The High Life and Fast Times of Jim Dent

The celebrated author of The Junction Boys has a thousand stories to tell. But each rollicking tale is tinged with the sad truth that he has a serious drinking problem. Even Dent himself can’t count how many times he’s been arrested.

He went to Mexico planning to drink himself to death. By January 2014, Jim Dent had alienated anyone who ever loved him. He was wanted on felony warrants in at least two Texas counties—stemming from his eighth, ninth, and 10th DWI arrests. And his book was so late that the publisher canceled the contract. So he cut off his ankle monitors and made his way down to San José del Cabo, on the Sea of Cortez. He got a condo on the beach for $800 a month and started drinking big bottles of Oso Negro vodka, which he could buy for 83 pesos—a little more than five bucks. He soon decided that he liked it there, and he didn’t want to die after all.

An internet phone line allowed him to call the United States, and he started working again on what would now be an independently published ebook—the first part of a trilogy—about the hard-partying star quarterback Johnny Manziel. A friend from Dallas paid him to write a screenplay about the legendary SMU running back Doak Walker. Dent would type in the mornings, then go swimming in the warm, clear water a few hundred feet from his door. Then he’d write a little more, cut out around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and reward himself with a drink or six. He had a girlfriend he’d see sometimes, and he made friends at a few bars in town.

By the middle of September, Manziel Mania was out, Dent was doing phone interviews with sports radio shows all over the country promoting it, and he had steady income. Though he was still a wanted man in Texas, he knew he wasn’t a high enough priority for the federal government to get involved. He even boasted about his book’s sales on his public Facebook profile

Then Hurricane Odile hit. 

One woman he dated during this stretch says their lives were fun for a while, full of glamorous parties. But the drinking was a problem, and he wouldn’t stop. 

Dent tells an incredible tale of survival. He says he was asleep in his condo when the storm came ashore in the middle of the night. He says he put on his ski goggles and, with his water-ski rope, tied himself to the metal railing on his porch so he could watch the hurricane. 

“It was amazing,” he says. “The colors and the wind and the sound. I stayed as long as I could. I ran in the side door just as my plate glass window blew out.”

Then he says he got under his bed, but the water on the floor was rising too fast and he worried he’d drown. As he got up, he says, he felt the building shaking—“It was an earthquake!” He hunkered down in the closet and, though he wasn’t a particularly religious man, began to pray. He says part of the roof came off in the Category 4 winds. He figured he’d be crushed. In the end, he says, his condo was completely destroyed, but he escaped mostly unscathed. 

At that point, Dent says, he was planning to make his way back to Collin County and turn himself in. “I had done wrong,” he says, sounding like a little boy from Arkansas. “I was gonna come back home and give myself up and hope that things were gonna go a little bit better.”

He didn’t come home, though. He faked a heart attack to get on a plane to Guadalajara and stayed in Mexico for another four months.

•••

“I don’t drink when I write,” Dent tells me. “but I can write on a hangover. I’ve been known to write a 5,000-word chapter in one day.”

The Collin County sergeant sitting in the small room with us smirks at the author’s braggadocio. Dent is trimmer and looks healthier than he does in old photos, when he was close to 250 pounds and constantly red-faced. He says he hasn’t had a drink in more than two months—since he was arrested trying to sneak back across the border in San Diego. He’s wearing a green, county-issued jumpsuit, and as he talks, the echoes of metal doors opening and closing throw off his cadence.

I contacted him in the spring, as he was awaiting sentencing for his ninth and 10th DWIs, facing up to 40 years in prison. I’d never met him before, but I wanted to see for myself what had become of the man so many writers in Texas admired. From the outside it seemed like—for most of his career, anyway—Dent had the grand life a lot of writers strive for: bouncing from swanky hotel to swanky hotel in New York, Miami, L.A., drinking with people we only see on TV, getting into the kinds of Las Vegas adventures most of us only read about, all the while ferreting out the kinds of fascinating stories that command a reader’s attention. 

