Cleveland Browns’ Callie Brownson just finished first year as chief of staff. Owner calls her ‘one of the best’
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While Callie Brownson spoke during the recent NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum, her message hinged on the sign affixed to her desk at Cleveland Browns headquarters.

It reads, “What did you do today to help us win?”

As head coach Kevin Stefanski’s chief of staff, Brownson asks herself the question every day.

She borrowed the idea from former NFL general manager Charley Casserly, one of her teachers at George Mason University.

“When I had her in college, I knew she had the right stuff,” Casserly said last week during a phone interview with the Beacon Journal.

“You could see that she was ahead of the game, mature beyond her years, wasn’t intimidated by anything, had excellent work ethic, smart, organized, all the positive traits that you’d want.”

Now Brownson, 31, is coming off a season in which she proved to be a key member of the Browns and inspired girls and women who have aspirations of coaching football.

The crux of her advice to them stems from the sign Casserly has used as the motto of one of his sports management courses at George Mason. Hall of Fame coach George Allen used a variation of the sign when he coached Washington. Casserly picked it up there and continued the tradition as GM of Washington and later the Houston Texans.

When Brownson addressed the 40 participants of the fifth annual forum via Zoom, she urged them to immerse themselves in the sport by working for youth and high school programs, to study film as part of a never-ending eagerness to learn and to network in the industry.

She also encouraged them to constantly ask themselves the question posed on the sign.

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“How can I go above and beyond, maybe even take on a new task, maybe improve something we’ve been doing for a while that could use improvement, constantly evaluating and auditing the system to find out how can I help us get better every day?” Brownson said Feb. 24. “And when you can do that and you show that initiative every day, you do stand out because you’re somebody that (makes people say), ‘Wait a second. Where’s Callie at? We need help with this task. We need this.’

“You become that person, that reliable source of being able to improve the process and ultimately helping the organization, the team, the players, the coaching staff, the operations department, scouting. How are you finding a way to make them better that day? To me, that’s always been my motivating factor, to try to add value.”

In Brownson’s first season with the Browns, she added value, achieved milestones and became a crucial resource for Stefanski, who was named NFL Coach of the Year after Cleveland went 12-6, including 1-1 in the playoffs.

Brownson’s title won’t change this year, but she will shift some of her focus to assist run game coordinator and running backs coach Stump Mitchell with his position group, Stefanski said Tuesday on Zoom.

“She has the role because she’s really one of the best,” Dee Haslam, who owns the Browns with husband Jimmy, said during the forum. “Coach Stefanski, he will tell you if she’s out on the field, he’s not worried at all. He knows she’s got it. That’s what’s so exciting for us. As more and more women are out there and doing the job at such a competent level, it’s just going to continue to grow.”

NFL program has opened doors

More than 300 women have participated in the forum since it began in 2017, said Sam Rapoport, the NFL’s senior director of diversity and inclusion. In the past four years, 118 job opportunities have emerged for women in professional and collegiate football programs.

Brownson, Washington assistant running backs coach Jennifer King and Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust were panelists at this year’s forum. They were also among the eight women who coached in the NFL last season.

In 2015, Jen Welter became the first female member of an NFL coaching staff when she joined the Arizona Cardinals as an intern. Since then, the number of women who have coached in the league is one in 2016, five in 2017, 10 in 2018, eight in 2019 and eight in 2020, according to the NFL.

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Haslam is among seven women who were principal owners in the NFL at the start of the 2020 season, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES).

“The door has swung wide open on the sports side, and I’m so excited and I look so forward to the moment that we don’t have to talk about how we get the door open for women and people of color, that the door is wide open,” Haslam said.

“Callie has had so many firsts in her career. … That was tremendous, but hopefully not too far down the road we’re not even talking about it because it’s so normal to have that as part of our culture and that’s who we are.”

