Female football coaches opening new doors
Some day, Jeanette Gray hopes, the idea of female assistant coaches in the NFL won't be a novelty, that it will have become common place.
But while the Valparaiso high school and university graduate and member of the Lake Central football staff knows that time isn't quite around the corner, she revels in the history that was made Sunday at First Energy Stadium in Cleveland.
With Browns Chief of Staff Callie Brownson and Washington assistant Jennifer King -- the first full-time African-American female assistant -- the game marked the first time there were women coaching on each sideline. Additionally, Sarah Thomas, the league's first full-time female official, was working the game.
"It was kind of neat in two parts," said
Lake Central assistant coach Jeanette Gray is
friends with Cleveland's Callie Brownson and
Washington's Jennifer King, who made history Sunday as the first female assistants
to coach in the same game.
(Photo by Charles Beard)
Gray, who caught bits and pieces of the game on the NFL Sunday Ticket Red Zone channel. "One, being in the profession, and two, seeing women coaching at the highest level, it's pretty cool because I know each of them. Personally, I'm really excited for my friends. It's a good step in the right direction for those of us who want to work in the sport."
Gray played on the U.S.A. Football women's national teams with Brownson that won world championships in 2013 and 2017 and met King in 2018 at the NFL Women in Football Symposium. She also knows San Francisco assistant Katie Sowers, having played with and against her.
"The people who know, they understand there are women at all levels who are successful, coaches," Gray said. "But you also understand there are always going to be doubters. It's naive to think they don't exist. We're fighting at every level to prove it can be done, to let people know that we know the game, we can coach the game, we can even play the game. Women's football is still in its infancy. To have exposure like that at the highest level, sends a message and there are going to be more and more making a name."
Gray credited the Browns, Washington Football Team and 49ers to providing those opportunities.
"You've got to have people open those doors," she said. "I always wanted to play, even when I was little, but I never could because girls didn't do it."
Back in 2016, while still playing receiver with the Chicago Force of the Women's Football Alliance, Gray was hired on by then Lake Central coach Brett St. Germain to coach that position.
"I remember the first team meeting, he was like, OK, she's a woman, this is the only time we're going to talk about it," she said. "That set a pretty good precedent.
St. Germain, now at Michigan City, looks back on the decision as a simple one that had nothing to do with gender, even though it was indeed a landmark move in Indiana high school football.
"When we brought Jeanette on staff, we never looked at it from the perspective that we were bringing in a female coach," he said. "We knew we were getting a quality coach and a quality person to help lead our program. In addition, we were hiring someone who understood the time commitment and effort it took to coach, so it was a no-brainer in my eyes. Taking all of that into account and factoring in that she was a former Division I athlete, while also continuing her athletic career in women’s football, made the decision easy. I would like to think that we broke a little bit of ground in getting women into the football coaching profession, at least in our area. From that point, Jeanette just did her thing and made it obvious to everyone that she belonged."
Gray thinks her initial credibility may have been aided by the fact she could high point a catch and toe tap the sidelines, but has never had a respect problem.
"I was still playing then, the guys had watched some of my games, so they knew," she said. "They could see I was legit, which helped. At some point, it became just coach Gray. It's not a huge deal. I haven't had one issue."
Tony Bartolomeo succeeded St. Germain at L.C. and Gray is in her fifth year on staff, having long since become, pardon the phrase, 'one of the guys.'
"The biggest compliment I can give Jeanette is that I, the other coaches, and players simply do not notice Jeanette as a female," Bartolomeo said. "She is a football coach, a good coach, hard-working, loyal, professional, caring, and driven to help her players get better. It is not strange or weird in the slightest and have coached with Jeanette for years in
Jeanette Gray is in her fifth year as an
assistant football at Lake Central.
(Photo by Charles Beard)
As the coaching profession evolves, Gray is excited to see what the future could hold for women in the profession, herself included.
"I really love coaching football," she said. "I do it for the love of the game. I've really enjoyed learning the sport from different people in the area. What it comes down to, I enjoy teaching the game, being around kids, helping them get better. There are a lot of different ways to do that at high school level. I love the high school, but I'm always aware of the other levels and it's something where if the right opportunity comes along, whatever the level, high school, college, NFL, I'd jump at it."