Mike Penner: Great Writer, Soccer Fanatic, Gentle Soul

I met Mike Penner on the field at the Rose Bowl shortly before the 1994 World Cup kicked off. He was a neophyte when it came to soccer: knew very little, cared even less. I knew the sort, and we veterans on the soccer beat - we who loved the game and hated how the mainstream U.S. media treated it - had little time for these "ugly" Americans.

But there was something very different about Mike. You immediately liked him - you couldn't help it. So many of the qualities that I would come to love about the man were right there, right at the start. He was gentle, he was generous, he was kind, and he was so humble for one who possessed such talent.

As the tournament played out, I ran into Mike again and again, at the Rose Bowl, in Dallas, at Stanford. When I think back to that World Cup, so many great memories, I think my friendship with Mike is what I most cherish.

News arrived Saturday that Mike had died, apparently by his own hand, and I sat here at my computer and bawled. He'll be remembered by those who didn't know him, or those who didn't know him well, as that sportswriter who became a woman, changing his byline to Christine Daniels, and then went back to being Mike Penner. To all of us who knew him, who loved him, he was so, so, so much more.

None of us will ever know the turmoil he endured the past few years dealing with gender-identity issues. When he announced, in a beautifully written column in the Los Angeles Times, that he was transgender and would be living as a woman, there was an outpouring of support, especially from his friends. But there also were nasty comments, despicable letters, a few horrible blogs and God knows what else.

I met Christine at a party in Torrance, then saw her a few times at Home Depot Center, for the David Beckham introduction and at a couple of soccer games. She seemed happy and secure, and her writing was, as always, so note-perfect. When she quietly reverted back to Mike last year, I sent an email. I never received a reply, and my friend request on Facebook a month or so ago went unanswered. I figured Mike would be in touch when he was ready, and I let it go. Now I'm kicking myself, as are so many among his friends, that I wasn't more forceful, that I didn't reach out as I should have to let him know that he was loved, that I had his back no matter what he was going through, no matter where it all took him.

Mike had so many friends, so many admirers. Anyone who has read the Los Angeles Times sports section over the past 25 years has to be a fan. Mike always wrote with great wit and insight. His touch was so perfect. He was the best writer I knew, and how I wish I could write like he did.

Mike had the most deft touch imaginable. He could be writing about anything - he could be writing about something you hate - and he'd enrapture you. He could get to the heart of something, with this sweetly subversive humor, like nobody else.

I was a fan of Mike's well before he was my friend. He was sports editor of the Anaheim Bulletin not long after getting his degree from Cal State Fullerton, my alma mater, and quickly was a rising star in the Times' Orange County bureau. With good cause: What I love most in newspapers is great writing. Mike was the finest writer the Times employed from the moment they added him to their staff.

I was among many friends who knew Mike primarily through soccer. I watched in 1994 as he caught the bug, and before Brazil and Italy were battling scoreless through 120 minutes, and on to penalty kicks, in a final played in strength-sapping heat, he was on board. He wrote about it in a 1998 column for the Times:

In the months leading up to the World Cup, I had written derisively about the 1993 APSL final between the Los Angeles Salsa and the Colorado Foxes-drawing the ire of letter-writing soccer fans across Orange County-and poked fun at the "so-called American soccer underground-you know, the unshaven, vertical-stripe-shirted loners you spot from time to time in the corner of an international bookstore, breathing heavily over the latest copy of World Soccer."

Today, I am one of them.

My boss calls it "a disease." Concerned friends have suspected a midlife crisis. Others have brought up religion and that episode about St. Paul seeing the flash of light and falling off his horse-falling off his horse, especially.

No, there was no crackle of lightning, no rending of the heavens that I can remember.

Only a 35-yard free kick into the far upper corner of the net by Gheorghe Hagi.

That swerving, bending, incredible and illogical ball, struck during the first World Cup game I covered, Romania versus Colombia at the Rose Bowl, seemed to trigger some disabling chemical reaction in my jaded and crusted sportswriter's brain. I just sat there, staring at the replay on the press row television monitor, marveling at Hagi's imperious coolness as he approached the ball, his nonchalant follow-through, the wild trajectory of his physics-defying shot and the full-on Romanian festival suddenly raging in the south corner of the stadium.

I'd never seen anything like it, but I wanted to see more.

I covered 11 games during the 1994 World Cup, watching Colombia's Andres Escobar net his catastrophic own goal against the United States; checking out Bebeto and Romario "rocking the baby" after a vital goal in Brazil's quarterfinal victory over Holland; taking in the back-and-forth fastbreak action between Argentina and Romania and listening to Al Mistri, the Cal State Fullerton soccer coach seated behind me, roar with delight, "And they say this sport doesn't have enough offense!"

Everything about the event pulled me in-the drama of the matches, the virtuosity of the players, the unpredictable spontaneity of the play, the passion of the fans.

