We sit down with the Browns’ Callie Brownson and Washington’s Jennifer King, who say the influx of women in pro ball is “starting to get hard to ignore.” Finally.

By Sydney Haymond
Jan 08, 2021 @ 5:49 pm
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Credit: Courtesy of Callie Brownson and Jennifer King

The NFL playoffs will look a little different this year, and not just because of the lack of fans in the stands. Among the 14 programs vying for a chance at the Super Bowl, five teams will take the field with female coaches by their side. Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chelsea Romero of the Los Angeles Rams, Cristi Bartlett of the Tennessee Titans, Callie Brownson of the Cleveland Browns, and Jennifer King with the Washington Football Team (yes, the problematic name is gone and this is what’s left).

We sat down with the latter two as part of InStyle's February Badass Women issue to talk their friendship on and off the field, and their roles paving the way for female representation in the National Football League. Brownson, who is chief of staff for the Cleveland Browns, and King, the first Black woman to be a full-time assistant coach as the full year coaching intern for Washington, originally connected years ago as players in women's football. Their historical impact has never been so clear as it was during a record-breaking game between their teams last September, where a woman was coaching on each sideline and a woman, Sarah Thomas, officiated in the center for the first time in NFL history. King will become part of yet another historical event when she faces off against Locust and Javadifar on Saturday night, as the Buccaneers and Washington compete in the first playoff game featuring women on each side.

Their conversation on the weighty role of coming first follows.

Callie Brownson: Jen, you and I go back to the women's football days. We played against each other and knew each other through that network, which is a pretty tight knit group. We both came to this conclusion that we weren't going to be able to play forever and our bodies were eventually going to fail us, but we definitely wanted football to be a part of our lives.

Jennifer King: When I got the call to coach men's football at Dartmouth before going to the NFL, I didn't know anything about it. But I knew you had coached there the year before, so I thought it might be a good opportunity.

CB: Now both being in the NFL, I know you are always a person that I can call to bounce ideas off of and vice-versa. It's been really cool to see your journey, and it's fun to watch all of us grow up through football. In the sports world in general, it's so constantly competitive, especially from a career aspect. So to have a group of women who are actually rooting for each other is great. We're the first people to say, "I'm so happy for you. This is fantastic."

JK: It's huge to have people like you to lean on in such a competitive atmosphere. It's not competitive between us. We cheer for each other. When it was announced that you would be coaching the tight ends for the Browns [in November, making Brownson the first ever female positions coach for an NFL team], I freaked out. I was pulling for you super hard and I was hoping you guys would get a win. We just want to see each other do well and it's all authentic.

CB: And I know for that game in September, when the Browns played your team Washington, it was a really cool feeling to be able to walk on an NFL field and see an old friend who's fighting the same fight. It was a great moment to be able to say, "Hey, look at how far we've come from when we first met." When I look back on it, I can't stop thinking about the message that it sends the little girls who got a chance to watch that game.

JK: And as the first Black woman to be a full-time assistant coach, it means a lot to me. It makes you enjoy the journey a little bit. That's something that we all take seriously and want to do a really good job at being that positive representation.

CB: I don't think either of us ever planned on being the first in anything. There's a lot of weight that comes with that. It's important to make sure that you're creating a good reputation for yourself because, ultimately, that creates a good reputation for anybody who comes through the door behind you. You have to make sure you're doing a great job, working hard and hope that the person you just interacted with has a positive impression of women in football because of you and will have a positive impression on the next woman who might get an opportunity.

JK: Once you get in the building, it's all about showing that you're supposed to be there. I'm not going to try to beat my chest and be better than anyone else. I just coach ball. As long as you are helping the players get better, they don't really care. It doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman. 

CB: I know it's our mission in all of this to get to a day where being a female coach is not a story, right? That it's normal. I think we're trending in a great direction. We just keep putting progress in people's faces and showing them that we're moving forward. You're seeing it all across sports right now the Miami Marlins hiring Kim Ng as the General Manager and then Vanderbilt University's Sarah Fuller becoming the first woman to play in a Power 5 conference game at the college level in December. It's starting to get hard to ignore. 

JK: I always tell people, there's no substitute for hard work. Sometimes that alone will get you an opportunity. Stay ready, because you never know when that opportunity is going to come. 

CB: When you're walking into uncharted territory like this, the haters, the doubters and the naysayers come included. You just have to find a way to stay focused on why you started the journey in the first place. On the tired days and the stressful days, I remind myself that I've dreamed about this, so I'm not going to let it slip from my grasp.