Callie Brownson’s first visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame was always going to be special. The Browns’ barrier-busting chief of staff is a “football junkie” and came away particularly impressed and affected by the first known uniform, without a real helmet, that conveyed the love of the sport from a previous century.
Brownson’s trip to Canton at the beginning of February was elevated to unforgettable and historic as she was greeted by an exhibit of her recently completed first season working beside NFL Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski.
Displayed in glass as part of the Pro Football Today Gallery were the jacket Brownson, 31, wore Nov. 29 in Jacksonville when she filled in as tight ends coach — becoming the first woman to coach a position group during a game in NFL history — and a ball from that game she autographed. They were joined by a scorecard and photo from the Sept. 27 game against Washington, when Brownson, Washington coaching intern Jennifer King and down judge Sarah Thomas became the first women to represent both teams and the officiating crew in an NFL game.
“To be a part of that moment was phenomenal,” Brownson told The Chronicle-Telegram in a recent phone interview.
Brownson’s pride went well beyond personal. The Hall of Fame exhibit was another sign of the progress being made by women in the male-dominated NFL.
“It’s crazy because it’s cool to see your stuff in there for sure, there’s no doubt about that, but I in that moment just felt really inspired and optimistic about the future of women in football,” she said. “Because having an exhibit dedicated to any woman really in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is something that 10 years ago I don’t know that you could’ve dreamed up. So many people go through that place learning about the game of football and how far it’s come and how far it’s going, and they’re going to see female representation, which is so, so important.”
Surreal! An incredible and humbling opportunity. Walking that building, I saw how far the game of football has come, and now that progress includes women. This will certainly not be the last display of women in football. https://t.co/XBpk8BLGOy
— Callie Brownson (@CalBrown17) February 8, 2021
As March commemorates Women’s History Month, the examples, while still limited, are increasing. King was promoted to assistant running backs coach by Washington after the season, and Thomas worked the Super Bowl, which was won by a Buccaneers team with two women on the coaching staff.
The NFL also held the Women’s Careers in Football Forum for the fifth time last week. Brownson has participated in all five, speaking on panels the last three years.
“It’s a great moment for every single female who’s involved in this,” Brownson said, including the women journalists who’ve covered the sport for decades.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
When Brownson was hired in January 2020, the all-encompassing chief of staff role included coaching, a first for a woman in the organization. The NFL world took notice during the game vs. Washington, when the conversion of Brownson, King and Thomas received national coverage.
“I remember driving home from FirstEnergy and I’m like, how many young girls got to either see the game or see the highlights or see the storyline and they added football coach to their list of what they want to be when they grow up because they saw the representation,” said Brownson, who was an all-star player in the Women’s Football Alliance from 2010-17. “When I was a young girl, that wasn’t happening.”
The experience had extra meaning because until that day the strides made by women were “singular moments.”
“So for there to be total representation on both sidelines and then an official on the field for a game, that was something that was jaw-dropping for all of us,” Brownson said.
She’s in the NFL because she’s loved football since she was a kid in Virginia watching University of Miami games with her dad. But her mission extends beyond herself and includes giving girls hope and a role model.
“It was hard for me to ever dream of being a football coach because I didn’t see it,” Brownson said. “It changes everything. Because you can talk hypotheticals till you’re blue in the face, but until it’s actually happening and you have the visual representation on the TV screen or as you’re scrolling through social media, that makes it real and that makes it possible and attainable.”
The landscape continues to improve.
A handful of women had made their way into NFL front offices, but even a decade ago coaching at the sport’s highest level didn’t appear on the horizon. Then Jen Welter was hired by the Cardinals in 2015 as an intern, the first female coach in league history. Kathryn Smith became the first full-time coach in 2016 as a quality control assistant on special teams for the Bills.
Eight female coaches were on staffs in 2020, the first time there had been more than two at the same time, according to The Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Two worked for the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers — defensive line assistant Lori Locust and assistant strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar.
“It’s also huge just for society in general to start to normalize this,” Brownson said. “They’re in the Super Bowl, they’re success stories. These franchises are successful with these women on the sidelines. So it’s not just the, ‘hey, we’re doing it to check a box,’ it’s a, ‘no, this person actually provides a significant amount of value to us and look at what it’s doing.’ I think it changes everything and it’s so important.
