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Abilene Reporter-News (Texas)

 

Tylene Wilson was a woman.

Tylene Wilson was a coach.

Tylene Wilson was a head football coach in Texas.

Now we know the rest of the story in a compelling novel — "When the Men Were Gone" — written by former Dallas Cowboys beat writer Caroline Herrera Lewis.

The work is fiction. The facts are true, albeit with some creative liberty from Lewis, who last year became assistant football coach at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth.

Wilson died in 1992. She lived in Brownwood where she was a teacher and an assistant principal at the high school and coached football, reportedly at the high school and Daniel Baker College. The real Tylene Wilson took on the assignment as the head football coach at Daniel Baker College in the fall of 1944, when the men were gone to war. The institution was plagued with financial difficulties and was consolidated with nearby Howard Payne College (now Howard Payne University) in 1952.

In the book, the character Tylene Wilson becomes the head football coach of the Brownwood High School Lions, one of the most fabled programs in Texas high school football.

Using excerpts from her research and interviews, Lewis crafts a clever and somewhat predictable story of a woman being assigned to coach the high school football team. There are familiar scenes, including the required school board meeting to make the decision to cancel the football season (as many Texas high schools did during World War II) or to name a woman to coach their young men.

"Miss Tylene" gained her knowledge of football from her father with whom she attended her first football game in 1916. True story. Throughout her life, she would study the ins-and-outs of football and attend football games in Brownwood diligently.

Lewis, who is from New Mexico, became acquainted with Texas high school football as a sportswriter for the "Fort Worth Star-Telegram" and the "Dallas Morning News" in the 1980s.

Her writing shows that she learned well.

"Every road in Texas leads to a football field," she writes. "You sit in the stands at dusk, stare at the field, and you can see the footprint of every football player who ever suited up, some so quick they left defenders in their stocking feet. Little kids grow up watching their favorite high school football team and go to bed at night dreaming of their turn to play."

Try it. Go to your hometown football field and sit there a while. Listen to the southerly breeze whip through the stands and stare at the 50-yard-line. You'll hear the cadence of the quarterback, the blare of the trombones, the cheering of the pep squad and the joy of what has become a Texas tradition. You will get that feeling that is a unique Texas experience. Memories will flow back. You're in football country — Texas high school football.

The book is an emotional roller coaster, mixing the events of WWII with the nuances of getting a bunch of teenagers ready to play football. How in the world can a woman wearing a flower-pattern dress and one-inch heels be on the sidelines coaching football? More importantly, why?

Therein lies the crux of this well-written novel spun with a woman's touch that brings emotional page after emotional page to the front. "Miss Tylene" wanted to keep the football program going to prevent young men from going to war too early. In the book, she succeeded, but it wasn't easy. The story is based on real-life experiences of the real Tylene Wilson and it also has significant similarities between her and the author, which Lewis reveals in her acknowledgement at the end of the book.

"Miss Tylene" may be fictionalized in the novel, but she will forever be enshrined in the lore of Texas football legends and as a woman who dared take on a journey where only men had ventured before. Tylene Wilson took the challenge and started calling the signals.

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November 18, 2018
 
 
 

 

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