What do Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Dale Earnhardt, and Babe Ruth have in common? If you ask sports fans, many will probably consider them the greatest athletes of all time in their respective sports. Their careers are debated and revered. These athletes are recognized globally, and their popularity transcends generations.
In sports journalism, the same can be said about Jerry Izenberg.
Jerry has covered and written about some of the most significant sporting events and their iconic figures in a career spanning seven decades. He attended every Super Bowl, starting with Super Bowl I in 1967 until Superbowl LIII in 2019. He intimately covered the career of whom many consider the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, if not the most iconic athlete in the world, Muhammad Ali. He authored thirteen books, including the ever-popular “Once There Were Giants.” He has won numerous awards and has been inducted into various Halls of Fame.
His life and illustrious career are chronicled in the book “Going 15 Rounds With Jerry Izenberg: A collection of Interviews The With Legendary Columnist”, written by sports journalist Ed Odeven.
I sat down with Ed to discuss his book and the life of Jerry Izenberg.
Ed Odeven has been a sports journalist since the mid-90s for various newspapers across various states. He is currently the Sports Editor for the Japanese news platform, Japan Forward.
Ed was born in The Bronx, New York, and grew up in New Jersey. So it was safe to assume that growing up in New Jersey was how Odeven was exposed to the work of Jerry Izenberg. Izenberg has been a columnist for the Star-Ledger since 1951, a daily newspaper based in Newark, New Jersey.
He has always been a fan of sports, particularly boxing and baseball. Both of Odeven's grandfathers were avid readers of various newspapers. He credits them for sparking his interest in the printed news, particularly the sports columns. “I may not have known at the age of eight who were the great writers of that time, but when I started developing reading habits, I started to recognize the faces in the bylines. You would see, for example, in the Star-Ledger Jerry Izenberg's mugshot. You would see that he was always at the big fights or covering Triple Crown horse racing”, recounted Odeven.
Odeven and his family moved to Arizona by his sophomore year of high school. After graduating High School, the future journalist would attend Pima Community College and then attend Arizona State University, where he studied journalism. He completed a six-month internship at the Birmingham News in Alabama during the 1999-2000 school year. He gained a wealth of experience and met great athletes like Bo Jackson and Charles Barkley. In the spring of 2000, Ed moved back to Arizona and became the Sports Editor of the Arizona Daily Sun. In 2006, he accepted a job at The Japan Times and worked as a Desk Editor.
After working so many years as a sports journalist, Ed wanted to challenge himself to write a book. Not just any book, a book chronicling the life and work of arguably one of the greatest American sports journalists, Jerry Izenberg. A daunting endeavor considering that Izenberg was almost 90-years-old and had been a journalist for nearly seventy years.
Nevertheless, Odeven was willing to meet the challenge and write what I consider the most comprehensive anecdote ever written on a living icon.
Writing “Going 15 Rounds With Jerry Izenberg”:
Odeven thought it was fitting to title the book “Going 15 Rounds With Jerry Izenberg” because of Izenberg's connection to “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali. “The idea came to me to use the boxing analogy as sort of hook to get people to know what the project was about,” explained Odeven.
Why was it essential for Odeven to write this book? As great and as famous Jerry Izenberg is, one would be hard-pressed to find a book, a magazine, or a blog that chronicles the life and achievements of the legendary columnist. Odeven set out to do just that.
“It was important for me as a personal challenge and motivation. Reading Jerry and researching Jerry, I didn't see a long-form written project or a book about him that looked at his career. He has been on many radios, tv, and podcast shows. But a book wasn't written, why don't I try it. I just wanted to get something done about him,” said Odeven.
The challenges of writing his first book presented themselves to the new biographer almost immediately. Most biographers can probably attest that writing a book chronicling the life and achievements of a person is challenging. The pressure to gather details, facts, and timelines of a person's life is critical and laborious. However, writing about Jerry Izenberg's life and career, well, that's a whole different animal entirely since there are almost 90 years of life to cover.
At the beginning of the project, Odeven intended to sell a long-form article for a magazine platform like Bleacher Report or ESPN New York. However, he struggled to garner interest from various media outlets. Rather than be discouraged and quit, Odeven used his platforms and started putting together pieces about Jerry. Consumed by work and other obligations, he had invested five years writing this book and the project was still incomplete. Odeven knew that if he didn't give himself a deadline to finish the book, it probably wouldn't get done.
Izenberg's ninetieth birthday was soon approaching. So, Odeven thought it would be great to have the book completed by then as a commemoration of Izenebrg's life and dedication to journalism. Odeven was motivated to finish what he started with a mark on the calendar.
When I received the book, I noticed that the package was slightly larger than most books. I opened the envelope, and the book was large and thin to my surprise. It had the look and feel of an elementary school workbook that accompanied textbooks when I was a kid. According to Odeven, the printing format of the book was utterly accidental because he used a self-publishing company. So he didn't have any input on how the book would be printed. Don't let the book's appearance fool you. The book is roughly around 55,000 words. If it were published in a traditional paperback style, it would easily be over two hundred pages long.
While the book's appearance is not your typical paperback or hardcover edition most readers are accustomed to, I think it encapsulates who and what Jerry Izenberg is. The book gives the reader the feeling of holding a magazine or, if folded, a newspaper—fitting a writer who has worked his entire career as a columnist.
