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Hall of Fame sports writer Jerry Izenberg authors first novel at 90

This February he sat out the Super Bowl for the first time in LIII years — since they began playing it. One of only two sportswriters who had chronicled the first 53 pro football extravaganzas, Jerry Izenberg said he wasn’t getting around as well as he used to.

Which, he would be first to tell you, wasn’t all that great to begin with.

He was 89 then.

He is 90 now.

To use an analogy from another pastime, he’s not quite ready to move to first base.

He has written 13 books that he cares to list in his bibliography, including a few since semi-retiring to Henderson. His longtime employer, the Star-Ledger in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, wouldn’t allow him to step away altogether. He’s still the Garden State’s largest newspaper’s columnist emeritus — a title created both for and by him.

But until recently he had never written a novel.

Burning desire

It’s called “After the Fire: Love and Hate in the Ashes of 1967” (Amazon; hardcover, paperback, Kindle). It is set in the mean streets of New Jersey — a cliche, perhaps, but not in the case of Newark after the deadly riots of that long, hot summer.

At its core is an interracial relationship loosely based on Izenberg’s own with his wife of 42 years, Aileen. The story is rife with racial tension, corrupt politics and mob families arguing over who gets to drive the garbage trucks.

In other words, it is more authentic than the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 3 a.m. It’s the kind of book where, when you turn the page, a dollop of grime gets on your fingertip.

There are cameos by Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges and Joe Namath, to name a few. Sinatra figures in one of the subplots. There’s a rogue’s gallery of characters with names such as Chooch, Dominick and Scoots — Scoots DeLorenzo, proprietor of the local bowling alley.

“A long time ago I was told if you ever write a book, write what you know,” Izenberg said.

The people are real. Some of the names have been changed to protect the semi-innocent. The names of the mafia dons are legit. As the author says, and as anybody who grew up in Newark knows, “You can’t libel anyone after they’re dead.”

Yes, there’s an award-winning sportswriter who serves an auxiliary but crucial function. His name is Jerry D’Amilio. Don’t let the surname fool you.

Writes Big George Foreman in one of the blurbs for “After the Fire”: “I became champ because I looked out for sneaky punches. This novel by Jerry Izenberg both KOd and fascinated me because I didn’t see such beauty and intrigue coming.”

Izenberg said the story is told in “the language of New Jersey,” where consonants and vowels get dropped like those who borrow from loan sharks. For those who have not seen “Jersey Boys,” “di’nt” is Garden State parlance for “did not.” Just ask Scoots DeLorenzo.

Plots a-plenty

“There are four plots at once,” Izenberg explained. “The overriding plot is the city of Newark, what happens to it. The second one is the riot and all that followed. The third is the mafia, very looked up to in Newark, trying to fix an election. The last one that carries the whole book is the Romeo and Juliet love affair.”

Instead of Montague and Capulet, their names are Friscella and Washington. One is a small-college football star from the North Ward; the other was raised by a single mother in the Central Ward.

“These are my people,” Izenberg said. “You could do this where you come from. You could do this about Chicago.”

(If I were from New Jersey, this is where I might say the author di’nt know a damn about assessing talent and creativity.)

It would be hyperbole to state that at 90 years old, Jerry Izenberg is only getting started. But he said there are three more books he wants to write, including one about growing up Jewish in Newark.

“I hope I make it,” he said about having become a nonagenarian in September. “As a gift to the people of Henderson, I turned in my license. I’m not driving anymore.”

He then changed gears like one of the Pep Boys, asking if I saw that his beloved Rutgers had beaten Michigan State in its season opener.

“The quarterback is a guy who could be the quarterback at Colorado State,” he said. “Not a great passer but he’s got guts and a big mouth.”

The book about growing up Jewish in Newark may have to wait. It sounded as if the columnist emeritus had found his next subject.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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