When I visit, a Dallas Morning News story about him has just come out, and he’s bothered. He says he’s considering suing. Specifically, Dent says, the paper got some of his finances wrong. He says he will still get $250,000 if his book Twelve Mighty Orphans is made into a movie. And he swears he never published his own obituary, though several people remember him writing one. He also estimates the News story’s length at 9,000 words—it’s actually half that—and calls it “the longest story to appear in the DMN since the John F. Kennedy assassination.”

He’s a captivating storyteller and not shy about self-promotion. Telling me the hurricane story, he imitates the loud, gushing winds of the storm, and the sergeant and I both laugh. While describing the chaos, Dent stops and points at my notebook.

“This is good shit,” he says.

Of course, the fact that he’s an addict makes it impossible to know whether he’s telling the truth. But his résumé is indisputable. He covered the Dallas Cowboys for more than a decade, a star at both the Dallas Times Herald and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He was also a nationally syndicated radio host and best-selling author, responsible for some very popular sports books that either have been made into movies or will be soon. (My All American, scheduled for release later this year, is based on Dent’s book Courage Beyond the Game. The movie is directed by Angelo Pizzo, who wrote Rudy and Hoosiers.)

There are stories of tough guys in black suits and white ties showing up at his usual haunts, looking for Dent, saying he owed money. 

Dent is writing a new book in jail, he says. It’s about his life as a drinker. Working title: Last Call. He writes it by hand, with a pen and a legal pad, and sends it to his sister in Little Rock. She types it and sends it back for him to edit. In the two and a half months he’s been in jail, he’s written about 100 typed pages, which he says he’ll send me. He says he hopes he can publish it by Christmas.

We also talk about some of the writers and agents we both know and bars we’ve both patronized. Dent snaps his head a bit and sneers when I mention the name of one magazine writer, because he remembers a bad review the guy gave one of his books four years ago.

Over the course of a few weeks, I visit Dent twice in jail, and we talk on the phone a lot. We talk about how he had a happy childhood, growing up in Arkansas. Both of his grandfathers were alcoholics, he says, but his father wasn’t a big drinker. Dent’s father only had an eighth-grade education, but he was a successful truck salesman, and the family had season tickets to watch the Arkansas Razorbacks. That’s where Dent fell in love with football. He played in high school, and except for the occasional sip of cherry vodka with his buddies, says he didn’t drink much until he got to SMU.

Dent tells me he had a teacher in eighth grade who had him diagram sentences, and he liked the way they seemed to fit together like little puzzles. The same teacher introduced him to The Grapes of Wrath, the first book he loved.

“I felt bad for the people from Oklahoma. I wanted to fight along with them,” he says. “I think that’s where I got onto the underdog story.”

Usually the Collin County jail is pretty strict about how long inmate visits last. We were told we would have a maximum of 20 minutes for the first meeting. But our conversation that day goes on for nearly twice that, because the sergeant in the room is so fascinated by Dent’s tales.

•••

dent

RAP SESSION: Dent has been arrested so often—this is merely a sampling of his numerous mug shots—that, at one point, his agent Jim Donovan was sending checks to five different attorneys in four states. Donovan finally gave up on Dent after 14 years, even though his books continue to sell. “Life is just too short,” he said.


The rules of the media golf tournament were simple:
after each hole you had to drink a beer for every stroke you had over par. Dent, who was in his mid-20s, was a pretty terrible golfer, so it didn’t take long before he was wasted. The event was at Stevens Park, and a lot of the young sportswriters were there. At some point Dent was driving a golf cart down a steep hill and lost control, rolling it into some iron bars at the edge of the course. He emerged, in the words of one reporter, “pretty bashed up,” but he was laughing and smiling, so everyone else laughed, too. That was Dent.

By the time he was 24, he was a full-time Cowboys beat writer—the youngest in the herd. Doug Bedell started his career with Dent in Beaumont, then worked with him at the Dallas Times Herald in the mid-’70s. Bedell says that back then they were “the best of friends.” And it was a good time to be a reporter, with three thriving newspapers in North Texas. There was plenty of debauchery, he says, but they were always serious about the journalism. Dent got a lot of praise and attention for stories about recruiting violations and financial misappropriation and racial prejudice.