IF SHE CAN SEE IT, SHE CAN BE IT 🗣🗣🗣🗣🗣🗣🗣🗣🗣 https://t.co/kR9otjRn3q

— Callie Brownson (@CalBrown17) February 21, 2021

In the meantime, Brownson and other pioneers of her ilk subscribe to the “if she can see it, she can be it” theory. It’s another way of saying representation matters, that girls will believe they can coach in the NFL if they see women with those jobs.

Brownson, King and down judge Sarah Thomas made history when the Browns hosted Washington on Sept. 27, the first time women coaches were on opposing sidelines while a female official was on the field.

A day after the wife of Browns tight ends coach Drew Petzing gave birth to the couple’s first child, Brownson filled in for Petzing Nov. 29 against the Jacksonville Jaguars and became the first female interim position coach in NFL history.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame has artifacts from Brownson’s historic moments in 2020 on display. She visited the Canton museum last month.

“She got a lot of publicity – well earned and well deserved. She’s a trailblazer,” said Casserly, who also serves as an NFL Network analyst.

“But you can go two ways with that. You can let it affect you and go to your head. It never did with her. She has the right DNA – nose to the grindstone and keep working.”

Surreal! An incredible and humbling opportunity. Walking that building, I saw how far the game of football has come, and now that progress includes women. This will certainly not be the last display of women in football. https://t.co/XBpk8BLGOy

— Callie Brownson (@CalBrown17) February 8, 2021

Brownson moonlighted as wide receivers coach in the Jan. 3 regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers when Chad O’Shea missed the game due to COVID-19.

Then with Petzing sidelined by the virus, Brownson coached tight ends again in the Jan. 10 wild-card game against the Steelers. They Browns were also without Stefanski, four players and four assistant coaches because of COVID-19, but the team still managed to earn its first postseason win in 26 years.

“Adversity breeds opportunity” is the text message Brownson said she received from Dawn Aponte before the 48-37 victory at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field. The league’s chief football administration officer, Aponte spent the 2009 season working in the Browns’ front office and was well aware of what the 2020 version of the club had encountered.

“You can look at it as, ‘We’re down a head coach. We’re down coaches. We’re down players.’ Or you can look at it as, ‘This is an opportunity to prove that all the hard work that we’ve put in this year to build this culture and build who we are can come true and show it,’” Brownson said. “And it’s a testament to Coach Stefanski and his coaching staff that, even in those situations, we were able to continue to be us and to stay true to what we do.”

In an email response to the Beacon Journal, Aponte commended Brownson for her “incredible talent and passion for the game,” adding, “Congratulations to Callie and the other women who are normalizing the visual of women on the sidelines.”

Women of the Cleveland Browns

Behind the scenes, other women are toiling for the Browns.

Haslam mentioned the contributions of player personnel coordinator Megan Rock, scouting assistant Riley Hecklinski, scouting fellow Kathleen Wood and research and strategy intern Ella Papanek.

Haslam advised forum participants to get a foot in the door of an NFL franchise however they can. She pointed to Rock as an example of someone who started on the organization’s business side and worked her way into football.

“Now she’s (general manager) Andrew Berry’s right-hand person,” Haslam said.

Hecklinski wowed Berry during her interview.

“She was so prepared,” Haslam said. “She said, ‘Let me show you my board.’ Andrew was like, ‘You have a board?’ I think she ended up with a higher position because she was just so overprepared and blew him away with her knowledge of football.”

The lack of head coaches and general managers of color in the NFL is a well-documented issue the league faces. There are five minority head coaches, three of whom are Black. Berry is among five minority general managers, all of whom are Black. When the 2020 season kicked off, 57.5% of the players were Black and 69.4% were people of color, according to TIDES.

Since the Haslams bought the Browns in 2012, they have hired a Black head coach, Hue Jackson, and three Black general managers or heads of football, Ray Farmer, Sashi Brown and Berry, who spoke during a portion of this year’s forum closed to reporters.