When the World Cup was over, he bought a soccer ball ("the ugliest, most ridiculous-looking ball I could find - a rock-hard Jorge Campos model, with panels tinted florescent purple, lime and orange, much the same color scheme as Campos' outlandish goalkeeping outfits," he wrote), and started going out to the park with his wife, Times sportswriter Lisa Dillman, to kick it around.

All nice and good, but what happened next says so much about Mike. He invited some of his friends, Times colleagues and a few of us he met while covering the Cup, to come out and kick the ball around with them. Who could possibly say no? There were just a handful at first, then a few more, then enough for a really good 7-on-7 game, usually followed by a Chicago-style hot dog feast at Mustard's in Los Alamitos, a half-mile or so from the park.

From that, a thought. What if we put together a real team and played other teams? As Mike noted after our first informal game against outside competition, a 7-6 victory: "What have we gotten ourselves into?"

So began Scribes FC, the best soccer club in Southern California consisting primarily of sportswriters, to be sure. It lasted 10 years, won plenty of trophies - capturing titles in adult-recreation leagues in Monterey Park, Long Beach and Placentia - and spawned a coed team, a 7-a-side team, even a second team that battled the first team in the championship game one year in Placentia.

What held it all together, of course, was Mike. He was the pied piper for Scribes, a solid central defender (patterning his play after his hero, English backliner Tony Adams) and master motivator. And to all of us, "The Gaffer." Scribes was a huge part of his life, and - in part so we could be with Mike, hang out with him, bask in his glow - it became a huge part of ours.

We had a Who's Who of L.A.-area sportswriting talent, with journalists from the Times, Orange County Register, Long Beach Press-Telegram, Pasadena Star-News. Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, a Times editor who now is the Washington Post's sports editor, teamed with Mike in central defense, and he brought his Spanish-born cousin, Sergio Verdu, a creative midfielder and Scribes FC's first superstar.

Marc Stein, ESPN's Manchester City-loving NBA writer, was up front, known more for shanking golden opportunities than finishing them. Future Pulitzer winner George Dohrmann, now with Sports Illustrated, a fine, fine player. Kent Coloma, who worked in the Times' library, provided midfield leadership. Billy Witz, from the Press-Telegram and later the L.A. Daily News, was valuable anywhere he played. There were so many more: Bill Shaikin, the Times' baseball writer, and the Register's Bill Rams, Times vet Elliott Teaford, librarian Paul Singleton and photog Kevin Casey. Samuel Chi, editor of this fine publication. So many more.

Fred Robledo, a prep guru and soccer writer for the Star-News (and now the San Gabriel Valley Tribune), was as valuable off the field as on. He brought in his brother, Steve, a fine forward, and his cousin Shelby Greep, who had played at Cal Poly Pomona and coached Arcadia High School's powerhouse girls soccer team. Shelby's husband, Mike, was phenomenal. Freddie even brought out his dad on occasion.

We debuted, in earnest, in a 7-on-7 tournament at Cal State Dominguez Hills, playing against college kids, mostly. College kids who played for their schools' soccer teams, mostly. It was eye-opening, but we managed a tie in one game, and celebrated with pizza.

Next thing, we were in the Monterey Park league, where we developed a bitter rivalry with Chinese United and a friendly rivalry with Fuller Seminary. One of our referees was Fabio Tovar, now a veteran linesman in Major League Soccer.

The roster was supplemented by ringers, most of them friends of friends, every so often some opponent who saw how much fun we were having, win or lose. (And we won a lot more than we lost.)

Cypress College's women's coach, Tino Younger, joined us for awhile in the Long Beach league - he once missed a cross because he was standing next to the midfield flag drinking coffee, and he nearly started a riot against the Islanders, a team of primarily Jamaicans, when he beat the goalkeeper, dribbled to the goal line, then stopped and turned around, baiting our foe. One of the Islanders picked up a corner flag and used it as a spear, chasing Tino around the field.

Two Ghanaians who were working, if I remember correctly, as parking-lot attendants at the Times' downtown office, joined us one Sunday in Placentia. They were really, really good. And they figured that playing for the "company" team meant they'd be seen by scouts, who might offer professional contracts. Like in Ghana. Mike didn't have the heart to tell them the truth, but they quickly figured it out, and we never saw them again.

Jason Bunch and Stuart Cooley were wonderful additions, and so was Julian Neely, and so was Eric Spotts, a high school soccer coach in Torrance who became, like Billy Witz, one of Mike's closest friends. It was at Eric's house that I first saw Christine.

Mike called us "lads," like the Brits do, and he published a hysterical weekly newsletter about the club, written as always with love and great wit. He waxed about the victories, the defeats, the goals and should've-been goals, the red cards and all the silliness. My favorite: At one game a light went off in Julian Neely's head. "So, you're all writers?" he asked Mike. Yep. "Man, writing's hard." I can still hear Mike's deep, genuine laugh.