“He brought something new to sports writing,” Bedell remembers. “He was chasing down rumors, doing investigative stuff that was respected for good reason.”

Being a sportswriter back then also meant free alcohol everywhere. There were courtesy suites with open bars for members of the media at every horse race, every basketball game, every boxing match. After reporting on a round at a golf tournament, Dent could walk over and have a couple rounds of beers with some of his sportswriter heroes.

He says covering the Dallas Cowboys during that stretch was like being on tour with the Beatles. In every city there were fans and curious bystanders swarming the stadium and the hotel lobby. There were excited women in every direction, decadent parties, dinners at hard-to-get-into restaurants. He tells stories about getting drunk with Jimmy Johnson in Orlando and getting drunk with Randy White at White’s own bar. As Dent tells it, they went back to White’s ranch house in Prosper, because “he was going to show me some martial arts moves.” They started “knocking the crap out of each other,” before the defensive tackle sent the spry writer crashing into a wall.

For six weeks at the end of every summer, the writers all went to Thousand Oaks, in Southern California, for Cowboys training camp. After filing their daily stories, they’d gather in the hospitality suite, and the party would start. When he was back in Dallas, Dent would often close out his nights with the other young writers at Louie’s or Joe Miller’s. 

Longtime sports columnist and radio host Randy Galloway is 10 years older than Dent and has known him for more than 40 years. He remembers Dent running down Texas Rangers quotes as an intern at the Dallas Morning News

“I’ve always liked him,” Galloway says. “Dent was as good a reporter-writer combo as you’ll find. There’s a lot of people who can write, but not a lot of reporters who go after it.”

Working for competing papers, Galloway and Dent went on road trips together for more than a decade. One time, in 1983, they were covering a horse race in Arkansas, and after everyone else went to bed, Dent continued to drink. The next morning they were all supposed to meet for breakfast at a nearby diner, but Dent wasn’t there. He called the diner and explained that he’d been pulled over for drunken driving and needed someone to get him out of jail.

A few minutes later, Galloway came striding through the front door of the police station and pointed at Dent. “Son,” Galloway said in his deepest Texas drawl, “I raised you better than this!”

Both men still laugh as they recount the story. Back then, DWIs weren’t as serious as they are now. Dent had to pay a small fine, and that was that. When he’s talking about his list of transgressions, he sometimes forgets about this one and refers to his second DWI as his first.

“Dent wasn’t any wilder or worse-behaved in the 1980s than a lot of other local sportswriters,” says Bud Kennedy, who overlapped with Dent at the Times Herald and the Star-Telegram. “We all came along when sportswriters were expected to live up to this legend as the high-rolling, hard-drinking party hounds we read about in Dan Jenkins’ novels. We were 25, and we all wanted to be like Dan and Bud Shrake and Gary Cartwright, or whatever we imagined they were like.”

There was a Hunter S. Thompson quote Dent loved to recite on cue: “Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for f—offs and misfits—a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.”

By the mid-’80s, recreational cocaine was all over Dallas, and Dent certainly didn’t abstain. He used to tell people, “I doze but never close.” Galloway remembers one night when they’d been drinking late in Thousand Oaks, and Dent got a call from Gary Busey—and proceeded to drive 45 minutes or so to Los Angeles to keep the party going. 

Friends from the time noticed a change in Dent’s personality. He had a new persona and nickname in bars. As the night grew later and he was further gone, Dent would start to mumble and blow little floating spit bubbles. Eventually this became a clue that the fun for the evening was over. It’s what his friends called Rocket Man, as in: “The Rocket Man came out,” or “He went Rocket Man,” or “The only people who could stop the Rocket Man were the people who stopped him now: law enforcement.”