Let’s shine a spotlight on women in football during #WomensHistoryMonth@browns GM Andrew Berry highlights Callie Brownson and others paving the way for so many in the industry. pic.twitter.com/4oetokzseG

— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) March 3, 2021

Dee Haslam said the Browns work extremely hard to cast a wide net and strive for diversity in their hiring practices. The Haslam Sports Group launched a fellowship in September designed to improve diversity on the business side of the Browns and Columbus Crew. Of the four individuals who were selected to begin their fellowships this summer, Haslam said three are people of color and two are women.

“I think it benefits everybody within the organization,” she said. “You feel connected to each other, and you learn to respect other people’s opinions and viewpoints.”

Yet Haslam also admitted the Browns “were slow” to establish the culture she sought. She shared a story about one day noticing performance dietitian Katie Meassick didn’t have a permanent locker at the team’s training facility. In fact, none of the women on the club’s football side did.

“We didn’t have a female locker room for our female football staff,” Haslam said.

“I said, ‘This can’t happen. We have to think more broadly in our organization.’ That’s a small thing, but it really mattered to the women in football, on the sports side, that they were treated with respect.”

Head coaching job in future?

Brownson has undoubtedly earned the respect of the Browns.

“Our players did not bat an eye when Callie was on the field as their coach,” Haslam said.

It’s among the reasons Stefanski and other important Browns figures envision Brownson leading a team one day.

“Kevin mentioned it when we hired her that he sees her as a future head coach, and I would echo those sentiments,” Berry said on Zoom in January. “She has just a really, really high ceiling in this profession.”

Asked when the NFL at large will be ready for a woman head coach, Casserly said, “When are you going to be ready for a woman official in the Super Bowl?”

Thomas broke the barrier on Feb. 7. She was the down judge when the Buccaneers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs.

I’d just like to say, what an exciting time to be a woman in football. Goodnight.

— Callie Brownson (@CalBrown17) February 25, 2021

Becky Hammon became the first woman to coach an NBA team in a regular-season game on Dec. 31 after San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich had been ejected. Hammon is one of six female assistant coaches in the NBA this season. The Cavaliers’ Lindsay Gottlieb is among the others.

Casserly said Brownson is “on the right course” toward eventually becoming a head coach.

“So I don’t see why it can’t happen,” he added.

Casserly said he actually reached out to the Browns and recommended Brownson to former GM John Dorsey, Berry’s predecessor, because he thought the club had been interested in hiring a female coach. Casserly said he also talked to Stefanski before he interviewed Brownson.

“I told Kevin, I said, ‘Ask her what time she reports to work in the interview and see what she says,’ and that was kind of a joke, if you will, because I knew what she’d say,” Casserly said.

Being the first in the office and the last out is another lesson Casserly taught Brownson at George Mason.

A former safety, running back and slot receiver with the D.C. Divas of the Women’s Football Alliance and USA Football, Brownson had started coaching on the gridiron in 2015 at Mount Vernon High School, her alma mater in Alexandria, Virginia. She then landed a scouting internship with the New York Jets in 2017 after establishing connections as a participant in the first NFL women’s forum.

She parlayed a gig coaching girls as part of the Manning Passing Academy into a job in 2018 as an offensive quality control coach under Buddy Teevens at Dartmouth College. She became the first full-time female coach in Division I history.

“Buddy Teevens took a chance, so to speak, and his instincts were right,” Casserly said. “She never stopped hustling. If you keep hustling, a break will come your way, and it did. She capitalized on it ’cause she was good.”

Brownson spent the 2019 season interning on the coaching staff of the Buffalo Bills before receiving the biggest break of her career thus far when Stefanski hired her in January 2020.

“Kevin has always raved about her,” Casserly said. “Giving her the responsibility to coach two different positions in games, that’s a hell of a thing.

“She’s going to shoot you straight, you know it’s not personal and people know she has no agenda. She’s got the perfect demeanor for this.”

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.com.

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