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'We want diversity': Bills lead NFL in hiring women to work with players

Kim Pegula looked around the table in admiration at the dozen team employees who accompanied her for drinks one August night in Spartanburg, S.C., when the Buffalo Bills were in town for joint training camp practices with the Carolina Panthers.

Pegula, the Bills' president and co-owner, hadn’t considered this gathering particularly noteworthy. But as the evening progressed and stories were shared, she grew to further appreciate those employees' varied backgrounds and professions. And she began to well with pride, because all of these ambitious, intelligent and hardworking women were contributing to the success of her NFL franchise.

“We forget about it sometimes because everyone’s always focused on female coaches,” Pegula said this week. “But everything from our sports science, our nutritionists, scouting, coaching, PR – we’ve got a lot of women. Our strength and conditioning, physical therapy, athletic training. There’s a lot of them. It was interesting to get them all together at once and just talk about our different experiences, and to get to know them a lot more than I may normally do on any given day.”

The Bills this season employ 12 women who work directly with players, helping them prepare to perform their best on Sundays. Four are full-timers. Eight are interns, either on seasonlong or two-year appointments. And that doesn’t count those on the team's business side, several of whom joined Pegula for that night out in South Carolina.

The NFL tracks diversity hires at each of its 32 clubs, according to Samantha Rapoport, the NFL's senior director of football development.

The Bills lead the NFL with three such hires this year (one full time, two seasonal), followed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (two full time), Oakland Raiders (one full time) and San Francisco 49ers (one full time). The Panthers and Baltimore Ravens also have welcomed female intern coaches at training camp for two years in a row, according to the league.

The Bills have hired a full-time, female coach in three of the last four years.

"We want to be at the forefront of a lot of areas," Bills General Manager Brandon Beane said, "whether it’s sports science, having a positive culture on and off the field, a winning culture, being a consistent contender. We want to be all those things. And we want to be diverse, because we think that makes us a stronger organization as a whole, from the top down, and obviously with Terry and Kim, that’s important to them and it’s very important to Sean and myself, as well."

After rallying to defeat the New York Jets in the season opener, Bills coach Sean McDermott marveled about the “group of men and women in that locker room.”

“I’m so proud of that group,” McDermott said. “On the road, in the division, down like we were, momentum certainly not in our favor for most of the game – just what a blessing to be a part of that group in there.”

The Buffalo News reached out to the women to talk about their accomplishments, the challenges they’ve overcome or may continue to face in their professions, and to learn what advice they’d offer someone who wants to work in the NFL.

Laura Young, the team’s coordinator of player services, is in her 16th NFL season since being recruited to work on the business side in client services with the Ravens. She joined the football side when Rex Ryan hired her as an assistant to the head coach with the Jets, then added her to his staff in Buffalo, where she was retained after his departure.

In her current role, she handles players' "real world" concerns, with a focus on assisting players' significant others. This includes everything from distributing tickets to family members to assisting with personal issues, so a player's primary concern remains his performance on the field.

“There’s been a lot of women that have been in football and I don’t think it should be a story,” Young said. “I think it’s part of the norm.”

And in an ideal world, she’s right.

But she agreed to an interview because, “I just want the generations that come after us to know that there are opportunities,” she said. “Don’t be afraid or hesitant to say that because it’s a – I hate that term ‘man’s world’ – that I can’t do it.”

A cursory glance at the Bills’ staff, or around that table in South Carolina, confirms her assertion.

But the stories others shared made it clear why media attention remains important.

Mackenzie Marques, an athletic training intern in her second season with the Bills, said her internship with the Seattle Seahawks in the summer of 2017 was an eye-opening experience.

“It was crazy,” Marques said. “They had never had a female athletic trainer, student or certified, so that was their first experience having a female and my first experience being the only female.

“This past summer, I know they had two female interns. So each year, it’s progressing. More teams are not necessarily saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to hire a female,’ but they’re looking at the whole applicant pool. We get sent cover letters and resumes straight to the training room for summer internships, and I would say about 60% of them are from females. We read through each and every one of them and look at them all equally.

“I think several years ago, people applied but maybe thought, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to get this.’ And now they can go and say, ‘Hey, I’m really going to go after this. They hire women.’ And I think that’s pretty cool.”

