For women working in football, it’s a grind and a calling

Burke preparing for Notre Dame practice
C/O Kalleigh Burke
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Kalleigh Burke was in sixth grade when she had a revelation. She was playing catch with her younger cousin in the backyard after watching YouTube videos and telling him she could help him train to play football. While practicing, she realized, “I really like doing this.”

About 10 years later, Burke became Notre Dame football’s student senior manager, where she was primarily responsible for working with the defensive line. During practice, she set up drills and stood in for the scout team in non-contact situations. Outside of practice, Burke handled equipment and gear. On game days, she was the ball person or helped with signal cards.

“Between that and school, I stay pretty busy,” said Burke, who studied Finance and Spanish before graduating this past spring.

One of Kalleigh Burke’s main responsibilities at Notre Dame was handling equipment and gear (c/o Kalleigh Burke)

In the midst of the NFL’s free agency buzz last March (and just one day after Tom Brady announced that he would return to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Burke was one of 45 women who participated in the NFL’s sixth-annual Women’s Career in Football Forum, which was created by Sam Rapoport, the NFL’s Senior Director of Diversity & Inclusion.

This year’s forum was held virtually and connected women around the country — 64% of whom were women of color — with leaders in professional football.

Over the course of two days, participants engaged in a series of panel discussions, presentations and breakout sessions. Speakers included NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Jane Skinner Goodell, as well as three club owners, eight head coaches and seven general managers.

Most of the women invited work in entry-level football roles. The goal of the forum is to create a pipeline for women who want to work in the NFL so that there may one day be more women on the sidelines and in front office positions.

According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), women made up about 38.8% of the NFL league office roles, 25.3% of teams’ senior administration, and 1.5% of team assistant coaches last season.

While the Forum acts as an important stepping stone, the NFL is still working towards creating a safe and respectful work environment across the league. In early April, the attorneys general of six states wrote to Commissioner Goodell expressing concern over treatment of female employees in the league, including at its 32 member clubs. At the end of July, Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder testified before a congressional committee investigating the team’s history of workplace misconduct. Additionally, Cleveland Browns QB Deshaun Watson was suspended 11 games and fined $5 million dollars after more than two dozen women accused him of sexual misconduct during massage appointments.

Since its inception in 2017, the NFL says the Forum has secured over 200 opportunities for women in the NFL and college football. Twenty-three teams have hired directly from the program. And last season, 12 female coaches worked for NFL teams, the most ever. Yet the majority of the league’s 32 teams still do not include a woman on the coaching staff.

This season, a record 15 women are serving in NFL coaching positions (six in full-season coaching roles). Twelve of the 15 participated in the Forum.

Women working as NFL coaches this season:

  • Angela Baker, New York Giants offensive assistant
  • Callie Brownson, Cleveland Browns Chief of Staff/Assistant WR coach
  • Maral Javadifar, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Strength and Conditioning coach
  • Jennifer King, Washington Commanders Assistant running backs coach
  • Autumn Lockwood, Philadelphia Eagles Strength and Conditioning seasonal associate
  • Lori Locust, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive line assistant
  • Kaelyn Buskey, Baltimore Ravens Strength & Conditioning intern
  • Joan Cantonese, Atlanta Falcons fellow
  • Ashley Cornwell, Tennessee Titans fellow
  • Isabel Diaz, Washington Commanders fellow
  • Mickey Grace, Atlanta Falcons fellow
  • Lisa Horton, Cleveland Browns fellow
  • Connor Jo Lewis, Baltimore Ravens fellow
  • Sam Mullet, Buffalo Bills fellow
  • Amanda Ruller, Seattle Seahawks fellow

For these women, working in football isn’t about numbers; it is a calling. Each woman who wants to be on the sidelines or in a front office has a passion for the game and a village of people supporting them as they find their place in it.

