Essay: An ode to the barrier-breakers, hidden figures, 'firsts' and football

Coach Tylene Wilson with one of her football teams in Brownwood, Texas. Circa 1943. File photo provided by the Brownwood Bulletin

I remember the moment, if not the surroundings.

"Marjorie, I'd like you to meet Sally Ride."

I was a 20-something girl from Santa Fe, New Mexico, about to shake hands with greatness -- an astronaut, a physicist, an engineer, a trailblazer. Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. I was trembling.

Dr. Ride and I struck up a conversation. We talked about women in careers that had once been exclusive to men, and we talked about the perceptions of women in such roles. She then congratulated me on my recent hiring as a Fort Worth Star-Telegram sportswriter, also an unusual career for women in the mid-1980s.

What surprised me, and has stayed with me throughout the years since that event in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, was how much Dr. Ride was a "regular person," someone who could have grown up with me on Sombrio Drive. And still, someone who had gone on to do extraordinary things. In the years since, I have come to understand that greatness is not a "reserved space." Every woman has the power to do extraordinary things. Every woman has the power to inspire.

Now, we are seeing women breaking barriers and doing extraordinary things at a rate never seen before.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first female presidential candidate nominated by a major party in the U.S.

Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Oscar for best director in 2010 for "The Hurt Locker" at the 82nd annual Academy Awards.

Jen Welter became the first woman to coach in the NFL, specifically when the Arizona Cardinals hired her for training camp in 2015. (Welter has since left the NFL.)

While women are doing extraordinary things in larger numbers today, women stepping out of traditionally male roles is not new to this era.

We must never forget Amelia Earhart, the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Or Rosa Parks, who launched a civil rights movement. Or Elizabeth Blackwell, who in 1849 became the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States.

What's unfortunate, however, is many women who have done extraordinary things have long ago been forgotten, and in some cases, never known.

One such woman was Tylene Wilson, a woman who coached football, including at Daniel Baker College in Brownwood, Texas, during World War II.

Through sheer serendipity, I discovered Wilson's story in 2011. In the years that followed, I researched her life with the purpose of writing her biography.

What I discovered was Wilson's story was lost to time.

I found myself faced with a decision: Do I drop the story, or do I write a fictionalized account memorializing what she, and as I discovered, at least three other women, had done during such a difficult time in our country's history?

I couldn't let it go. Once I decided to fictionalize her story based on a number of core truths, I went back to college, studied creative writing fiction, completed my MFA and set out to bring Wilson's story, "When the Men Were Gone," to the public.

Like so many other women who have done extraordinary things, Wilson was a "regular person." She was an English teacher also qualified to teach physical education and to coach both boys and girls, and a school administrator. She also had her superintendent's certification, though she never served in that role.

Like Sally Ride, Kathryn Bigelow, Jen Welter, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks and Elizabeth Blackwell -- Tylene Wilson is an American treasure. She busted 1940s gender expectations to become an inspiration and football coach.

She, too, must be remembered.

Marjorie Herrera Lewis is a novelist, sports journalists, university professor and former assistant college football coach. Her novel, "When the Men Were Gone" published in October.