Original Content Editor, Talent Development
Women are rising up the ranks throughout professional football, earning positions of power in a space that for too long was ruled almost exclusively by men. We’re seeing more and more women breaking barriers in the sport, but what are the stories beyond the headlines? Who are the women shaping and influencing the NFL today? Answering those questions is the aim of the Next Woman Up series. While the conversational Q&As are edited and condensed for clarity, this is a forum for impactful women to share experiences in their own words. Without further ado, we introduce:
Position: Senior Director of Football Operations
How did you get your start in a career in football?
My friend’s aunt worked in recruiting for the University of Michigan football program, so my first week of my freshman year, I walked over to the department and asked about it. At the time, they didn’t admit freshmen, but they put me on Team Blue and asked if I wanted to answer the switchboards over lunch hour. I did that and it got me in the building more. It was very few hours in recruiting, but I was always answering the phones. By my sophomore year, I was working 20-to-25 hours in the recruiting office and getting paid. It’s taken off from there. Then right after I finished my master’s degree, I took over the recruiting office full time at Michigan for two years.
Then a woman I had gone to grad school with was working at the Detroit Lions as an admin for coaching. She called and asked me if there were any student volunteers that were interested in having a job in the league. Steve Mariucci was the coach of the team at the time, and he asked Michigan coach Lloyd Carr about me. I didn’t even have to interview for the job; I just slid over and took the job working with the coaching staff as an administrative assistant in 2004.
How has your role changed from when you first got in the door to now?
It seemed like the only way women got into the league for a long time was being an admin or secretary. That’s how I started. I had worked a lot with the coaching staff at Michigan, and once you start working with them, they tend to come to you for everything. So then in Detroit, I worked primarily with defensive coaches and special teams coordinator Chuck Priefer. Chuck wasn’t very computer savvy and would hand-draw everything — kickoff returns, kickoff coverage, punt return, field goal block. I would take those and use this old, archaic drawing software called CorelDRAW and would draw everything. I basically drew the entire scouting report for special teams. It was a lot. I wanted to quit after two weeks, but it was good for me because I got to learn so much. I love special teams to this day. I also helped the defense with scripts, game books and helping them get supplies. So basically, I helped manage the coaching staff.
I stayed in that entry-level position for a very long time. No one knew what to do with me. I was really good at my job, but there was nowhere to look beyond that job. We were going into what was the final season with head coach Jim Schwartz, and a friend of mine’s mother was the president of Detroit Media Partnership — it’s called Michigan.com now — and she needed an assistant. I interviewed and decided to take the job, but it was an incredibly difficult decision for me because once you leave sports, you generally cannot get back in. I chose to make that decision and it ended up being one of the best decisions I have ever made. I learned that my skills translate out of sports, and I gained a ton of confidence and raised my salary.
After a year there, then-Lions GM Martin Mayhew called in 2014 and told me they were going to hire Jim Caldwell. Jim had someone in mind to be his assistant, but Martin made a case for why he thought Jim and I would work really well together. So I interviewed with Jim, and within 30 seconds, I knew I wanted this job and that I wanted to work for him. I was back with the Lions before I walked out of the building. I worked for him and that entire coaching staff, many of whom just so happened to be at Michigan with me. It felt like family with guys like Bill Sheridan and Teryl Austin.
When the Lions hired Bob Quinn as GM in 2016, he immediately came to my office and asked me why I didn’t have a contract and told me I was getting a title change. That’s when I first got a director title, and it let me know that there were other things that I could do. When you work with a coaching staff, you are so connected to everyone in the building, and it was through that that I got to learn about how other departments are run, which helped me transition into new roles.
There has been quite a bit of turnover in Detroit during your career. How do you navigate that?
I’ve been through a lot. I feel like I stuck around for this long because, a lot of the time, we hired first-time head coaches who didn’t have “people.” I learned that I couldn’t just sit back, so I went into every coach’s office, introduced myself and tried to find a mutual person we had worked with to establish a little bit of trust. Building that trust takes about a month or two before they really start to lean on me and bring me more work.
The transition to working with Dan Campbell has been so easy. The toughest one for me was from Jim Caldwell to Matt Patricia. Matt came from a very different environment and didn’t quite know what to do with me. It all worked out and I ended up managing the coaching staff during his tenure. As a result, at the end of the 2018 season, I started to learn team operations while staying involved in the coaching side. I was very excited because it was something new. Then in May of 2019, Derek Stamnos, who was our director of team operations, took a job with the Saints, and the Lions asked me if I wanted to take that job. Bob Quinn was very supportive of me taking this job, and so was team president Rod Wood and former head of football operations Kevin Anderson.