Paving the way for women in the NFL

When Camille Wilson attended the Women’s Career in Football Forum in March, she was a football operations assistant at North Carolina Central University and the graduate assistant for student-athlete development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she was pursuing a Masters in Sports Administration. Since the Forum, Wilson has accepted a position as the Football Operations and Team Logistics Analyst for the Houston Texans.

She is also a self-described “busy-body.”

“That’s me in a nutshell. I’ve always been one that enjoys taking on a lot and enjoys being busy because when I’m not busy, I just can’t think.”

Camille Wilson worked as a football operations assistant at North Carolina Central University, where she helped student-athletes navigate their lives on and off the field. (c/o Camille Wilson)

Wilson grew up a competitive swimmer, tennis player and track athlete. As an undergrad at Agnes Scott College, Wilson says she struggled with understanding her identity beyond athletics. Now at 26 years old, Wilson enjoys helping athletes figure out who they are outside of their sport and within it.

Long before Wilson discovered her passion though, she knew she wanted to work in football.

“You know how in middle school and high school, Friday nights, you and your friends go out to dinner and you’re supposed to go to the high school game after that,” Wilson explains. “I would always go. However, when my friends were out standing in the stands cheering away, I was probably two rows over sitting down just staring at the game because I truly just loved the game. That’s all I cared about.”

At her swim meets, Wilson could be found in the corner on her phone watching football.

“Something about seeing a team collaborate with each other and seeing the camaraderie between so many different individuals, it was just really fascinating to me,” Wilson says. “That’s what I wanted to do was just watch and learn and understand. That’s what I continue to do.”

From the sidelines at the University of Michigan to the Minnesota Vikings

Milan Burgess played sports long before she knew she wanted to work in them.

Burgess was an elite gymnast growing up and began the sport at just two years old. Unfortunately, due to a torn ACL, Burgess had to medically retire from the sport at 17. But she credits everything to gymnastics and says that she is where she is today because of her refusal to give up.

“I have so many huge goals and I think that’s a testament to my athletic background,” Burgess said. “It was never enough for me just to win one medal. I was always thinking about the next thing ahead.”

Burgess’ love of sports came from her family. Her grandfather played professional baseball and her dad played football at the University of Michigan – the same school that her mother, sister and Milan herself eventually attended. Because of her upbringing and athletic background, sports always felt like an inevitable part of Burgess’ future.

Now at 25 years old, Burgess is a Team Operations Coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings, the first woman to hold a full-time position in Team Operations in the history of the team. Though Burgess has many goals, she says her biggest is to be the general manager of an NFL team.

Milan Burgess works as a Team Operations Coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings. (c/o Milan Burgess)

Friday Night Lights

As for Burke, her love of football remains tied to family. She is from a small town in Illinois called Murrayville, in which about 500 people live. Her dad was a Junior Football League coach when she was a kid and her brother and cousin play football.

“Small town football is really cool,” Burke says. “Especially at the high school level because you have a whole community that gets together and cheers for it. And for a lot of those people, that’s the most exciting time of the week.

“I think seeing how football can really bring people together is what made me fall in love with it at first.”

Because of her role at Notre Dame, Burke was able to invite her family to Notre Dame Stadium for games. Her father and brother attended almost every game last season On Senior Day, Burke invited her grandparents. Her grandma had only ever been to high school games.

“I’m blessed to be able to share that experience with some of the people at home and at the same time, represent them,” Burke said..

After graduating from Notre Dame this spring, Burke accepted a job as a graduate assistant coaching defense at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, where she will be on the sidelines once again this fall.

Breaking Barriers in the NFL

The goals of the women who participated in the Forum differ. Burke wants to be a head coach, Wilson a director of football operations and Burgess a GM. But they are all united in wanting to see more women in football.

“It was amazing to be around women who have the same like-minded goals who are driven and have that passion that I feel like I have,” Burke said. “Ultimately, the greatest part [of the Forum] was being around 45 other women who were super driven, wanted to be in football and getting to make some connections there.”

