Jim Dent figures he has three to four more years wearing the same orange prison jump suit, and living his days behind walls under the watchful eye of prison guards, before he can go home and be Jim Dent again.
In here — the Lindsey State Jail — James Harry Dent is Texas Department of Criminal Justice No. 01995844. With a tan and a full head of silver hair, Jim Dent looks good, nothing like a convict who lives behind an encasement of barbed wire.
Dent is eligible for parole on Jan. 15, 2020; less than two weeks later, he will turn 67. If all goes according to plan, he will be free to celebrate that birthday. There is irony in the statement “if all goes according to plan,” because Jim Dent’s plan failed.
The SMU grad and bestselling author — The Junction Boys, 12 Mighty Orphans, Courage Beyond the Game and a handful of other sports books — is now just another inmate waiting to go home.
He is smart, witty, manipulative, charismatic, energetic, upbeat, conniving and angry. As a longtime writer, he knows what sounds good, and what makes for good print, or a good bite.
“He’s too smart for his own good,” a corrections officer said.
One of the most famous, and infamous, old-school sports writers in Texas remains ego-driven, likable, talented and is faced with a credibility problem. He is sincere, but his past makes him hard to believe.
Sitting in the office of a corrections officer at Lindsey State Jail last month, Dent laughed and smiled more than a few times, but there is nothing fun or funny about his situation. He did this to himself, and he is an alcoholic.
In April 2015, Dent was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a series of driving while intoxicated arrests. This is his third time in prison — the previous two were also for drunken driving. After the last arrest in ’13, when he failed to appear in court, Dent fled to Mexico.
“I was facing eight years in prison, I was approaching my 60s,” he said, “and I didn’t think I could handle going back to prison.”
Not long thereafter, according to Dent, he bottomed out.
Dent said he was in a condo off the coast of Baja when he had tied a rope to a railing so he could get a good view of Hurricane Odile hitting the shore. He said during the storm he thought he was going to die, and that at that moment, it was time to return to his life in the U.S. Coincidentally, he had run out of money from the sale of the screen rights to his book, Courage Beyond the Game, as well as a book about former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
As a wanted man, he could not walk back through customs and go about his routine. He said he arranged to bribe an agent $2,000 at the border crossing in Tijuana.
“We had bribed his brother,” he said. “We thought we had him bribed. He moved out of the gate as I am going through just as somebody else moved in. I knew they had me.”
Dent lied about not having his passport or any ID. The agent asked him to go to a holding cell, “until you figure out where everything is,” he said. Dent knew he was busted. He found his ID, but before the agent could run it, Dent said he saw three federal agents walking toward him with guns drawn.
“As I told them, ‘I’m a real John Dillinger,’ ” Dent said. “I mean, I was a felon. I think they knew I was coming.”
Dent insists the plan was to work on a book about former UT quarterback James Street, make some money and then turn himself in to authorities. I told him I did not believe that — those who have known Dent for a long time don’t believe it, either.
“Warrants are forever, and I didn’t want to be 85 and getting stopped by a cop and finding the warrants and putting me in prison,” he said. “I did feel like I could handle prison now. It’s not fun. You want to sleep on a steel bunk every night? You want to eat the food here? They were going to catch me. I’ve been through this enough. I was going to turn myself in in a matter of months.”
In prison, Dent is a teacher’s aide, helping inmates working toward their GEDs. When he is free, his hope is to work with prisoners through football. He wants to volunteer and teach and coach at youth prisons, possibly near Austin.
“I have this vision of showing them the picture of Washington crossing the Delaware in that little boat and, if you look at it, it looks like a bedraggled football team,” he said, referring to the famous Revolutionary War painting. “I don’t see myself as Washington, but as the other people in the boat all pulling together.”
During his one-year stay in Mexico, Dent said he embraced Christianity and was baptized in the Sea of Cortez. He uses adjectives such as “the devil” to describe booze and alcohol.
These stories, revelations and proclamations sound good, and are fairly standard prisoner clichés.
“I know I’ve hurt people,” he said. “I know there are people I have to apologize to.”
He is also working on a book that is his life story, called Last Call, about his life as a drinker and a writer. With a giant personality and proclivity to party, it has the potential be a fascinating read. He has the rare tractor-beam personality that former Cowboys president Tex Schramm loved.
Dent is a guy that actor Gary Busey once nicknamed “The Human Rocket.” He has lived at a pace, on a ledge, foreign to most.
There is also a chance that, like many of his previous books, it will anger some. There always seems to be carnage in Dent’s wake. Seemingly everybody who has met Dent has a story, ranging from funny to alarming.
Dent’s The Junction Boys, about the training camp held by former Texas A&M coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, was knocked for accuracy, and liberties taken by the author. Regardless, it became a bestseller, and ESPN made it into a feature-length film.
His book 12 Mighty Orphans, about the Masonic Home football team composed of orphaned children, enraged plenty of the Masons for what many felt were fictionalized recounts of history.
His book Courage Beyond the Game, about former Texas safety Freddie Steinmark, was partly inspired by I Play to Win, by Steinmark himself in 1971, and Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming by author Terry Frei.
When initially exploring a Steinmark book, Dent did not contact the family. For years, the family tried to have the story made into a feature-length film. As a result, Courage Beyond the Game relied heavily on the two previous books.
The entire story behind the release of the book and the movie involved lawsuits, settlements, confidentiality agreements, hurt feelings and a movie that was panned by critics and virtually ignored by audiences.
Dent vehemently denied doing anything illegal regarding Frei or the Steinmarks. At the time of the interview, he said he had yet to see the movie.
His last book, on Manziel, had one part that focused on Cowboys owner Jerry Jones debating whether to draft the A&M quarterback in 2014. The scene painted in the book had Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones “snatching a draft” card out of his dad’s hand.
It was a wonderful visual, and Jerry has never denied he wanted Manziel, but the snatching-of-the-card has never been corroborated.
The books have sold, and from a bird’s-eye view, he is a successful author. But there is always something …
Two stories last year about Dent were published in The Dallas Morning News and D Magazine, both of which left Dent seething. They were unflattering, and Dent insists the stories include inaccuracies about the number of times he was arrested.
For instance, he will haggle that his 10 DWIs took place over a span of 37 years rather than 10 years. To the unfamiliar, 10 DWIs is a frightening number in any amount of time, but to Dent this detail matters. That comes with being a Type A-plus-plus personality. He is charming, but can be unaware of how he sounds.
“My girlfriend has told me that,” he said.
There is an undeniable streak of anger in him, which he said he addresses with exercise. There is no beer or vodka to soothe him now, and he sounds perfectly happy about that. In jail, he is a bit of a celebrity, and he is able to talk sports endlessly with the fellow inmates or guards.
He has goals, dreams and aspirations. In another three or four years, Jim Dent will be out of jail and free to pursue all of them.
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Mac Engel: 817-390-7697, @macengelprof