This was Stephanie Balochko’s one chance to get her foot in the door with her favorite NFL team, and she already felt like she was blowing it.
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell had just requested she tell him about herself. Anxious and intimidated, Balochko wondered what she could possibly say to impress a man who became the first African-American player at Alabama in 1971 and had since spent more than four decades coaching in college or the NFL.
“I’m like, ‘Holy crap. How am I going to get through this interview? How am I going to talk to this man?’ ” Balochko remembered. “This guy had worked for Bill Belichick, Lou Holtz and Bear Bryant. I was just in awe.”
[WOMEN IN FOOTBALL SERIES: How far can female kickers go? • The challenges that face amateur players • Grade-school girls develop an early love for the game • Making female football history in Hawaii • Beth Mowins, Gayle Sierens and broadcasting’s biggest hurdle • A chat with Natalie Randolph, female football pioneer]
Coaching in the NFL never seemed remotely realistic to Balochko until August 2015 when the Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter to help coach their linebackers during training camp. Inspired by that news, Balochko scoured the Internet for how to email the Steelers and carpet bombed the entire coaching staff with her résumé.
Balochko feared she wouldn’t receive a response since she didn’t know anyone in the Steelers organization, nor did she have the résumé of a traditional NFL coaching candidate. She had played linebacker for 15 years in women’s tackle football leagues, but her only coaching experience was as defensive coordinator the previous two seasons for the Cleveland Fusion and Pittsburgh Passion of the Women’s Football Alliance.
It came as a surprise to Balochko when she received a voicemail from Mitchell the evening after she sent her email. He wanted to meet in Pittsburgh the very next day.
Once Balochko managed to suppress her nerves midway through the interview, she finally opened up. She explained that her full-time job as a firefighter made her comfortable working in a male-dominated environment; that she and her Pittsburgh Passion teammates were so dedicated to football that they would sometimes practice deep into the night on a strip of grass alit by only car headlights; that she discovered she loved coaching late in her playing career after a rash of injuries forced her to find a new way to contribute to her team.
Before they parted ways, Mitchell offered Balochko some encouragement.
“Keep in touch with me all season and we’ll see what we can do,” Mitchell told her. “I’ll talk to [Mike] Tomlin about bringing you in next season.”
Against all odds, Balochko had her foot in the door.
Last January during Pro Bowl week in Orlando, Rapoport, 36, organized a Women’s Careers in Football Forum that also coincided with the fourth annual Women’s World Football Games. More than 200 female tackle football players from around the world had an opportunity to attend panel discussions, participate in on-field clinics and introduce themselves to NFL coaches and executives.
“Our overall mission since day one has been to normalize women on the sideline in football,” Rapoport said. “What I heard from general managers and owners is that women weren’t applying for jobs and it was hard for them to find time to go out of their way to find qualified women. They’re incredibly open to the idea of hiring the best person for the job, but they need help getting those résumés to their offices.”
Female coaches had just begun to crack the door open to the NFL when the league hired Rapoport. Welter made history landing a training camp internship with the Cardinals in 2015 and Kathryn Smith became the NFL’s first full-time female assistant coach with the Buffalo Bills the following year, though she lost her job at the end of the season when head coach Rex Ryan and his staff weren’t retained.
In her first year, Rapoport has accelerated that progress. Eight women she helped identify reported to NFL training camps in July for coaching or scouting internships, a diverse group that includes a personal trainer who plays and coaches football in England, a tech company vice president who’s also one of the world’s top female running backs and a law student who splits time between attending classes in Mississippi and playing football in Washington D.C.
Out of those eight female coaching and scouting interns, one managed to earn a season-long position. San Francisco 49ers intern Katie Sowers, who last year quit her job as a Kansas City Parks and Recreation director to pursue coaching, will serve as a full-time offensive assistant, mostly working with the wide receivers.
The sudden influx of female coaches has inspired skepticism since it came on the heels of the NFL’s mishandling of Ray Rice’s domestic violence suspension. Many have questioned the league’s sincerity, wondering if its newfound commitment to creating opportunities for women is merely a publicity grab intended to win back disgruntled female fans.
In the past three years, the NFL has also hired its first female referee, Sarah Thomas, and implemented a rule requiring one or more women to receive an interview before the league office fills a vacant executive position. Whatever the NFL’s intentions are, the women who have landed positions through Rapoport are grateful for the chance.
“The misconception when this first started was that these people are only here because they’re women and the NFL wants to reach the female market,” said Callie Brownson, who just completed scouting internship with the New York Jets during training camp. “Sam came in and found qualified women who have experience in football. Hopefully that has changed the dialogue a bit.”
When Rapoport seeks to find qualified women with an interest in coaching in the NFL, female tackle football players are an obvious talent source for her to mine given their knowledge of the game. She has also partnered with an organization called Women Leaders in College Sports to help identify talent and has spoken with a prominent women’s college basketball coach with interest in transitioning to football.
Having played tackle football herself before embarking on a career in the sport, Rapoport is uniquely qualified to serve as the bridge between potential female candidates and NFL coaches and general managers. She primarily worked to create more opportunities for girls to play flag or tackle football in her previous stints with the NFL and USA Football.