“Everyone’s grinding, no matter your title, no matter who you are,” Wilson said. “I think that the 44 other women that I’ve gotten to know a little bit more, I’m so excited for all of our futures because I know that our futures will be so bright.”

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Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers with turn as AFC offensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl

Courtesy Diana Flores
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Diana Flores admits she was surprised when she became a viral sensation last spring, courtesy of a 15-second slow-motion clip showcasing her evasive maneuvers and fancy footwork while leaving at least three defenders in the dirt during Mexico’s 2022 national collegiate flag football championship.

“I never expected someone to record that moment,” said Mexico City native Flores, who led her team – the Monterrey Tech Borregos – to their third consecutive national title as a senior last May. “I was just having fun. I was just playing the game I love and then days later to see that it was viral on the internet — it was crazy. But at the same time, it was exciting because I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of flag football role models to follow. So now, for me to be a role model for many boys and girls that play my sport is something that really makes me happy and proud and also motivates me to keep getting better.”

Flores, who led the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team to a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, will have the chance to promote her sport on one of the world’s biggest stages this weekend when she serves as the AFC offensive coordinator for the NFL’s 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday in Las Vegas.

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Flores will be joined by Peyton Manning as the AFC head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator. On the NFC side, U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback Vanita Krouch will serve as offensive coordinator, with Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as defensive coordinator.

“I think that this has been one of the best things in my life,” she recently told On Her Turf about her Pro Bowl appointment. “It is like a dream. I mean, I grew up watching football, watching the NFL, playing flag football. And now to be able to be part of all of this — it is bigger than my biggest dreams.”

Flores’ football dreams began as when she was just 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for the perennial football powerhouse Monterrey Tech program — took her to a practice and she fell in love with the sport. But as the time there were no teams for girls her age, so she played with girls twice her age and used it to her advantage, focusing on her own abilities and sharpening her skills. By age 14 she was playing NFL Flag in Mexico, where she was the only girl in the league, and at 15 she started playing NFL Flag in the U.S, where she finally played on an all-girls team.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: U.S. flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

“I remember when I started playing, I used to receive a lot of like comments, directly and indirectly from other people, like, ‘Why do you play that sport? That’s not a girls’ sport, that sport is for boys, you’re get injured, you’re going to get hurt, don’t play with boys, that’s too rude.’ And the list keeps going. But my mom and dad were so supportive. They always encouraged me not to listen to anybody, to just follow my passion.

“And I think thanks to them, I’ve always had this mentality that gender doesn’t matter. It just matters how passionate you are about your dreams, how hard you work for what you want to achieve. And that you will always demonstrate what you’re made for, depending on the hard work you do. So, I’ve lived through that [negativity], I have experienced that. And I think that it has been one of my biggest blessings to be able to experience — for myself — what sport can do and how gender barriers get broken when you follow your dreams and you connect with other people through your passion.”

At just 16 years old, Flores made Mexico’s national team, playing in the first of four Flag Football World Championships – so far. Last summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the 24-year-old Flores led Mexico to a 6-0 record, which included two wins over the U.S. women, who took silver. In the gold medal game against the United States, she completed 20 of 28 pass attempts for 210 yards and four touchdowns in Mexico’s 39-6 victory. She finished the tournament with 23 touchdown passes, the third-most among women’s teams, and she was the only starting quarterback to beat USA’s star QB, Krouch, who is 19-1 in international tournament play.

All that international experience so early in her career has given Flores a wise-beyond-her-years approach to playing flag football, a sport where she was frequently the only female player on the field and often the only Latin American as well.

“When I first came to the U.S., it was a little shocking to notice that I was probably the only Latin American girl playing,” she recalls. “But I think that it was easy for me because I got all the support from my coaches and my teammates. And since a young age, I think that I started to realize that sometimes what you do is for something bigger than yourself. That’s why you have to always give your best, in any situation. Even at that young age, I understood that I was representing more than myself on the field, I was representing Latin American people, Latin American girls in a sport that [many people thought] was meant to be for boys.”

