CLEVELAND — It’s hard to believe that the current highest-ranking female coach in the NFL once thought she’d be limited to watching the sport she loves from the stands, simply because she’s a woman.
But that’s exactly what Cleveland Browns Chief of Staff Callie Brownson thought, when she was told there was no place for girls on her high school football team at Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Virginia at the age of 14.
“I definitely thought it was the end, that I was just going to be a fan, from then on,” Brownson said, describing the moment she realized gender barriers existed for women in sports in a candid conversation over Zoom for the 3 Things to Know with Stephanie Haney podcast.
“And I was [just a fan] in high school. I went to every high school football game I could and watched and loved it. And you know, your friends are usually hanging out somewhere by the concession stand. Well, I was in the stands, glued in to the game. And I thought that was it for me. I thought I was just going to be a football fan and that’s what it was.”
Thankfully, times have changed, and Brownson returned to the field with the DC Divas from 2010 to 2017, going on to with two gold medals with Team USA Women’s Football (Finland in 2013 and Vancouver in 2017).
Listen to Brownson's interview on the 3 Things to Know with Stephanie Haney podcast on Spotify here, or wherever you get your podcasts
She even returned to that high school and worked as an assistant coach for three years, on the same field where she was once denied the opportunity to suit up with the guys she had grown up going into weekly battle with.
You might think that would make a person bitter, but not so for Brownson.
“I just felt like I was a big part of the change,” Brownson said. “I didn’t have any resentment about it. I think it’s all part of a process and journey and it all led me back there to coach again and change the minds of every player and coach that I was around there. I felt more than anything that I had a great opportunity to be a proponent of change in that community, and really kind of educate especially the young men that women can do anything.”
Today, though she is very much still a fan, she’s proving just that as she is now very much at the forefront of bringing women into the professional football fold in a major way.
In just her second season as a full-time coach in the NFL, Brownson was at the center of two major milestones for the league: as part of the first game ever to include females coaches on both sidelines and a female officiant on the field, and later as the first woman ever to serve as a position coach during a game.
Both of those moments are now memorialized in the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, which Brownson recently visited for the first time.
While at the gridiron museum, Brownson reflected on seeing that display and what it means for the future of all women in the sport.
“I had never been to the Pro Football Hall of Fame to start, so that whole building had me, as a football fan, just in awe,” she said. “It was an incredible place to go and see all those different artifacts, and so many awesome moments in the game that we all love so much. And then obviously to see the display was awesome, but what I felt when I got there was that it wasn’t about me. It was cool to see that there was female representation in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and in my mind, I just went to the fact that now it’s going to be hard to keep women out of the Hall of Fame.”
Brownson believes that visibility is key, because the more people see women in the NFL, the more natural it will become to include them in consideration for the most sought-after positions with teams.
And sometimes, it’s just nice to look across the field and see other women doing their thing, like Brownson did during Week 3 of the 2020 season, when the Browns played the Washington Football Team with full-year coaching intern Jennifer King, and referee Sarah Thomas as down judge.
“Jen and I know each other from our playing days,” Brownson said. “It was kind of cool to walk out onto an NFL field and see one of your old friends on the other sideline coaching, just like you. It was kind of like a surreal opportunity.”
The trio of Brownson, King and Thomas had time for a quick photo together before the game, which was shared far and wide as people celebrated the history-making moment, but it wasn’t until the ladies had finished the job they came to do that they took a second to drink in the importance of it all.
“At the end of the game, as Sarah was leaving the field, we all got together and said, ‘You know, this is awesome and we still have a ton of work to do, and let’s keep setting a good example,’” Brownson said. “I thought that was a really cool moment, because I think we all knew how great that moment was but we were all very excited for the door that that moment opened up for the rest of the women who are involved in this.”
For King, it didn’t take long to open up a new door. She has since been promoted to assistant running backs coach for Washington, beginning in the 2021 season. This makes King the first African American female assistant position coach in NFL history, and only the second female assistant position coach in the league, following behind Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust.
Speaking of Tampa Bay, this year’s Super Bowl-winning squad is the only team in the NFL with two full-time female coaches. Sure, having Tom Brady at the helm helps, but if you’re looking for distinguishing factors for this year’s championship team, that fact stands out.