Rapoport fell in love with football as a 12-year-old growing up in Ottawa, Canada, and played quarterback for local youth teams, the semi-pro Montreal Blitz and the Canadian women’s national team. In 2003, she got her start with the NFL by landing a marketing internship with a creative application that included her résumé, a photo of herself in pads and a football with a message written on it in Sharpie.
“I wrote on it, ‘What other quarterback could accurately deliver a football 386 miles?’ ” Rapoport said. “I don’t know if I’d do that now. It seems gimmicky and silly when I repeat the story, but at the time I just knew I had to do something to get them to open it and realize this person really wants to work here.”
When Amy Arnold became the middle school football coach at Mesa Preparatory Academy in 2008, some of the fathers of the boys on the team had some preconceived notions that a woman shouldn’t be teaching football to their sons. They would gather along the sideline during practices and games, searching for any sign that Arnold was in over her head.
“There were some doubters at the beginning who saw a female coach and wondered, ‘Does she really know what she’s doing?’ ” Arnold recalled. “There was a group of dads that would be like five feet behind me the entire game. People would tell me afterward, ‘Oh my gosh, Amy, you had a crowd of dads following your every move.’ ”
What those dads initially didn’t know was that Arnold was more than qualified to command respect from their sons. The daughter of a drill sergeant, Arnold was a lineman for six seasons with the Arizona Caliente of the Women’s Professional Football League and the Phoenix Prowlers of the Women’s Football Alliance.
When no teachers volunteered to coach Mesa Prep’s football team, the school’s athletic director asked the owner of the nearby women’s tackle team to suggest a potential coach. Arnold guided Mesa Prep’s middle school team to a league championship in her debut season and later went on to coach its high school team for six years.
“By the end of the season, the dads who were skeptical at first were high-fiving each other when we made a big play,” Arnold said. “Then going into the second year, a lot of those dads would tell the new parents, ‘Your kids are going to have so much fun and they’re going to learn so much from this coach.’ That was a huge compliment.”
It wasn’t parents who Kaitlan Reiff had to charm two years ago when she applied to coach the freshman defensive backs at Reno High School. The cornerback with the WPFL’s Nevada Storm had to prove herself to a skeptical coaching staff concerned she’d be more of a distraction than an asset.
“There were a lot of rounds of interviews and a lot of questions,” Reiff said. “There wasn’t just pressure on me. There was pressure on the head coach, too, because he had never been in that situation. It was really hard for me to prove just with words that I wasn’t there just to be the first of something or to get attention.”
When Reiff eventually landed the job, she initially felt as though all eyes were on her at every practice. Not until the end-of-season banquet did she feel truly comfortable.
“I gave a little speech about the DBs, and they all came up and thanked me,” Reiff said. “The love at that banquet and the appreciation I had for them and they had for me, that’s probably when I realized I belonged.”
It takes a strong woman to be a coach in a male-dominated sport at any level. It takes a true pioneer to be the first to do so in the NFL.
Welter first reached out to the Arizona Cardinals in spring 2015 after head coach Bruce Arians addressed the possibility of women coaching in the league. Arians insisted that “the minute they can prove they can make a player better, they’ll be hired,” a statement that left Welter feeling emboldened and inspired.
A former collegiate rugby player who played linebacker for 14 seasons in various women’s tackle football leagues, Welter already had experience as a football trail blazer. In 2014, she played running back for the Texas Revolution, an all-male professional indoor football team. The next year, she coached linebackers and special teams for the Revolution.
When Arians hired Welter to help coach the Cardinals’ linebackers during training camp, her responsibilities included assisting with practices, film sessions and position meetings. She said she felt welcomed by her fellow coaches and respected by the Cardinals players, both reassuring since her success or failure had potential ramifications for other women.
“When you’re first, you know your responsibility is to do that job well so the door can remain open for other people,” Welter said. “It had to be perfect because you couldn’t give people one reason to say this is why a woman can’t coach football.”
“It’s going to take some time because the level that women are occupying right now is the intern and entry-level position,” she said. “You certainly don’t become a head coach overnight. The next step really is to have full-time female coaches at the assistant level.”
Among the women pursuing those opportunities is Balochko, whose coaching résumé has grown stronger since she first applied to work with the Steelers two years ago.
She shadowed Mitchell for a week during training camp last season and stopped by practices, meetings or film sessions as often as her work schedule would allow during the regular season. She served as defensive coordinator for the gold medal-winning U.S. women’s national team at the Women’s World Championships in June. And she assisted Mitchell again during training camp this season, this time missing only a handful of days from start to finish.
“I learned what he was looking for and I tried to convey it to the guys,” Balochko said. “The guys were great from the start. They were very accepting and very welcoming. They know I’m not there to be their coach. I’m there to learn to be a coach.”
For Balochko, a lifelong Steelers fan who grew up idolizing running back Merril Hoge, the opportunity to coach full time for the franchise would be a dream come true.
“That would be amazing,” Balochko said, “but I know I still have a lot to learn.”
– – – – – – –