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

One door Flores hopes to help open is the one leading to the Olympics. Flag football is on the short list being considered for inclusion in Los Angeles in 2028 Los Angeles. As an ambassador for flag football for the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), she’s participated in talks with the International Olympic Committee, and just last month she was joined by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Mexico City where they joined forced to promote women’s empowerment and inclusion.

“I think for me, that experience is one of my top three,” she said of spending time with Biden. “I call them gifts from life, something that you didn’t expect it to happen, and somehow, one day, you’re right there in front of the First Lady. I admire her for what she does for boys and girls, for empowering woman and giving opportunities for everybody to achieve their dreams. So it was truly an honor to meet her, and also to be able to keep impacting my sport, not only on the field, but [off] the field, and have the opportunity keep inspiring others and keep impacting the world.”

As for what she hopes fans at the Pro Bowl and viewers at home take away from Sunday’s flag football showcase, Flores hopes they’ll see the characteristics that made her fall in love with flag in the first place: creativity, speed, agility, teamwork, passion and a lot of heart.

“I hope to show to all little girls and women that dreams come true, that nothing is impossible, to keep inspiring and opening opportunities and doors for women in sports, especially in the world of the NFL and football and flag football,” she says. “We’re going to make history, and I am so proud and happy for that. I’m really hoping that it is just the first step, not only for me, but for all the women that are coming after me.”

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Flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

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When Vanita Krouch got the news that she was named NFC offensive coordinator for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback admits her jaw nearly hit the ground.

And then she realized something even more profound.

“For the longest time, thinking about the moment, everything, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a dream come true. Is this really happening?’” said the 42-year-old Krouch, known as the “Tom Brady of flag football” with a 19-1 record as USA’s starting quarterback in international tournaments since 2018.

“But then I started thinking to myself: You know what? None of us grew up thinking of this as a dream to obtain. So really, it’s kind of reversed where I’m living a dream. I get to be a pioneer in this growth of flag football for all and inclusion for all, youth and adults, [women and men]. It’s such an inclusive sport, and I get to be a part of this growth and still actively play. It’s exciting. I’m literally living the dream. I’m very much like, ‘Guys, don’t pinch me. Let me keep sleeping.’”

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Krouch will be joined by Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as NFC defensive coordinator. On the AFC side, Mexico Women’s National Flag Football quarterback Diana Flores will serve as offensive coordinator, with Peyton Manning as head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator.

But Krouch’s journey to the Pro Bowl stage began under the unlikeliest of circumstances and was inspired by her own family odyssey, which began in Cambodia during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Krouch’s mother, Phonnary Krouch, fled the country with three young sons in tow, running by night and hiding by day to escape, finding safety initially at a refugee camp in the Philippines. That’s where she welcomed Vanita, in September 1980, and two months later the family made its way to the United States. Krouch’s father exited the picture upon their arrival in America, leaving Phonnary to raise four children alone.

“In a nutshell, my mom is an amazing woman,” said Krouch, who first found sports via an elementary school flyer advertising youth soccer in Carrollton, Texas. “On the journey, she had a lot of trials, tribulations, … and after our dad left us, it was just mom and four kids in this little one-bedroom apartment. So, it was a challenge. I’m just so amazed by her strength and will to never give up.”

She also credits her mom for standing up to then-stereotypical notions that Asian girls should not play sports.

“I’m just thankful, honestly, that my mom allowed me to break the Asian culture barriers of a woman playing sports because that’s not easy,” she said. “She faced a lot of backlash from the community. But she said, ‘Hey, my child’s making good grades. She’s healthy, she’s good. She’s staying off the streets. I don’t see a problem.’ And she just let me do it. I was just lucky to have a mom that let me spread my wings.”