The cover has a fantastic picture of Izenberg and Muhammad Ali. A suggestion that Izenberg himself proposed. “I must give Jerry credit and his willingness to help me out. I didn't have a traditional budget from a publishing company to secure photographs. So, Jerry suggested the photo of him and Ali. The photo ran in the star-ledger many years ago, and Jerry had gained the rights to give people permission to use the photo,” said Odeven.
Odeven doesn't write the book in the traditional chronological format of a person's life. Instead, brilliantly, Odeven chose to start the book with four samples of Izenberg's columns. As a result, it immediately introduces the reader to Jerry Izenberg, the writer. And for those familiar with Jerry's columns, these four samples provide a nostalgic retreat to when this kind of writing was the gold standard in sports journalism. And for those reading Jerry's work for the first time, it's an Introduction to Sports Journalism 101; at least it was for me. Although I was familiar with Jerry's work, I still found myself reaching for a highlighter and a notepad; school was in session.
The book then has a series of chapters about Jerry's life and some of the most memorable sporting events he covered. Readers will get a first-hand account of what it was like when Jerry met Nelson Mandela at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. What it was like witnessing Secretariat's Triple Crown win in 1973. He reminds readers that the World Boxing Association has frustrated boxing fans with their non-sensical decisions, as early as the Joe Frazier and Bob Foster match in 1971.
Odeven personally interviewed Izenberg, and we glimpse into Jerry's personal life. The author perfectly captures the enamored relationship Izenberg had with his father when he was a child. I learned that Jerry was a gifted musician who played six instruments and even played in some local jazz clubs in New York during the 1950s. That Izenberg wrote his columns with a cadence influenced by his love for music. Beautifully depicted in an excerpt of Izneberg's coverage of the brutal rubber match between Frazier and Ali, “The Thrilla in Manila.”
Odeven highlights Izenberg's humanity and his moral courage. Izenberg boldly and delicately wrote about America's social issues during the firestorm decade that was the 1960s—especially regarding Muhamad Ali, who wasn't only a sports figure that Jerry chronicled, but also his friend. Odeven provides a quote by Izenberg that perfectly demonstrates the columnist's profound respect for Ali. “He wasn't a devil. He wasn't a saint. He was Muhamad Ali, which is better than most people.”
Jerry had a passion for reporting the news surrounding sports. All news, not just the news that appealed to specific audiences. He led the way for equality and diversity in sports journalism. Izenburg stood by his moral convictions and wasn't deterred by anyone's opinion of him. So, I was captivated when I read about legendary Grambling State University's Football coach Eddie Robinson. A remarkable story captured by Odeven that informs readers that Jerry was the first “white reporter” to visit the Grambling campus. And how his story on Robinson was rejected by the Saturday Post, and they wouldn't run the report. But, the fearless columnist refused to take no for an answer and took his story to different outlets until it was finally published by True magazine in 1967. This story reminded and introduced readers of Jerry's dedication to reporting the story no matter how ugly the truth was. Something most reporters lacked during that era.
Jerry isn't the kind of person that boasts about himself or his work. The longtime columnist is a consummate professional, and the story is always on center stage. For Izenberg, it's all about the story. To capture the essence of who Jerry is and what he means to the world of sports journalism. Odeven gathered some of the most brilliant and respected sports journalists to share their thoughts about Jerry Izenberg. If you follow sports, I'm sure you will recognize names like Peter and George Vecsey, Cormac Gordon, Christine Brennan, John Dahl, Wallace Matthews, Dave Anderson, Jeremy Schaap, and Jim Lampley, to name a few.
Here are a few examples of the anecdotes provided by the collection of writers.
“If I had to pick one trait of Jerry's that I love the most, it's that he's always let the work speak for itself. He wasn't trying to be a multimedia Rockstar like so many in the business. He doesn't have a regular gig on ESPN, he doesn't have a Twitter account (at least I don't think he does), and he isn't screaming at the universe on a weekly podcast.” -Thomas Gerbasi, Editorial Director for the UFC and an accomplished boxing journalist.
“As your questions establish, there is a particularly strong link to race, and to figures like Muhammad Ali and Eddie Robinson and Jim Brown who helped upend behavioral stereotypes and make clear the sports world would be an active adjunct to progress. Jerry was one of the best at understanding their message and giving them a voice.” – Jim Lampley, boxing play-by-play announcer and International Hall of Fame Inductee.
“As to why Jerry Izenberg isn't more ‘famous,' I can't answer that. Maybe because he seldom made himself the focus of his story or took up some ludicrous position to get attention or insulted people or acted like a jerk” – Sherry Ross, NHL writer, and broadcaster.
Ed Odeven set out to write an in-depth book chronicling the life and achievements of sports columnist Jerry Izenberg. His goal was to introduce readers to Izenberg, who perhaps never heard of him, and remind those of us familiar with his work how great he is. I believe he accomplished that. In addition, the book can serve as a guide to novice and veteran journalists alike on what sports journalism should be and what it once was. Odeven forgoes the traditional methods of writing a biography. Instead, through a collection of interviews, samples of Jerry's works, and anecdotes collected by an esteemed panel of sportswriters, Odeven gives readers an intimate portrayal of the life, work, and mind of Jerry Izenberg.