The NFL’s Women’s Careers in Football Forum, since it began in 2017, has led to 78 women being hired for 89 full-time or internship opportunities, with 32% of those candidates women of color, according to Rapoport.

Beane and McDermott both attended the forum at this year’s NFL combine in Indianapolis and are committed to adding women to their staffs.

“I think you’re definitely seeing where clubs – and hopefully it’s all 32 – are looking for ways,” Beane said. “It is a locker room and you understand that people are changing, but there’s ways around it, so that it’s not an uncomfortable situation. But we want diversity. And we want it whether it’s race, and whether it’s gender. I think it’s come a long way. I still think it has a ways to go. But we want to be here, where in a few years, we’re not saying, ‘They have two female trainers, or one female equipment intern, or one in scouting.’ We’re not counting. Hopefully we get to the point where we’re saying we have X-number of interns, we don’t say we have X-number of female interns.”

Those internships serve a critical function.

"You want to grow your own, just like we do with our players," Beane said. "We can’t create a bunch of jobs, but we already have these internships available, so to add to the diversity of the pool of candidates we’re choosing, I think is great. And other women now, seeing the women around the league like the ones in our building, it’s going to encourage them to be more aggressive and look for these opportunities."

Bills defensive tackle Harrison Phillips said he was a bit surprised at the media attention last season, when he was a rookie, when the team hired Phoebe Schecter as a full-time coaching intern. Schecter was the team’s second full-time female coach, following Kathryn Smith, who in 2016 became the first in NFL history.

“I guess it’s never even really been a thought, because this is the first NFL locker room I’ve stepped into and it was diverse when I got here,” Phillips said. “There were fantastic women trainers, fantastic women nutritionists, fantastic women in our player development, we have women coaches, and so that’s just something I guess I took for granted. And then I kind of asked around once there was a little bit of media attention, and the veterans told me that in other places, there’s no women at all. And that definitely shocked me.

“So I love that the organization we’re in and support everything that we do. Why shouldn’t the best people have the jobs? And that’s what we’re trying to do here. And I think it’s showing so far.”

Callie Brownson, who last year became the first woman hired as a full-time NCAA Division I coach when she was promoted following an internship at Dartmouth, is the Bills’ third female coach in four seasons.

The full-time coaching intern said she'll never forget being devastated, as a 14-year-old, when she learned she wouldn’t be allowed to play high school football with her friends. They had played together for years as children.

“When you’re young like that, you don’t see boundaries, really, like the rest of society does as we get older,” Brownson said. “So it’s confusing. It’s confusing how you’ve been playing with the boys your whole life in baseball and football and basketball and all these other things, and it was never an issue, and it was never an issue with my friends. It never got brought up. It was never a situation where I got picked last for a team. It was never a thing.

“So for me, when the people who are adults, who are supposed to be showing us the way and showing us how culture is and molding us into the leaders we’re supposed to be, are the ones who are actually making it an issue, it’s a difficult feeling. Because I had never faced that adversity of, ‘You can’t do this because you’re a girl.’ ”

Brownson wasn’t with Pegula and the group that gathered for drinks that night in South Carolina.

But she was happy to join so many of her female colleagues for a photo this week at the Bills’ practice facility. She looked around at the group of women, much like Pegula looked around that table, and was proud to be one of many, not an outlier.

“It’s the way it should be,” Brownson said. “It should be normal to be surrounded by people who are like you. It should be normal for there to be a group of people involved in a story as opposed to one. To me, that’s a step in the right direction. To me, that’s what it’s about. You don’t have to say anymore, ‘I’m the only woman here working in football-specific stuff.’ To me, it’s refreshing.”

In their words

In an effort to include as many voices and viewpoints as possible, The Buffalo News surveyed the Bills’ female employees who work directly with football players, helping them prepare to perform their best on Sundays.

They were asked about why they pursued a career in pro football, the challenges of working in a male-dominated environment and their advice for others who aim to work in the NFL.

All chose to participate except for sports psychologist and mental performance coach Katy Turner, who cited the nature of her work.

Their comments have been edited for clarity and condensed.

