Books

Fort Worth novelist’s book tells the story of a woman high school football coach in 1944

“When the Men Were Gone” is a novel by Fort Worth writer Marjorie Herrera Lewis that tells the story of Tylene Wilson, an female assistant high school principal in Brownwood during World War II.

The war affects the football team when the head coach is killed on the front lines and his replacement re-enlists. A replacement can’t be found and, instead of not fielding a team, Wilson takes the job in spite of opposition from the Brownwood community.

Lewis has had a long career in sports journalism, working for the Star-Telegram and Dallas Morning News while covering the Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers and Dallas Mavericks, as well as such sports events as the Super Bowl and Wimbledon.

Inspired while writing the novel, Lewis joined the Texas Wesleyan University football staff in December, working with the defensive backs and as the team’s academic adviser.

Here’s a Q&A with Lewis about “When the Men Were Gone,” along with an excerpt.

Both you and the central character in the book, Tylene Wilson, have taken on unique roles as women in football. What lessons did you learn from Tylene as you wrote her story?

As a college professor and former sports journalist, I was drawn to coaching while researching and writing Tylene’s story largely because I felt I had the experience to work with men of college age and bring something of value to the table.

What I learned from Tylene was that if you prepare for something in life — whether it’s your life goal or not — when the opportunity presents itself, regardless of gender norms or expectations, nothing should hold you back.

I had the same experience when I was named the first female beat writer covering the Dallas Cowboys back in the 1980s. Preparation is key.

In ‘When the Men Were Gone’, Tylene experiences fierce opposition on her path towards becoming coach of the Brownwood, Texas high school football team. What obstacles did you face in becoming a football coach at Texas Wesleyan University?

Becoming an assistant football coach at Texas Wesleyan University was not a problem. The 2017 season was the school’s first in football since disbanding in 1941. The program was welcoming a number of graduate students and volunteers.

The defensive backs coach that I reported to, Quincy Butler, kept me busy — so much so that I broke my right index finger the first day of spring practice!

I didn’t tell anyone and threw passing drills to the DBs throughout practice — despite my secret, excruciating pain — and after practice, I happily drove myself to the ER! It was a great beginning, broken finger and all.

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Apart from her love of football, what aspects of Tylene Wilson’s life have inspired you the most?

I am a sucker for a father-daughter story. Wrap it around football, and I’m all in.

Tylene’s story reminded me of my relationship with my father, which I warmly cherish. I was also inspired by her relationship with her husband, John, who was so supportive of her goals and aspirations that he really did wait 11 years for her to marry him.

Another aspect of Tylene’s life that inspired me was her heartfelt commitment to education. She was not only an English teacher and a principal, but she had earned her superintendent certification, something women just didn’t have in the 1940s.

What was the best writing advice you received as you embarked on this project?

The best writing advice I received with this: Tell the readers only what Tylene would tell them and how she would tell them. Because of this advice, I’ve written the novel in a more conversational tone—she’s telling us her story.

What is the most important thing you want readers to take away from your book?

Primarily, I hope readers consume one central message: I want women to know they, too, can succeed in traditional male roles, and for men to understand that, yes, women are fully capable of succeeding in roles not traditionally open to them.

I also tried to include an underlying thread to the narrative that connects Tylene’s story to the rise of racial minorities, and to the 92nd Infantry, which served in WWI and WWII.

Excerpt from When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis

I ran to the field’s entrance ahead of my father, a giant of a man in my eyes, though slender and probably not quite six feet tall. He had a distinguished look about him, with his deep-set blue eyes, wavy jet-black hair, and Grover Cleveland mustache, as my mother, with her keen sense of humor, had described it. I’d laugh when I’d hear her remind him, “Time to trim the Grover, George.”

My father, slowed by a hip injury he had sustained a year earlier, eventually caught up with me. We entered and wove our way up the packed wooden bleachers to our regular spot, right off the press box near the far corner, if you’re looking up from the field. We settled in, and when the Lions dashed out, I jumped to my feet. Soon after, the crowd of what I figured was nearly half the town’s seven thousand residents also stood while the band led us in the school fight song:

For when those Brownwood Lions come down the field

They look a hundred per from head to heel . . .

And then the game began.

Shorty Wilkerson took the opening handoff. He was Brownwood’s best running back, but on that night, he drove me crazy.

“Keep your knees high, Shorty!” I shouted. I knew he couldn’t hear me above the cheers, the band, and the shouts of grown men yelling at the refs. But that didn’t stop me. Although I was merely ten years old, my father and I hadn’t missed a Lions football game together since 1907, and I knew right off that Shorty was far too sluggish.

“Come on, Shorty! Draw in your tackler and either speed up or slow down! Change your pace!”

I gnawed at my fingernails. I blamed it on Shorty. Then I turned to my father. “If he doesn’t sidestep or accelerate, he’ll never get into the open field.”

The men around us began laughing.

“When are you going to call the shots out there, Tylene?” Mr. Periwinkle asked.

“I’ll go down there right now if they’ll let me,” I said.

My father turned to the men. “Don’t kid yourselves. She might just take over before the second half.”

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