•••

He says the first real troubles began when he switched from drinking mostly beer to mostly hard liquor. There were more fights, more blackouts, more problems in general. He was in the parking lot at Louie’s when he first wondered if he should quit drinking. He doesn’t remember the exact date—probably one of the times he was thrown out—but he was in his 40s, divorced and increasingly distant from his friends. 

“I was lonely,” he tells me. “Alcoholics drink because they’re lonely. They may go to a bar to find friendship, but they go home to an empty house.”

By then the Dallas Times Herald was gone, and Dent was hosting a sports radio talk show and trying to start a book career. He declared bankruptcy in an attempt to save the house he’d built in Flower Mound, and he’d gone from driving a $33,000 Volvo to driving a $2,000 Caprice. It’s around then, in 1994, that he got his second DWI, this time in Denton County. He got another in Dallas County in 1997. One, he says, stemmed from a fight with his ex-wife, and the other came not too long after a girlfriend got an abortion.

One woman he dated during this stretch says their lives were fun for a while, full of glamorous parties. But the drinking was a problem, and he wouldn’t stop. Like the other women I spoke to about him, she didn’t want to talk much about her time with Dent and asked that I not print her name.

Jim Donovan first met Dent in 1994 through another writer. Donovan had just become a literary agent, and he was looking for authors. Dent had a solid idea: a well-sourced book about the misbehavior of Jerry Jones, from a writer who had covered the team for years. They worked on a proposal and got a deal for King of the Cowboys

Book writing was harder than Dent expected, though. Structure didn’t come naturally. Donovan was the first editor for each chapter. Dent was living in an apartment in Las Colinas then, and Donovan, an author himself, would go over with notes. 

“He wrote short paragraphs, like a newspaper writer,” Donovan says. “But he took editing well. Not all authors do.”

The book came out during training camp in 1995 and sold modestly. Dent says that Jones offered him $250,000 to ditch the book before it went to print, then bought thousands of copies to keep it from the public. 

“Everybody has some kind of stop sign. If it’s booze, if it’s women, if it’s cocaine, if it’s gambling, Jim just didn’t have a stop sign.”

He wrote a second book a few years later, this time with an umpire, called You’re Out and You’re Ugly, Too. But his first real success came in 1999 with The Junction Boys, the story of coach Bear Bryant’s torturous Texas A&M preseason training camp. Dent says he first heard the story in a bar in 1985.

The book became a best-seller, tapping into a huge audience of fans of both A&M and Alabama, where Bryant spent most of his career. In 2002, the book was turned into an ESPN movie that aired regularly for weeks. His prose won’t draw comparisons to Fitzgerald or Joyce, but his stories unfold quickly, with characters you want to root for. The subjects of his books—the Dallas Cowboys, the Chicago Bears, the football programs at UT, OU, and Notre Dame—make them great for Christmases and birthdays. And one of Dent’s great skills is his ability to find the true underdog stories even in these vaunted institutions, with all their expectation and privilege. 

The people who had known him for years began to see less of him. He disappeared to Las Vegas for long stretches. There are stories of tough guys in black suits and white ties showing up at his usual haunts, looking for Dent, saying he owed money. There are stories of girlfriends showing up with bruises and sore jaws.

Galloway got a call from Dent in 2002 asking if he could come on Galloway’s radio show to promote his new book. They set up a time a few days later—“When it came to promoting books, Dent was always on time,” Galloway says—and Dent called in. When his producer fielded the call, Galloway knew something was strange.

“Dent was in jail!” Galloway says. “He was doing the interview from the Brazos County jail.”

Galloway listened in on the line before they went on the air. What he heard was Dent yelling: “Hey, you motherf—ers, I said shut the f— up! I’m doing work here!” Galloway asked if he still wanted to do the interview. “Yeah,” Dent said. “They’re shutting up now.”

That was when Dent was serving 40 days for his fourth DWI. On the day he got out, in March of 2002, he drove up to Dallas to have breakfast with Donovan. They talked for a while about Dent’s next book, his plan for research, and his goal to stay sober. Donovan gave him a little bit of money. Then Dent drove to Oklahoma, where, that night, he got his fifth DWI.

