The decaying brickwork outside my office window draws my attention, though it’s hardly more fascinating than the column of figures on my computer screen. Streaks of dreary gray discolor the brown face where decades of grimy rain leave a dirty residue. I overlook an alley, five floors below, normally empty except when a refuse truck has backed over the cracked and pitted pavement to empty the rusty dumpsters.
It’s hot in the office, a dry stuffy artificial heat keeping at bay the cold gloomy January day just beyond the windowpanes. A stark contrast to the cheery beachfront town I only recently abandoned, where the temperature rarely dipped into jacket weather. Where surfing and swimming were the chief order of business eight months out of the year. Where two placid palm trees lounged by the gates of my apartment complex, a four block walk from my former job. Seemingly everyone in town waved during my daily stroll to the athletic center at Gulf Coast Baptist University, my employer for nearly twenty years. “Hey Coach Meissner!” the undergraduates would shout, as if they’d seen a celebrity. I struggle with the reality that I can never go back there. It’s all gone, the cheers, the energy, the excitement of calling a play, pitting my skill against the coach on the far sideline, rolling the dice on a deep pass, the euphoria of watching a play go from drawing board to practice field, to perfect execution at game time. All vanished in a seeming instant giving way to cold, dreary monotony. Mark, those days are behind you. You’re an insurance actuary now. I keep repeating these words, but my heart will not heed. It creeps back there to the festive warmth like a dog whimpering at the door of his former house long after his master has passed on.
It was sudden. In less than a week I went from an undefeated college coach on the verge of a championship, to a passenger on a northbound jet passively watching the clouds stream by with the same shocked disbelief still shadowing me. My brother took pity and hastily arranged a job at the company where he works, only a few miles from our childhood home. It was fate I suppose, that I would be dragged back to the insurance business like a schoolboy to the woodshed dreading his punishment. My father and mother both worked here, forty years each, before their retirements and subsequent deaths. My brother and sister never left. No matter how much I may have fancied myself capable of escape, the bands of fate allowed only so much stretching before snapping me back to my origins, to the position my siblings seemingly kept warm for me all these years.
True I majored in actuarial science in college, but only to placate my family while I pursued my true love, football. No, I was not especially gifted, and hours in the weight room, practice, and conditioning only go so far. I wasn’t destined for the pro ranks, or even a starting spot in college. I came in on passing downs, when extra receivers were needed. It kept me fresh, determined to make the most of every opportunity on the field. When the ball was thrown my way, every couple games, I would fight for each yard knowing the next opportunity might be long in the coming.
My family pressured me to return home with promises of connections that could avoid a lengthy job hunt. They knew the good openings in their company and had an in with the hiring managers. The job was mine if I wanted it.
To stave off that eventuality, I sent out no fewer than 83 resumes. Any college football program conceivably in the market for a receivers coach got one. A grand total of four schools showed even the slightest interest but amazingly, I got an offer. Gulf Coast Baptist University, Henrietta Beach, Mississippi.
No, I was not an instant campus celebrity. I spent twelve years as receivers coach, studying the game, figuring out what I might do were I ever in the top spot. Ten losing seasons marked those difficult years, with four different head coaches. It was not until my immediate boss, our offensive coordinator (the third I’d worked under), was given a try at head coach that I saw my first promotion. I was now in charge of the entire offense, able to shape part of the team’s game plan.
I took to it well. My philosophy was different from my predecessors, who always looked for that one star player, the one who would fill stands and energize the crowd. I looked at the recruiting class as a whole. My goal was to get the best mix of players I could find, rather than targeting that elusive high school star. Then I’d tailor the offense around whatever they did best.
We started winning that year, and for my first two seasons we put up the best offensive numbers in the in the conference. The next year, we took what had been a sad sack team for decades deep into the playoffs.
Our performance did not escape notice, and our head coach, now finishing his third season was offered a job at a top tier university. There is a pecking order in American college football, and only the bowl-eligible teams pay the huge money. Our school, GCBU, occupied the next tier down, competing for neither the lucrative TV profits nor expensive stadium receipts that the top schools enjoy. He didn’t even need to think about it. He took the job, the pay raise, and the fame, and with little warning I found myself promoted again, this time to the head coaching spot he vacated.
Football coaching is an all-consuming profession. The teams we play put their all into the sport, and if we’re not ready to do the same, we’re roadkill. I suppose if you’d asked me whether things could come crashing down the way they did, I would honestly have answered it was possible. But I just didn’t think of that. I was focused on bringing out the best in my players, in making our school proud, living up to the expectations of our students, parents, administrators, faculty, alumni, and community. I simply did not have time to consider the risk I was taking.
