The sharp smell of bitter coffee permeated the air as the whir of beans in a grinder grated on my nerves. If I actually had a cup of joe in my hand, maybe I wouldn’t be so on edge, but the line was taking forever to inch forward. And if I was late to my eight o’clock meeting, I’d lose whatever credibility had been afforded to me.
The man in front of me finally stepped aside, blessedly allowing me to relay my order to the young kid at the register. He seemed to be about sixteen with a good amount of bulk, and the possibility that he could be one of my players passed through my mind. Today was my first official day on the job as the new head coach at Douglass High School in Minneapolis, and I was equal parts elated and terrified. I suspected the media would be all over me as soon as word got out that I was the first female high school football coach in
Minnesota. One of only a handful of women ever to hold the positon in the entire country.
But I had to get through my introduction to the coaches this morning. This was my first test, the first of many, and to succeed I needed my armor: my comfiest Georgia Tech T-shirt, my lucky orange Nikes, and a calorie-filled drink from my new morning spot, Caribou Coffee.
Plus I had to get to school on time—7:34 turned to 7:35 faster than I would’ve liked.
I stepped up to the counter, reading the kid’s name tag. “Hi, Nate, I need a large caramel high rise with extra whipped cream and two dozen assorted bagels, please.”
He tapped my order into the register. “Thirty-three ninety-seven.”
I handed over my debit card. “And make it quick for me, okay?”
He nodded, offering me a smile. “Sure.”
He ran my card and had twenty-four plain, blueberry, and everything bagels packed up in no time. I grabbed my drink from the other end of the counter and headed out into the bright morning sun.
I’d moved to Minneapolis from Atlanta only a few days ago and had yet to find a place to live. All of my stuff was split between a Best Western hotel room and my car, but until school and my job as a physical education teacher began, I had no real income, which made it difficult to line up a more permanent home. I hoped I’d find a place soon—I was low on clean clothes and needed to do laundry, prefera
bly in a place where I didn’t have some creepy guy checking out my underwear.
I pressed the unlock button on my key fob, and the lights of my red sedan blinked twice as I made my way across the parking lot. The sun blinded me, and without sunglasses, I had to balance the box of bagels and coffee in one hand to shade my eyes with the other. I broke into an unbalanced jog to close the distance to my car, but a blaring horn and a screech of tires had me jumping backward.
I whipped my head to the right, my heart beating a mile a minute, as a man poked his head out of his window. “What the hell are you doing?”
“What am I doin’?” The last thing I needed this morning was to have a near-death experience with some Jeff Gordon wannabe douchebag. “What are you doin’?”
“You ran out in front of me,” he shouted with a wild wave of his hand.
“And you’re racin’ around a Caribou Coffee drive-thru. This isn’t a speedway.”
His eyes were hidden by a baseball cap, but I could tell this guy was young. He dropped his arm out of the window, muscles clearly defined. “You make it a habit of running around parking lots like a lost animal?”
I huffed. “You almost killed me, yet this is my fault?”
He pointed and snickered at me. Confused, I glanced down and realized that when I’d jumped back, I’d lost control of my purchases. My bagels lay strewn on the asphalt in a crumbled mess while my iced caramel coffee with extra
whipped cream had spilled down the front of my shirt in an uncanny replica of a Picasso painting.
I growled and threw him double birds. “Enjoy your day, Mario Andretti. Try not to run anybody over.”
He readjusted the brim of his hat and I caught the piercing look in his eyes. He licked his lips, the corner kicking up to a cocky smirk. “Don’t hurt yourself, sweetheart. One foot in front of the other.”
“Fuck off,” I grumbled, and bent down to pick up the mess at my feet as he drove off. By the time I had the pebble-covered bagels and my empty cup thrown away, it was too late to go back inside and order more. Plus I needed to change my shirt. There was no way I’d impress anyone looking the way I did, especially coming into the meeting empty-handed now.
I fished through the backseat of my car for another T-shirt. Finding a single wrinkled one, stained with what looked like mustard, I shrugged—it’d have to do. A case of water bottles in my trunk would suffice as my gift to lay at my staff’s feet.
I raced over to the school and parked in the back by the gymnasium. The athletic director was there waiting for me.
“Hey, Jim,” I greeted him with a nod as I grabbed the water.
He smiled back, tender and empathetic. His dark-brown skin was weathered with sun and time, and if I had to guess,
I’d assume he was in his fifties. But more forward-thinking than I’d give most middle-aged men—or men in general—credit for. “Hey. How’re you feeling this morning?”