•••

Over the years, Dent has been to alcoholics Anonymous. He was given shots of Vivitrol, a drug that’s supposed to make you sick if you drink alcohol. “The problem was I’d drink on it and not get sick,” he says. At one point he wore a device on his ankle that was supposed to measure the alcohol in his perspiration every 30 minutes. Even a nearly two-year stint in prison didn’t change him. He thinks of it in terms of his ability to handle his booze in public. Like he’s an aging quarterback who doesn’t have the arm strength he once did.

Sometimes even Dent has difficulty keeping track of his timeline. He could often go a few years without getting into much trouble. But other stretches are pure calamity, time-stamped by book publications and the arrest reports his former friends would email to each other.

When he was on the run, which was often, he’d put his belongings in storage somewhere, then hide somewhere else. Sometimes in the backwoods of Arkansas. Sometimes on the casino floors of Las Vegas. There were more arrests: a DWI in Nevada, another one in Arkansas. 

By 2007, he had become a terror to the people who loved him. He was arrested or cited at least three times in Las Vegas that year. In May, he was involved in what police called a “domestic violence event,” though he was gone by the time officers arrived. In September, he was cited for disturbing the peace. In October, police responded to another domestic violence call, this time arresting Dent and charging him with battery and coercion by use of deadly threats—for at least temporarily preventing a girlfriend from calling 911. There was more prison time. He says the other inmates called him “the old guy who fights” and mostly stayed away.

There were also stretches when he didn’t drink. He’d go a few months here, a little more than a year there. He’d focus on writing—he published four books in four years—but then something would happen. An argument. Or bad news. Or something that just didn’t seem fair. And then he’d have a drink. 

“Stress is my trigger,” he tells me.

There were times when Donovan, his agent, was sending checks to five different attorneys in four states. There were more court cases than he could keep track of. One time Dent asked him to take over his power of attorney. Another time Dent told a sheriff’s deputy that Donovan was his brother. And it seemed like he always needed money. After 14 years as his agent, Donovan finally told him they weren’t going to work together anymore.

“Life is just too short,” Donovan says.

Dent stayed out of trouble for a couple more years—long enough to get off probation, at least. Then, in 2012, he got another DWI outside of Austin when he crashed into a tollbooth, abandoned his car, and was eventually found hiding in nearby bushes by a police dog. He convinced someone to post his bond there, and he moved back to North Texas, where he got two more DWIs three months apart. In one incident, he rammed his girlfriend’s car into her neighbor’s garage door with his F-150 pickup. The other time, police responded to reports of a reckless driver and found Dent carrying a case of beer and a bottle of wine across a
Walgreens parking lot.

Feeling like his life was over, he took a plane to San Diego and a cab to the border. That’s where he cut off his ankle monitors and dropped them into the bed of a passing pickup. He likes to imagine the authorities tracking them, wondering what he was doing. 

Then he crossed into Mexico and started working his way to the coast.

•••

Jessica Zak is a bail bondswoman in Austin. She’s never met Dent, but she’d like to. On the advice of an attorney, Zak posted Dent’s bond after the Austin DWI, and because she was told he was a celebrity and trustworthy, she didn’t ask for a co-signer. When he ran, she was out $20,000. So she set about getting him back.

She hired private investigators to look for him in Arkansas, posting outside the home of his elderly mother. She had more people—at times, eight total—searching in Dallas and Austin. She says everyone they talked to said Dent owed them money or had screwed them over somehow. In all, Zak spent more than $15,000 to get back her $20,000 bond. 

“It wasn’t even about the money,” she says. “He was just such a pompous ass.” 

When they tracked him to Mexico, Zak hired a woman to message Dent on Facebook and try to lure him back. Dent says that he knew what was going on from the first message, that he was “just having some fun with it.” Zak is convinced otherwise.

“If he says he didn’t fall for it, he’s lying,” she says. “He cried to her. He lied to her. He even sent pictures of his junk.”