“I think it’s hard for other teams to ignore that.”
DOING IT ALL
Brownson wants to be a full-time coach. Her first season with the Browns only affirmed the desire.
Her daily responsibilities included making sure practice ran efficiently, throwing passes to receivers and interacting with players. She stepped in as the tight ends coach against the Jaguars after Drew Petzing’s wife had a baby, then transitioned to receivers coach for the regular-season finale vs. the Steelers after Chad O’Shea tested positive for COVID-19.
“I really, really enjoy what I do in the normal day, but that was something that really reminded me why I got into this in the first place,” Brownson said. “And it was a blast of an experience.”
The reaction from the players was what she’d hoped. They greeted the news with nonchalance then praised her after a job well done.
“Listen, she is on it,” receiver Jarvis Landry said. “She has always been on point since the day that she has walked in this building. She is a true testament for all the women that are making a name for themselves in this league.
“She is Callie. She is one of the people that make this building go. We are blessed to have her.”
Stefanski knows Brownson wants to become a position coach and believes in developing his staff.
“We’ve talked through what the next few years could look like and a lot of it is on me and my development,” she said. “We haven’t put a timeline really on anything.”
In the meantime, she’ll continue as chief of staff, which she describes as “an extension” of Stefanski. Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who was coach for four of Stefanski’s 14 years on the Viking staff, recommended Brownson after she interned with Buffalo in 2019. She and Stefanski hit it off immediately and agreed on the scope of the role.
“That’s my favorite question because I never have a good answer for it,” she said when asked to explain the job. “It’s the same way Coach Stefanski pitched it to me when I interviewed for the position, it’s an anything and everything job.
“And then you add COVID to it, and it’s an anything and everything and then anything and everything all over again job. Ultimately making sure his vision for this team, for his staff, for the organization is being carried out throughout what everybody’s doing.”
Playing a season in a pandemic added to her stress and responsibilities. Just when she and Stefanski would have a schedule and routine everyone liked, the protocols would change and they’d have to start over.
“A big part of this role is preparation and planning, and there was little to no ability to do that,” Brownson said. “I enjoyed the challenge, I think it was one of the reasons why Coach Stefanski and I clicked so much. Instead of me seeing that as this 300-pound backpack that he just put on my shoulders, I saw it as a really awesome opportunity to figure that out.”
SHARING THE LOVE
She developed a passion for the game through watching the Hurricanes with her dad, wore him down until he let her play and stayed connected by playing professionally and on the national team and coaching high school. She became the first full-time female college coach in Division I in 2018 with Dartmouth.
“I was just immediately drawn to football,” Brownson said. “And my dad was a big fan and he may not have been a pro at the X’s and O’s but he taught me football and we’d walk up to the local high school on Friday nights and watch them in the fall and wake up like a kid on Christmas every Saturday to watch college football.
“It took me a few years to finally talk him into letting me play peewee football when I was 9. He’s just not the kind of guy to ever say, ‘hey, you’re really passionate about this, I’m not going to let you do it.’ So he was on board and he was like team dad in everything for that.”
Brownson is full of energy and optimism, believes in being her authentic self and doesn’t hesitate to show it to the players as she tries to motivate and encourage. NFL Films captured a few interactions in warm-ups and on the sideline.
“It’s not the number of breaths you take, it’s the number of moments that take your breath away,” she told quarterback Baker Mayfield during the Washington game.
“Very inspirational, Callie,” he said, then returned to the topic later in the game. “That moment right there took my breath away. It was that inspirational speech.”
“My day’s made,” she responded.
While she loves “all of it,” her favorite thing about coaching football is the people.
“You’re a team in every facet,” she said. “Everybody is dependent on each other to be successful and I think that’s what I love the most about coaching. At this level you’re coaching the best players in the country, which is an unfathomable experience from my perspective. And then on top of it you’re building a family and you’re all striving towards a goal. I think that’s my favorite part of being a coach is investing in the players, investing in their success.”