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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Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.


How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.


More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.