INDIANAPOLIS – Sean McDermott had to stop and compose himself.
Seated on stage at the NFL’s Women’s Careers in Football Forum, the Buffalo Bills’ coach watched as a picture of his 10-year-old daughter, Maddie, appeared on the projector. In the photo, Maddie is dressed for her school’s career day.
Her chosen occupation? Head coach of the Buffalo Bills. Dressed in a Bills hoodie and hat, with an Xbox headset on and a play sheet in her hand, she certainly looked the part.
“I don’t know if she wanted to be her dad, or she just wanted to be a coach,” McDermott told the audience. “I think more to just be a coach. The part that struck me about this picture, and not just as a dad, but just as a coach in the NFL, is the impact that not only we have, but you have, and how deep it runs and how far it's going.”
Maddie’s dream is one shared by the 40 women who participated in the third annual forum held here ahead of the NFL Scouting Combine, and McDermott is determined to help them achieve it.
“I almost got emotional up there, watching it,” he said after the hour-long panel discussion that also included head coaches Bruce Arians (Buccaneers), John Harbaugh (Ravens) and Ron Rivera (Panthers). “I'm thinking, ‘we're at the combine and my daughter's picture is up on the screen.’ It's emotional for me because I know what the Bills and how important my job is to my family. You see coaches on TV maybe, but sometimes you forget that there's families behind them that really put a lot into the job as well. That's on a personal level.
“On a professional level, it’s about being able to further our game in the right way. The impact that being able to hire the best, and the impact that these young women are having on youth today, not just male, but young girls who want to be them.”
Over the first two years of the forum, women have landed 26 positions in coaching, scouting or football operations with nine different NFL teams, six colleges or universities and three teams in the Alliance of American Football. Of those positions, 42 percent went to women of color.
One of those positions was with the Bills. Last year, Phoebe Schecter worked with the tight ends and assisted the offensive, defensive and special teams quality control coaches as a season-long intern.
“The energy, the way she handled herself, she's a trailblazer, one of the first around the league on the coaching level to hold the position she held,” McDermott said. “I thought she just did a phenomenal job.”
Schecter came to the Bills through the NFL’s Bill Walsh diversity coaching fellowship, of which McDermott serves as a member of the advisory council. During the season, McDermott’s daughter would visit the facility from time to time and see Schecter at work, either on the sidelines or after practice, or in the gym on her own time for personal fitness.
“Connecting Maddie with Phoebe, what a great example,” McDermott said. “I'm not just talking about having Maddie watch Phoebe coach on the field, but having Maddie in our facility at the same time Phoebe is in the facility. Watching Phoebe work out, you know, after work. How she handles herself around the building. How she handles herself in meetings. What a great example, for my young daughter at least to watch someone like Phoebe model not just what it looks like on the field, on the television, but off the field when the cameras are off. Just a great example Phoebe was for us this season.”
Schecter is currently living in England, working for the NFL UK. She’s hopeful of returning to a coaching role in the 2019 season, and will once again be applying for the Walsh fellowship.
“I loved being a part of the Bills, because it’s like a big family,” Schecter said. “What Sean has done for me is incredible. He is such an amazing human and the culture that he's getting into all of Buffalo, not just the team, but the way that's spreading to the rest of the town is awesome. For me to be able to learn from someone who has got such a great mindset, especially as a coach, the way he sees defense, the way he teaches is huge for me. It's what I aspire to be one day. I can't be thankful enough or say enough great things about him.”
As part of the panel discussion, McDermott and the other coaches shared their advice on the best way to either break into or advance in the business.
“Once you're in, people sometimes, they kind of relax,” McDermott said. “Well, that's not the time to relax. When you're in, it's time to jam. It's time to make the most of the opportunity. Just like the opportunity you've earned to be here. Don't just go back and go on and do your jobs, use that time to make the most of this opportunity that you've been provided or earned, and make connections that are going to get you those jobs or get you in front of the right people.”
One of the audience members listening to McDermott’s advice was Cady Oster, the University at Buffalo’s director of football recruiting operations.
“It's amazing. Growing up as a little girl wanting to do this, you hear in school, 'oh you can't do that,' ” she said. “That's all you hear, and then you're sitting in a room and there's 39-plus other women that have come together to make that forum. You know they've done the exact same thing and they're sitting in the seat next to you and they've proved everybody wrong.”
Football is in Oster’s blood. Her grandfather, Ralph Hawkins, coached or scouted in the NFL for 35 years, getting his start with the Buffalo Bills in 1969. Her aunt, Karianne Hawkins, has previously worked for the Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in front-office roles, and is now working for the University of Illinois’ football team.
“I'm just lucky,” Oster said. “They say not to say that, but I do feel fortunate because there are so few roles in this business, so it is a dream job.”
Oster credited UB coach Lance Leipold for giving her the opportunity last year, similar to how McDermott opened the door for Schecter.
“These guys, they see us as being equal to them,” she said. McDermott “is showing his daughters and all the mothers and aunts and sisters in the world that he sees us as equals.”
Even before McDermott arrived, the Bills have had a strong history in providing opportunities for women in the game. In 2016, former coach Rex Ryan hired Kathryn Smith as the league’s first full-time assistant coach.
That’s a legacy that McDermott is proud to carry on.
“This is the best of the best, right? This is what the NFL is supposed to be, the best in the world. Why not have the opportunity to hire, truly the best?” he said. “My daughter, wanting to be, maybe someday, Phoebe Schecter and have a chance to work in the NFL on a coaching staff. It's not just work in the office, but having an opportunity to actually coach. Whether that's what she decides to do or not, I think to have that opportunity would be phenomenal.”
“It's something that he really believes in,” Schecter said of McDermott. “He's not just saying it. He wants to see a change in the landscape, but he wants the best people to have the opportunity to make that change. That's what's so unique and special to him. To see him up there, I'm so excited and proud to know that I've been able to work with him and to see how he's giving back to the future of football.”