In total, there were eight women on NFL coaching staffs in the 2020 season. Six of those eight female coaches took teams to the playoffs. That includes Brownson, who was a key player in the Browns making their first playoffs appearance since 2002 and bringing home their first post-season win since 1994 (over the Pittsburgh Steelers, no less).
For all of her firsts as a woman, Brownson had another significant first this past year as a person, landing the newly-created role of Chief of Staff under first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski.
Brownson said Stefanski told her there was no job description for this “anything and everything role,” which proved to be truer than anyone could’ve anticipated in a season taking placing during a global pandemic.
Brownson went into the role with zero expectations, and the understanding from Stefanski that she could make it as big or as small as she wanted it to be. Of course, for Brownson, playing small was never an option.
“My eyes didn’t get too big,” Brownson said, recalling how Stefanski has described her reaction to the opportunity to do a job that no one else has ever done for the Browns organization. “I was very inspired when he sat there and told me what his vision was for what was going to happen here in Cleveland, and it was just like, ‘I want to be here, I want to help him.’”
And what a help she was, alongside Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry, leading the Browns to the team’s first winning season since 2007.
When asked how working for the Browns organization has differed from where she got her start with the Buffalo Bills under head coach Sean McDermott, Brownson said the two teams actually have a lot in common.
“I was very, very fortunate for my time in Buffalo,” Brownson said. “And then I come to the Browns, very similar, from the top down, from ownership all the way through Andrew Berry and Coach Stefanski. I’ve been very fortunate in my NFL career to work for two organizations that have been so progressive and really walking the walk as it pertains to diversity and inclusion, and getting more women involved, and just diversity hires in general.”
When it comes to walking the walk, Brownson is a shining example, having participated in all five years of the NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum. That’s where she met Bills’ coach McDermott, which ultimately led to her first NFL position. Since then, she’s been back each year to sit on panels and share what she’s learned with other female NFL hopefuls.
Talking about how much the forum has changed already, Brownson gets excited about ever-growing momentum aimed at increasing women’s roles in the league.
“I think back to year one and year two, which were so incredible for what they did in those years, and it’s just grown,” she said. “You’re seeing not just more participation but you’re seeing more teams jump on board who want to be involved. It’s crazy to think back to year one and then see the fact that Bill Belichick leads a breakout coaching session in this part year’s forum. I think that speaks a lot for how this program is growing, and how this kind of movement is growing, as well, in the league.”
While much has improved for women in the NFL, it’s still a hard pill to swallow that following your dreams will be harder simply because you’re a woman.
Even so, Brownson hasn’t let that discourage her, and she’s not one to rest on her past accomplishments, which is reflected in her latest weekly mantra. (Yes, Brownson picks a new mantra each week, often sharing them on social media.)
“I like to study a lot of famous leaders, famous athletes, I listen to a lot of podcasts on leadership, on motivation and so forth, and if something strikes me, I write it down and that’s my theme of the week,” she said.
“The one that’s on my board at the moment is: ‘Yesterday’s homeruns do not win today’s games.’ It’s a Babe Ruth quote, and for me that just means, ‘How are you growing this week?’ because your victories last week don’t matter any more.”
So what’s next for Brownson? You better believe she has plans to make the most of the opportunities she’s earned over the past two years in the NFL and everything else leading up to this moment.
“The next goal, really, for me, is to work my way to eventually being qualified to be a position coach,” Brownson said.
As far as being qualified goes, her last stab at it came when wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea tested positive for COVID-19. With Brownson in charge of the wide receivers, the Browns closed out the regular season with a win over the Steelers, clinching a playoffs spot for the orange and brown.
Talk about a high-pressure situation. But keeping in character, Brownson was unbothered.
“I was excited. What a cool opportunity to go out and do what I love,” she said.
“We went in to a 2020 season that we knew was going to throw us curveballs left and right, no matter how well we tried to plan things, no matter how great our contingency plan was. I knew I was going to have to step up in ways this year that I didn’t necessarily plan for in 2020.”
Brownson added: “I’ve always had the mindset that these things are opportunities. Good opportunity, growth opportunities, and that’s exactly what that was for me.”
With so many history-making moves already under her belt, and the willingness to ignore the odds and do the work to get the job done, it seems there’s no limit to what Brownson can do when these opportunities present themselves.
For those of us who are happy being fans, it sure is fun to watch her making it happen.