How would you summarize what your current job entails?
I mostly oversee team operations and travel. Anytime we move the entire team or players for games, visits or other events, that falls on me. Then I now oversee equipment and video. Operations is one of the harder positions to describe because there is something new every day or something pops up that I didn’t realize fell under our group. I am constantly navigating this position.
What has the Hard Knocks experience been like?
Because cameras were installed in the buildings, you don’t really see the Hard Knocks crew a ton. Practice is when you see the handheld cameras and the crew around, and there’s been a bigger presence on the road as well. That’s where I have to help manage it and make sure they have access to shoot at hotels and such. I haven’t had to deal with the crew too much, but they’ve been extremely nice and professional when I have. They know what they’re doing.
I think the positive effect that we’re going to get from this is going to be worth it. I wore my Lions shirt to get lunch in Pittsburgh last weekend for our final preseason game, and people were stopping and telling me how much they love our season. I think we’re going to get some new fans because of it, which is great. And everything you see on the show is actually how great our staff and players are. We feed off their energy and it makes it exciting to come to work.
Do you have any mentors who have helped you along the way?
Kelly Cox at Michigan was one of the first people to give me extensive responsibility. Former Lions head coach Rod Marinelli is very important to me and my career. He was the first coach or leader in Detroit who made me realize I could be doing so much more. I didn’t know what that meant or how I got there at the time, but he’s the person who has always made me believe in myself and pushed me. To this day, if I need a pat on the back, I will text or call Rod. Jim Caldwell is an amazing person, and anyone who has ever worked closely with Jim will call him a mentor. He’s the person you call when you need advice. Bob Quinn has been great, as well. I’ll add one more: Duce Staley. If you ask any of the women who worked in Philly or now in Detroit, they’ll echo this sentiment. There isn’t another person in this building who’s as supportive of women in sports on the football side as Duce. He’s another “real talk” kind of a guy. He will do whatever he can to help you be better at your job.
Every woman who works on the football side of the NFL owes a thank you to Dawn Aponte. She is it. If I need some great “real talk” advice, Dawn is who I call. It may not be what I want to hear, but it’s what I need to hear. She has seen everything and been through everything in the sport.
What advice do you have for women who want to start a career in the NFL?
The first is: work for your college football program. I’m trying to hire an intern and it’s mind-boggling to me how many people did not work for their college program. I will not look at somebody — female, male or however you identify — unless they actually worked in football. Other sports can translate, but I need to make sure people are prepared for the unique environment of football. Also, you have to be prepared to sacrifice a lot. The time commitment and amount of work are no joke, and you’re going to have to make choices when it comes to your personal life. The last thing is to be confident and trust your gut. It’s something I struggled with early in my career and I still struggle with it. If you’re being hired for a position, that means your bosses believe you can do the job. You must also believe that yourself. There is so much confidence within the men we work with that you need to ooze confidence. It will help you do better in your job and you’ll feel better about yourself.
You’ve been around the league for the better part of two decades. How have you seen the industry change for women since you started in 2004?
There is a more direct path for women now. When I started, you had to come in as an admin. Now, women can get in the door in so many different departments, and teams are looking to hire them. That’s the biggest change I’ve seen. The opportunities are there, and most importantly, women know the opportunity is there.
What is next for you in terms of things you want to accomplish?
It’s to win a Super Bowl, and I want to do it here. Period. But in the short term, it’s to fully understand all of the responsibilities in my new role as a senior director and do them to the best of my ability, so I can help get us to that goal.
I also want to make sure I am teaching and helping the people who are underneath me advance in their careers. I want to make sure our operations assistants, Jesse Giambra and Austin White, have the guidance and knowledge and are prepared to take my job someday or my job somewhere else. I don’t have an ego with that kind of stuff. That’s extremely important to me.
What are you most proud of?
That I’m still here. There haven’t been a lot of women that have lasted this long. I’m also proud of the relationships I’ve built over the years. Our team reporter, Dannie Rogers, told me she spoke with someone who worked on the Michigan staff when I was there, and it took me a second to remember him and said something like, “Oh, I totally forgot about him.” She replied, “He didn’t forget you.” So it’s the connections for me. I think almost every coach or person I’ve worked with in the past would recommend me or try to help me out if I needed it, and it’s because of the positive relationships that I’ve built.
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Original Content Editor, Talent Development