Kelly Bray. ( James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Kelly Bray, seasonal athletic training intern

“What drew me to the profession was my love for medicine as well as the competitive environment that comes with athletics. These athletes are some of the best, which motivates me to push myself to be better every day. It is important to me that I am flat-out exceptional at my job, not just doing a ‘good job for being a girl.’ My biggest piece of advice would be to strap on your boots! The hours are long, the days can be hard, and it is incredibly worth it.”

Callie Brownson. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Callie Brownson, coaching intern

“Going through what I went through (being told I couldn't play high school football because of my gender), I don’t think anybody should have to go through that anymore in our society. It was hard on me. But I think it’s another motivation as to why we really have to work to change this, because there’s a lot of young girls out there that love football, too, and who maybe want to play in high school and who maybe want to make it a profession when they get older. And so I think that’s a big motivating force. I think about that a lot.”

Jo Clubb. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Jo Clubb, applied sports scientist

“You never know where working hard and taking opportunities that come your way may lead you. We live in an interconnected world now, where technology allows us to interactively ‘meet’ people from all over the globe. So make use of social media and technology to build your connections and reach out to people for thoughts and advice on topics that you are passionate about.”

Ashley Cohrs.. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Ashley Cohrs, football operations intern

“Have a high attention to detail, be efficient and work hard. This industry is all about the team and product on the field, but behind the scenes there are a lot of moving parts. In order to keep everyone on the same page, even the smallest of tasks must be done quickly and correctly. Always learn from your mistakes and continue to work hard. It is the only way you will earn people’s trust, which leads to building relationships, which leads to forming connections. Connections are key in football.”

Christine Dziedzic. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Christine Dziedzic, sports dietitian

“I really enjoy working and being part of a team. There’s no better feeling than knowing you’ve contributed to a greater common goal. Football is such a unique sport, with smaller teams within the team that have different demands and needs, so there is such a diversity in what you have to deliver to help meet all of those individual demands and needs.”

Andrea Gosper. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Andrea Gosper, scouting intern

"If you have a passion for football and have a dream, then you owe it to yourself to go out and try! Most people think that they could never achieve their dream of working in the NFL. I was one of those people. I thought that because I went to a DIII school whose football team was a startup program that I would be overshadowed by those working in DI programs. What I learned is that my little school set me apart from the rest. I was well-rounded and had general knowledge in all areas of the game, from coaching and administration to video and recruiting."

Mackenzie Marques. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Mackenzie Marques, athletic training intern

“I am very lucky in my role to be respected as a health care professional by the people in the building, but earning the faith and trust of the players took some time. I am always advocating the value of having women around and I hope my work ethic shows that women are more than able to perform in these roles.”

Alessandra Santorelli. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Alessandra Santorelli, equipment intern

“Breaking into this field as a female, in equipment specifically, has been challenging for sure. Coming out of college, I reached out to all 32 head equipment managers in the NFL. I only got a handful of responses and one true interview out of it with the Steelers, but no opportunities came. I was told the NFL wasn't ready to have a female in equipment by a few teams and even the NFL league office. I wasn't going to let that stop me, though. I had to take an alternate route to get here, but I stayed persistent, working and moving between football ops and equipment."

Devin Worthington. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Devin Worthington, athletic training intern

“Go after your dreams, no matter how big or small. Chase them, work hard for them, and always remember why you set out after them. Continue to grow, work hard, and learn every day. I am blessed to be a part of such an amazing organization that challenges me every day and allows me to grow as an athletic trainer in the NFL.”

Audrey Yokopovich. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Audrey Yokopovich, seasonal athletic training intern

“In my senior year of college, I tore my ACL. After having a horrible experience with my athletic trainer and rehabilitation process, I didn't want any athlete to feel how I felt. Despite playing soccer and lacrosse, football has always been my favorite sport, from watching my brother play growing up to Sunday afternoons watching NFL games with family and friends. I have made it a goal in my career to end up working with professional athletes, the best of the best. I know that if I can help a professional in a high-impact sport, then I can hopefully help any athlete at any level in any sport.”

Laura Young. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Laura Young, coordinator of player services

“Never sell yourself short. You can’t. The only person that’s going to stop you from doing something is yourself. There are opportunities out there. Reach for them. And this doesn’t have to be for little girls. It can be for little boys.”

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