By my fourth year running the team, my players had all been recruited entirely under my head-coaching leadership. We dominated our division that year, leading in both offense and defense. When we began demolishing our opponents in the playoffs, the national press showed interest. No, we weren’t in the elite bowl subdivision, the one where every move garners national attention. But a football program that turns itself around from perennial poor player to powerhouse has human interest. Major news outlets began clamoring to interview winning coach Mark Meissner.
Naturally they wanted background, were hungry for it. So hungry that the tidbits of my past I threw at them, my college career, my early coaching tribulations, my rise to stardom, did not completely satisfy. They began nosing around, and it was only a matter of time. An up-and-comer from ESPNU began to wonder why I mysteriously appeared as a high school freshman playing JV football, while no earlier academic record could be found. I suppose my only hope would have been that this reporter deserved his junior status as a result of mediocrity instead of inexperience, but I had no such luck. His investigative skills combined with my somewhat uncommon last name managed to bring to light the seeming evaporation of a 14-year-old girl named Eleanor Meissner from the face of the earth the previous June. No record of her family moving. Yet, also no record of her ascendance to high school, nearby nor indeed anywhere in the country. Not even any mention of a death or disappearance. What became of her? And how was she linked with the sudden materialization of Mark Meissner, future college coach extraordinaire, starting high school just a few miles away?
I was outed as a transgender man only days before the championship, a game we were favored to win by more than a touchdown against a formidable team that was also undefeated. The factoid that the elusive Eleanor Meissner had played peewee and powder puff football as a wide receiver, the same position played by the nascent Mark, clinched the connection. ESPN confidently ran the story and the reporter won his share of accolades and headlines. I guess I can take consolation in the fact that I helped launch an earnest young journalist’s career. That’s scant comfort for someone walking into the athletic director’s office on the eve of triumph and walking out unemployed.
Despite having been fired, I was in the stands for the big game. I don’t know if it was valiant or stupid, obligatory or masochistic, but I felt compelled to travel there and be present for my players, or more accurately the players whom I used to coach. They lost the game by ten points, and because I was ordered against further contact with them, I have no idea whether they saw my departure as a betrayal on my part or on the part of the school.
My brother and sister, two of the only people alive who had been privy to my childhood change of identity, were indignant. Sue them, they demanded, make them pay in court. Winning such a suit would have been difficult. GCBU is a church-run institution, and could make a case that I violated their religious principles. Even if the suit had been ironclad, I had little appetite to fight. Yes, I might have emerged from a protracted legal action monetarily better off, but my career coaching major college football was through, and no amount of money could bring it back. Coaching is a macho profession. There has never been an openly gay big-time college head coach, let alone one who transitioned from being female. What would the impact be on the respect players have for me? No serious college coaching program would take that risk.
My siblings quickly arranged a job for me at their company. It hurt to take it, to accept the defeat and ruin that a return to my native Connecticut implied. But the desire I’d had in college to fight for those extra yards was gone now. I had no will to resist.
So now I sit in an overheated cubicle in downtown Hartford, gazing at the numbers at the top of my phone. I will them to turn from 11:59 to 12:00, so my lunch break will take me away from the dreary monotony of calculation. My brother Bill will call at precisely noon suggesting lunch, as he has every day since my starting here. He and my sister have steadfastly cooperated in making sure I don’t have too much alone time, concerned what I might do with only myself for company. Their concern is not misplaced. I have a gun from the early coaching days when all I could afford was an apartment in a questionable part of town and I was worried a vengeful drug lord might one night break down my apartment door mistaking me for a rival gang member. The thought of using it one final time on myself occurs to me daily.
Bill calls right on schedule, and I manage a listless “Hey there,” into the mouthpiece, waiting for his habitual, “Ready?”
Not today. Instead I hear momentary silence, followed by a voice I don’t recognize.
“Is this Mark Meissner?”
“I hope you don’t mind my calling. I got your number from Butch Browning.” My former head coach.
“He speaks very highly of you.”
“Who is this, please?”
“Oh, I apologize. I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Trent Davis from the Athletic Director’s office at the University of Southern California. You know of our football program?”
“Of course.” One of the best known teams in the country, though its win/loss records the past few years have not been stellar.
“Then you might know we’re looking to hire a new head coach. After the way you turned around the program at Gulf Coast, you’re at the top of our list. Can we fly you in to speak with us?”