Krouch also had a few mentors along the way. Her elementary school PE teacher, Toni Neibes, stepped in to pay for those initial soccer fees and continued her support as Krouch transitioned to basketball in the fourth grade. She fell in love with the sport and excelled at it as well, eventually earning a full scholarship to play college basketball at Southern Methodist University. She wears the No. 4 to this day in honor of Niebes, who wore the same number as a young athlete. She also credits her fourth-grade teacher, Judy Ward, as having a lasting impact after the teacher made a habit out of showing up for her youth basketball games.

She pays tribute to them both through her clothing line, 4Ward Apparel, which features ever-changing collections emblazoned with relevant slogans encouraging female empowerment, inclusion and her personal mantra of “paying it forward” – something she does with the line itself. Each month, Krouch donates a portion of the sales to individuals, families or organizations in need.

After graduating SMU in 2003, Krouch continued to play basketball in semi-pro and adult leagues, but she was still searching for something to satisfy her competitive drive. She and a former college teammate stumbled on flag football during a Google search for local Dallas-area activities, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“It was like I drank the Kool Aid and I never looked back,” she says of her start in flag in 2006. “It’s just like every game, every play is a new challenge, and it’s addictive for a competitor, so I just fell in love with flag. I actually think I’m way better at flag than I was at basketball.”

She moved into the quarterback position through some sly maneuvering by current USA Women’s Flag Football head coach Chris Lankford. They were playing together in a local tournament when he “tricked” her into the QB position, despite Krouch knowing “zero football language.”

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“One day I showed up for a tournament and I asked, ‘All right, guys, who’s our quarterback?’ And he says, ‘We’re looking at her,’” she remembers. They kept the plays simple, and her team made it to the playoffs that season. Krouch has been a QB ever since.

Krouch joined the national team in 2016 and was inducted into the National Flag and Touch Football Hall Fame that same year. Last year at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, a 41-year-old Krouch set a new mark as the oldest Flag football player, man or woman, in the games, and she ranked second among women with 25 touchdown passes at the tournament where USA won silver.

She aims to bring that expertise to the field at the Pro Bowl games, where she’s looking forward to seeing NFL players take on the flag football style type of plays. “Flag is a very finesse, quick game, a lot of footwork, and these guys can’t grab or hold, no downfield contact or downfield block or anything off the line,” she explains. “So it’s going to be exciting just to see skill for skill, footwork for footwork, defense to offense, and to see flag football language with those type of elite athletes.”

As for the biggest challenge, Krouch believes it will be crafting a concise playbook and language that puts everyone on the same page. “A challenge for me is getting a coach’s mindset,” she adds, “I have to actually come up with plays ahead of time and I don’t usually have premeditated plays in my head. I just read it so for me to tell Kirk Cousins or Geno Smith [what to do], it will be different, you know?”

But beyond the Pro Bowl, Krouch is excited that flag is being considered for inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics. While she’s keeping a hopeful eye on that development, she’s also working to shape the next generation of potential athletes as a physical education teacher at La Villita Elementary in Irving, Texas.

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

“It’s an honor to be a role model – for other youth flag football players, for my students, both boys and girls,” says Krouch. “Then at my campus and in my community, it’s amazing to be able to break the barrier of like, ‘Asian women can’t do this.’ And then to be at my age, still doing this, I feel very lucky and blessed. …I think I still got some years in me.”

As for what she hopes viewers and fans walk away with after watching the Pro Bowl flag games this weekend, Krouch feels confident folks will walk away enlightened by the show.

“I just hope that they have fun with it,” says Krouch. “And for those who don’t know flag to be like, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Maybe that’s something I really can get my son or daughter into at a young age.’ So I just hope that they see that the sport is real – it’s not just something we play at recess. It’s a real thing now. I think they’ll see that the world loves it, the world can play it and is playing it.”

Be sure to check back with On Her Turf later this week when we catch up with AFC coordinator and Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team quarterback Diana Flores.  

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