‘The Letterman’: Book by La Jollan and late friend tells of a teenage journey fueled by football

“The Letterman: Tommy Stevens’ Memoir” is co-authored by La Jolla resident Jack Blendinger and Jim Nicholson.

For La Jolla resident Jack Blendinger, the recent publication of the book he co-authored with friend Jim Nicholson was literally a lifetime in the making.

“The Letterman: Tommy Stevens’ Memoir” is described as a portrait of a boy’s football-obsessed childhood through the wartime years of the 1940s and beyond, his burning athletic ambitions and the turn of events that forced him to reimagine his goals.

It is a semi-autobiographical tale. Stevens, in this case, is Nicholson, who died before the book was published.

“It’s about 90 percent reality; we only changed the names and places and added a bit to the characters,” Blendinger said. “But it’s mostly true and based on Jim’s life. Jim and I went to school together in Hollywood as children and both taught writing classes as adults, he in California and me in Mississippi. We decided to write a manuscript to bounce it off our students. They liked it, so we pursued getting it published.”

Blendinger and Nicholson had their childhoods shaped by the era in which they grew up and a passion to play varsity football, and they used that experience as the basis for their book.

“I came out to California [from Pittsburgh] in fourth grade and didn’t have much experience with exercise or sports, so I didn’t know any of the games kids were playing at the time,” Blendinger said. “The teacher would have kids choose sides to play games. One of the best athletes in the class was a girl with freckles on her face. She was so strong for her age. This one time, they were choosing sides and the girl asked the teacher if she could pick the mascot instead of me. That changed everything for me. I started working out, and that’s how I met Jim. He was small, too, so we would exercise together. We both became strong until we could play football.”

Though the two eventually became strong enough to play football, misfortune would strike for Nicholson and, in the book, for Stevens.

Jack Blendinger in his high school football glory.

“Jim came down with polio and he never got to play football again,” Blendinger said.

Nicholson would adapt and turn to running, eventually becoming a marathon runner as an adult.

Though football was a big part of Blendinger’s life, he focused his efforts as an adult on surfing, swimming and competitive kayaking.

The longtime surfer would go to La Jolla often. “In the 1960s, they were just developing lots in La Jolla Shores,” Blendinger said. “In 1965, my wife and I bought a lot and built a house; since then I have lived part time in La Jolla.”

They also put a swimming pool in back of their house and taught hundreds of local children to swim over the years.

“We used techniques that I used when I taught high school swimming, so they learned to swim quite well,” he said. “One of our kids went on to the Olympics.”

Now retired and living on Mount Soledad, Blendinger said he hopes the book provides an insight into life as a teenager in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Jack Blendinger turned to kayaking later in life.

“Our main ambition when we were children was to play varsity football, so it gives insight into how we did that as teenagers, just regular, unglamorized kids. We thought since history is changing so much, we better preserve this snippet of history and write it,” he said. “History enriches the present, so when they read about history and relationships, it gives life some perspective and something to compare it to.”

Blendinger’s daughter Jan Keane said that while life for teenagers is very different now, “a lot of the teenage experience is the same: having goals, working toward something, sports and relationships. We all have a journey, but you never know what that special something will be that gets you started on your journey.”

“The Letterman: Tommy Stevens’ Memoir” is available at bookstores or online where books are sold. ◆