Over time, Zak says, the woman she hired began to fall for Dent. There were secret conversations and hurt feelings, and the woman started having marriage trouble. Zak became concerned.

“He is such a good con man,” Zak says. “I think she believed she was going to live on the beach with a famous writer.”

The bondswoman says she finally convinced someone in Homeland Security to look into the case. She says they were close. They had pictures of Dent’s condo. They knew right where he was.

She sighs.

“Then the hurricane hit.”

•••

Randy Galloway says he wanted to visit Dent in the Collin County jail, but he didn’t know what he’d say. 

“He’s probably one of the biggest wastes of talent in our business,” Galloway tells me. “Being with Dent was a total trip, but he was one of those guys who had no stop sign. Everybody has some kind of stop sign. But if it’s booze, if it’s women, if it’s cocaine, if it’s gambling, Jim just didn’t have a stop sign.”

Most of the people Dent used to drink with haven’t spoken to him in more than a decade, but they have similar thoughts: “He never got out of the fast lane.” “The same thing that made him successful probably destroyed him.”

Dent’s book sales will probably pick up a little with the release of the movie based on Courage Beyond the Game later this year. He insists that Twelve Mighty Orphans would make an even better film.

The second time I visit him at the jail, he’s gone before the judge for sentencing. Soon, he’ll be shipped away to prison. He got eight years for the DWI involving his girlfriend and 10 years for the one at Walgreens, and another 10 years for jumping bail, but all of his sentences will be served at the same time. Because Dent’s vehicles were declared deadly weapons in his DWI charges, he has to serve at least half of the 10 years before he’s eligible for parole. People at the jail seem to think it’s a good deal.

“Five years,” the same sergeant as last time says, shaking his head, “for 10 DWIs?”

Dent says he’s focused on finishing the book. He starts writing every day at 7 am. “It’s the best time of the day, because the dumbasses are asleep,” he says. He usually goes until noon, unless there’s a visitor or laundry to do. He takes an hour break and then writes again until 5. He says his hand cramps all the time, but “I play with the pain.”

He’s sent me the first 100 pages. Like most of his books, there are some interesting details and some entertaining stories—and a few awkward clichés. He writes about the glitz and excess surrounding the Cowboys, and about girlfriends who tempt him away from the keyboard with a glass of wine—or show up at his home in nothing but a winter coat and lingerie.

In the parts he sent me, he explains that of his 10 DWIs, four were the result of blackout drinking, pure indulgence. The other six came after someone upset him and he drank too much to deal with it. Dent is a smart man. He says the right things: “I take full responsibility,” and “I have no one but myself to blame.” But the pages I saw didn’t have much in the way of contrition or remorse.

There have been other profiles of Jim Dent through the years, some of which also feature interviews with him behind bars. And toward the end, there’s always some moment where he promises that he’s done drinking for good. People who like him want to believe him, but at this point in his battle with alcohol, he’s certainly the underdog. If he were a character in a book someone else was writing, he probably wouldn’t be a hero.

He says he’s found Christ now. He’s excited to talk about his plans for when he gets out. He says he met a guy in jail who has a rich brother who is interested in publishing his memoir and maybe turning some of his other books into movies. Dent says he’s talked to people about speaking at churches, about sharing his long, sordid story. He says he wants to use his talents to help people, and he knows committing to speeches might help keep him sober.

A few seconds later, he reminds me that in all of his DWI arrests, he never hurt anyone else. Aside from a tollbooth, he says, there was never any serious property damage.

“I’ve had one car wreck, and it was my car,” he says. “I know I’ve had a slew of DWIs. There were some mitigating circumstances. The brother-in-law called the cops, and he shouldn’t have. I got in an argument, and my girlfriend was saying the wrong things to me—” He interrupts himself. “I know I shouldn’t have the number of DWIs I have, and I take full responsibility.”

“There was always alcohol, though,” I say. “That was a factor in every one of your arrests, right?”

He pauses for a moment to think about what I’ve said.

“Well,” he says. “It’s more my state of mind.” 

Write to [email protected].

Comments