been in jail for 12 days, however, the bail was reduced to $5,000. He wrote another check and was released.
Two weeks later, his father died. Soon after, Dent again jumped bail and disappeared.
The end of the line came last June in Las Vegas, where he had moved in an effort to put off his legal woes until he could complete his book on Nagurski and the Bears. "At that point, reality had begun to set in," he says, "and I'd already begun talking with my lawyer about turning myself in. But I wanted to complete the book first."
Driving back to his apartment late one night, he was involved in a minor accident. Police immediately determined he was drunk and, following a routine check, learned of the lengthy list of outstanding warrants. Dent's wayward travels finally had come to an end.
"Our mother was in the hospital with heart problems at the time," remembers sister Janice Dent, "and Jim had been phoning to check on her every day." When the calls suddenly stopped, she feared that he might have been arrested and was again in jail.
On a recent evening following a jail visit to her younger brother, Janice said she's begun to see a different person. "I think he's now aware that he's got to make the decision to change a lot of things about his life," she says.
MADD official Thurmond says her office had been closely following the Dent case for at least 18 months and had a confidential "tipster" who would occasionally contact her about his whereabouts. "Anytime I would get new information," she says, "I would pass it along to [Brazos County Assistant District Attorney] Jay Granberry."
How does the five-year MADD veteran view Dent's future? "Time will tell," she says. "You either come out of prison a much better person or a much worse person."
In the past five months, as he's called a claustrophobic 10-by-30-foot cinder-block jail space home, Dent has come to view that final arrest as "a blessing." "I know I was eventually going to hurt someone or hurt myself," he reflects. "I'm so glad I can look back and say that never happened."
For long days and nights in jail cells in Las Vegas, Hot Springs, then Bryan, he had continued to blame others--this time what he perceived as a vengeful legal system--for his situation. Denial, he calls it. Instead, it was Harry James Dent stubbornness, something he'd elevated to an art form over the course of his adult life.
"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."
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.
There are still moments, however, when the frustration of his situation manifests itself in the familiar Dent rant. Recently, after doing a telephone interview with Galloway, Dent was unhappy with one of the questions his old friend had asked: "Is this the end of Jim Dent?"
The author admits he's growing weary of interviewers quick to portray him either as someone to be pitied or as Public Enemy No. 1. "I haven't murdered anybody, or robbed a bank, or molested anybody's children," he argues. "I made some mistakes that have only hurt me. And now I'm going to pay for what I've done and then get back to work. I'm a strong person, and I'm going to make it."
Dent doesn't even wait for the next question to be asked. Yes, he insists, his drinking days are over.
So now he waits, marking time, attempting to nurture a patience he's never had, forcing himself into a positive frame of mind about the remainder of his life. It isn't, he admits, always easy.
And at night, long after the cell doors have clanged shut and the lights have dimmed, he falls into fitful sleep and welcomes a recurring dream. In it he is standing in Chicago's historic Wrigley Field; a soft breeze is floating off Lake Michigan, and the sweet scent of ivy wafts from the outfield walls. He's never quite sure why he's there, but fond memories of previous visits romp playfully through his mind. He's alone. He's happy.
And he's free.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.