“A wreck, but it’ll pass. I just want to get started.”
He gave me a quick once-over. Even with my stained shirt and red face, his confidence in me didn’t waver. He gently squeezed my arm. “You okay?”
Shifting uncomfortably, I cringed. “I spilled coffee all over my other shirt and didn’t have enough time to—you know what, never mind.”
He swiped a hand over his bald head. “Still looking for a place to live?”
“How could you tell?” I laughed in spite of myself.
“Want me to take that?” he asked, referring to the pallet of water I readjusted in my grip.
“No, I’m good.”
“Do you need help finding a place? I know a lot of people.”
I wasn’t normally one for taking charity, not even for accepting help carrying water, but I was desperate. And a door that didn’t open with a slide-in key card sounded lovely. “That would be great. Thanks.”
Jim nodded and led me through the gym to a long hallway with the girls’ locker room to the left and the boys’ locker room on the right, but we walked past both. “There’s an office in the locker room,” he said, his thumb pointing back over his shoulder to the sign that read MEN. “But some people were uncomfortable with you being in there, even
though the office isn’t anywhere near the changing rooms or showers.”
With all my years coaching football, I’d gotten used to entering men’s locker rooms without a second thought, but in this new place I understood the apprehension. What I didn’t understand was why we’d stopped in front of what looked like a closet.
“I tried to get you a different room but . . .” Jim’s face fell, and I gulped back the foreboding feeling stuck in my throat. He opened the door with a key and gestured for me to go in first. It was a closet—clean and empty save for a small desk and chair, but still a closet.
“This is my office?”
He dropped the key on the desk. “Yeah, it used to be the equipment closet.” His obvious sheepishness at the school’s not-so-great solution made me feel just a tiny bit better. “You could fit another chair or two, maybe.”
I refrained from rolling my eyes and reminded myself to be grateful. I’d long ago gotten used to these types of inconveniences in order for the men who surrounded me to feel comfortable, but there were times when I didn’t want to be happy with the crumbs. I wanted the whole pie.
As a head coach deserved.
Shaking off the momentary dissatisfaction, I smiled. I’d get over this. I always did, being the odd woman out in the game. After all, it might have previously been a closet, but now this room was my own.
“I’ll make it work,” I said, and he nodded.
“Mrs. LaRue, in the main office, will set you up with a key to let you in the building.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “You ready to go upstairs and make history here?”
When he put it like that, my nerves got the best of me, and I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind: “No.” When he drew back, confused, I corrected myself. “I’m not here for the accolades, but I’d settle for a winning season.”
We walked upstairs to the main hall and took a right to room 113. “This is Coach McGuire’s room. Dick used to show film in here,” he said; the latter, I knew, was the previous head coach.
He stopped just outside to pat my shoulder. “You’ll do great.”
“Thanks,” I said, steeling my nerves before he opened the door. Five pairs of eyes snapped their attention to me.
I’d played football with boys and coached with men my entire life. When people told me I couldn’t, I’d smiled and politely listed my qualifications. This wasn’t about proving anything to anyone. I didn’t care what people thought of me anyway. I’d been raised in the game. I was good at the game. I just wanted to do what I was best at.
But in this moment, my knees knocked like they were fighting each other.
I kept my head up, brave face on. “Mornin’, gentlemen.”
Jim stood next to me, the lone friendly presence in the room. “Guys, I’d like to finally introduce you to our new head coach, Charlie Gibb.”
“I brought everyone some refreshin’ water to start off our meetin’,” I said, placing the pallet on the desk in front of me before taking in the faces of my support staff. My focus drifted from one man to the next, each of them regarding me with a mix of curiosity and contempt. All except for the last man. No, the last man’s face held only contempt for me. It was Mario Andretti from the pickup truck.
“I’d planned on bagels, but I had a little trouble this morning. Consider it an I.O.U.” I smiled.
The guy with the lead foot shook his head deliberately, as if disappointed in me. But he’d created this whole mess to begin with. Son of a bitch.
“Don’t worry. I brought some for everyone.” He gestured to the open box of bagels in the middle of the table at the front of the room. “Help yourself.”
I ground my teeth. No way would I eat his bagels after he almost ran me over. And especially not after he stood up and stretched his hand out to me with a self-satisfied smirk. “I’m Connor McGuire, offensive coordinator.”
I met his rough palm with my own, squeezing his knuckles with as much strength as I could muster. Obviously this man was out for my blood. He might have won the battle, but I’d win the war.
I was the general of this squad. And I played to win.