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Sports and Sentimentality, Courtesy of Jerry Izenberg

Growing up in northern New Jersey, back in the 1970s, I was always the first one in the family to get up. My routine during the school week was rock solid. I’d head downstairs, take the dog out, pick up a copy of the newspaper – we got the Newark Star-Ledger, bring the dog in and feed her, start to brew a pot of coffee for my parents, and then, at long last, dig into the sports section of the paper. Sports always came first – even as so many New York teams in the 70s were awful. A hurrah for Joe Pisarcik.

The Ledger’s sport section was always comprehensive. They printed late night scores from the west coast, covered all the sports, and several times a week, a column by Jerry Izenberg would grace the pages. Izenberg wrote the way that I imagined old school sports writers did, with rich language, lots of adjectives, and stories of heroism, triumph and catastrophe. I pictured him in a fedora with a cigarette hanging out the side of his mouth like a character from The Front Page, hammering away at manual typewriter. His columns were interesting and engaging, offering a different take on sports. They were like to the older guys who spent time at the breakfast diner in the center of town.

Recently I was given a copy of his 1989 book, The Jerry Izenberg Collection. Truth in advertising: it is exactly as billed, a collection of Izenberg’s columns. Reading it reminded me of those morning and the consistent tone and perspective of his work. Izenberg is still at it – he’s 90 – and recently published a novel.

The collection is a testimonial to Izenberg’s interest in people and his preternatural sentimentality. He specializes in a particular kind of traditional male ethos that jumps headfirst into emotions. In the hands of a different writer, in the context of other topics, it would ring as false and maudlin. But when writing about boxers, jockeys, gamblers and football players it seems all the more appropriate. Damon Runyon, perhaps?

Izenberg’s gift is to write about intimate issues in a way that male sport fans can relate. And I hope others, too. It’s his secret power – and I cannot think of many other sportswriters able to do it as effectively.

So if you find a copy, curl up with a beer and some Kleenex – it’s a Jerry Izenberg special.

David Potash

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