He gave us all nicknames. Emilio was "Generalissimo," in honor of his Spanish ancestry and leadership on the backline. Marc Stein was "Steeno," which is surely what he would have been called at Man City. I was "El Bleeping Loco" because I couldn't abide by poor officiating, too often letting my emotions get the best of me. I picked up my share of red cards.

And Mike, as always, was "The Gaffer." He was the fulcrum of that team. He was the one we all looked up to, whom we wanted to please, whom we didn't want to disappoint. You might say he held court at our postgame Shakey's Pizza gatherings, except that Mike never wanted a spotlight. He was just part of the gang, but always the best among equals, so to speak.

His and Lisa's love of soccer was fed with trips to Europe, to see games in Spain and France and England. Mike loved London powerhouse Arsenal FC - Tony Adams' club - and he acquired lots of Gunners memorabilia. He wrote in the Times:

There are times when I open the trunk of my car and spot the four soccer balls, the two soccer nets, the soccer coach's diagram board, the mini pop-up soccer goals, the plastic soccer practice cones, the empty water bottles and the stray jar of Mineral Ice and I flash to that old Talking Heads lyric:

And you may ask yourself

Well, how did I get here?

Hanging in the bedroom closet are more than a dozen replica soccer jerseys-Brazil, Scotland, Chile, Cameroon, England (1966 red edition, 1990 white and 1996 gray), Colombia, Arsenal (home red, away blue, long sleeved 1970s vintage edition), Sheffield Wednesday, Athletic Bilbao.

In the living room video cabinet are stacks of tapes bearing such titles as "Defending to Win," "Dribbling and Feinting," "502 Great Goals," "England's Tribute to Gary Lineker," "Goals Galore," "F.A. Cup Final, 1923-1978" and "Great Soccer Highlights: The Sixties."

Two shelves in the home library are crammed with the likes of "The Art of Soccer," "Soccer Skills and Tactics," The Yearbook of European Football," "Cantona," "Hand of God: The Life of Diego Maradona" and "The Complete Record of the North American Soccer League."

Next to the stereo system, sharing CD shelf space with the Smashing Pumpkins, Husker Du and the Clash are "The Best Footie Anthems in The World," "The Beautiful Game," "Good Old Arsenal" and Alexi Lalas' debut with the Gypsies.

I'm going to miss talking soccer with Mike. I'm going to miss watching soccer with Mike. And I'm definitely going to miss playing soccer with Mike.

I retired in 1998, after a broken leg in Monterey Park forced me onto crutches at the World Cup in France, which I covered for the L.A. Newspaper Group. Mike brought me to my mother's house, where I would recuperate. My mom spent five minutes, maybe less, with Mike. She loved him.

Mike also went to France, for the Times, and some of my favorite memories with him are from that month. The free all-you-can-eat sushi at 2002 co-host Japan's media to-do. Mike laughing as my steak tartare arrived at a very nice establishment and I realized it was raw meat. His recommendations of fine French cuisine that I struggled to find edible.

And a wonderful end-of-the-tournament dinner at a tiny restaurant on Ile de St. Louis with Mike, Lisa, Sam Chi and Times soccer guru Grahame Jones. Great food, great wine, and most of all great company.

Mike was forced into retirement when he had to undergo heart surgery, which kept him out of Germany's press tribunes at the 2006 World Cup. He was certainly missed.

Not long after, he announced, in a column headlined "Old Mike, New Christine," that he would be Mike Penner no more:

During my 23 years with The Times' sports department, I have held a wide variety of roles and titles. Tennis writer. Angels beat reporter. Olympics writer. Essayist. Sports media critic. NFL columnist. Recent keeper of the Morning Briefing flame.

Today I leave for a few weeks' vacation, and when I return, I will come back in yet another incarnation.

As Christine.

I am a transsexual sportswriter. It has taken more than 40 years, a million tears and hundreds of hours of soul-wrenching therapy for me to work up the courage to type those words. I realize many readers and colleagues and friends will be shocked to read them.

That's OK. I understand that I am not the only one in transition as I move from Mike to Christine. Everyone who knows me and my work will be transitioning as well. That will take time. And that's all right. To borrow a piece of well-worn sports parlance, we will take it one day at a time.

Christine seemed happier than I'd ever seen Mike, and Mike always seemed happy, I thought. Maybe he was just happy to be with friends. Things seemed to be going well, and then, not quite a year and a half later, Mike was back. One of my life's regrets will be that I never saw him again.

I've got to tell you about Mike and music. I loved nothing more than to discuss - and so often argue - music with Mike. We were both amateur critics (and both of us - Mike especially - could have been pros, believe me) who grew up with classic rock and came of age with punk. We shared a love of many bands, none more so than the Clash and Joy Division. He might have liked British alternative more so than I did, and I clearly was more of a Led Zeppelin fan than he, but we could go on for hours about this band and that song, argue over whether "Rudie Can't Fail" or "Up In Heaven (Not Only Here)" was the greatest song the Clash recorded, share our mutual love of melodic noise.

I'd like to think I turned Mike onto a band here and there, but probably not. He was on top of things. He knew Husker Du and Sonic Youth and the Minutemen, and he loved Joy Division, perhaps the most majestic and tragic band to emerge from the second wave of U.K. punks.

I'm listening to Joy Division now. Ian Curtis, the band's singer and songwriter, was a tortured soul, and that plays out across the entirety of their catalogue. He was, for Mike and me, a musical hero, just like John Lennon and Joe Strummer.

Ian Curtis hanged himself on the eve of the band's first American tour, just before its masterpiece album was released. I shudder to think Mike might have been listening to "Closer" in his final days, his final hours.

Mike introduced me to so many bands through his annual "KPEN" compilation cassettes and CDs, which Christine turned into "KGAL." I might be clueless about one of my favorite bands, Austin's ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, were it not for Mike.

His "KPEN '90s" CD is a perfect summation of the decade's music, both obvious (Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Radiohead's "Creep") and cultish (My Bloody Valentine, Catherine Wheel, Sugar and Inspiral Carpets). He gave us tastes of the Strokes, White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs before they went big. Or big-ish.

And each cassette or CD featured his take on every song, perfect synopsis that would put Robert Christgau to shame. Of ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead's "It Was There That I Saw You," he noted "the band's entire name is a full paragraph when translated into Portuguese." Of At The Drive-in's ArcArsenal, he was gloriously succinct:

Relax, all. Contrary to first appearances, this is NOT a soccer song. But, you know, any song with Arsenal in its title and filled with roaring punk guitars and raging on-the-brink-of-implosion vocals is, well, as you know, right up KPEN's alley.

In 2002, he included "The 2002 FJSA World Cup Official Anthem":

I'll leave you with a World Cup story. (You were dying to hear one, right?) During my travels across Japan this summer, as I tried to burn off the deadline adrenaline in a box-sized businessman's hotel room (imagine a bed and shower in your walk-in closet, only smaller), I'd faithfully crack open a refreshing bottle of the tragically addictive Royal Milk Tea (thank God they sell this stuff at Marukai; I immediately bought a year's membership upon my stateside return) and would wind down watching World Cup game replays and then, after that, after the final whistle had sounded, this bizarre channel that featured nothing but an endless loop of still photographs of World Cup soccer stadiums - here's the pitch in Yokohama, and now the locker room, and the concession stand - rolled out over and over while the haunting World Cup anthem played in the background. (Oddly soothing in its own way, listening to this over and over while watching the endless parade of soccer stadiums. The Japanese are very proud of their soccer stadiums.) I guess you kind of had to be there. And really, I wish you'd been. Six months later, these 4½ minutes are the best I can do.

A year later, he offered a most poignant take on Clash frontman Joe Strummer's death, along with a copy of "Silver and Gold" by Strummer's band, the Mescaleros:

When you log as many earth years as KPEN has, you find yourself running decidedly low on real-life heroes. Strummer was one of them, one of the last, and his passing on Dec. 23, 2002, felt like a death in the family. It's interesting, if not heartbreaking, to see Joe earning the kind of accolades in death he should have experienced during his 50 years - the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame, the Bruce Springsteen/Elvis Costello/Dave Grohl/Little Steven tribute at the Grammys, the recent Mojo magazine poll which listed the Clash as the third-greatest rock act of all time - behind Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, just ahead of the Beatles (me, I'd have moved Elvis out of there). Then came "Streetcore," the album Joe was recording with the Mescaleros when he died. "Silver and Gold" is the last track on "Streetcore." I've heard it more than a dozen times, and it puts a lump in my throat every time. Joe, this one's for you.

As I reread this, I think much the same could be said about Mike. He was one of our best sportswriters - hell, he was one of our best writers, period - and if not enough readers understood this, well, someone dropped the ball. I have a feeling Mike will get all the accolades he deserved while he was alive. I'd love for someone to take his columns over the past 25 years, choose a couple hundred of the best - and weeding them down to just a couple hundred will be a mammoth task - and publish them in book form. When they go on sale, I'll be first in line.

I loved Mike Penner. I always will. He was a wonderful person. The sweetest, gentlest, most generous human being you could ever hope to meet. Ask anyone who knew him, anyone who called him friend, and they'll tell you the same thing. I'm richer having known him, and this world's a lesser place without him.

Scott French, who covered the 1994 and 1998 World Cups for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, is managing editor of The Soccer Magazine and a contributing editor to the Madera (Calif.) Tribune.

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