It was Wednesday, the second day of the fourth annual NFL Women’s Careers in Football forum, and Briazja Wade was as new to Indianapolis as she was to her job, director of on-campus recruiting at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Wade was hired the previous Thursday, February 20. She had to tell her supervisors she had an upcoming commitment and they obliged. Now, not even a week later, Wade was in a room with her peers, role models and potential employers at the NFL level.
The forum focused on putting women in Wade’s position in front of NFL head coaches, general managers and owners with the hopes of one standing out, joining the staff and becoming a success story. It’s happened with San Francisco 49ers pro scout Salli Clavelle and Cleveland Browns chief of staff Callie Brownson — two alumnus, so to speak, of the forum and this year’s guest speakers.
Wade, like the 40 other participants, shuffled into various rooms at the JW Marriott Indianapolis, which was connected to the Indiana Convention Center, where part of the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine took place. She was soaking in all of the information she could presented in the form of discussions, breakout sessions, small tables and one-on-one meetings. Wade already had a seat at the table in Louisiana; but here, surrounded by women of varying levels of success in collegiate and professional football, her sense of belonging was reaffirmed — reignited.
“After you see someone that looks like you in that position, [it] gives you that drive that I can do it too,” Wade told TDN. “[It] just emphasizes there's a space for you. You can create a space for yourself. I did it, you can do it. [It] just encourages you to like keep going because there are a lot of times, in some point in your career, you sometimes become discouraged and you feel like you're just stuck in a place and sometimes you have to think, ‘Is this for me? Is this really what I'm wanting to do? Should I just try something new?’
Wade struggled with questions of acceptance. Despite working her way up the recruiting department as a student at Mississippi State University, Wade asked herself if she should find a “regular job.” But once the table went from coaches and colleagues at Mississippi State and Louisiana to women like Clavelle; Brownson, the first woman to be a full-time assistant on a Division I college football team; Katie Sowers, the first openly gay and female coach in Super Bowl history; Lori Locust, one of the NFL's first full-time female assistants and Jennifer King, the first full-season Black female coach in the NFL, Wade saw glimpses of what she could become and a career path that is still being paved but guided by an accomplished group of craftswomen.
“Coming here and hearing the different women talk about how they all were at that point in life and how they just like kept going and kept pushing and seeing where they are now, that gives you that extra boost, that extra fire,” Wade said.
Wade worked under Andrea Hollis and Lee Davis at Mississippi State — now Lee Davis Begley, the director of recruiting operations at the University of Flordia — and went from a volunteer to her eventual role as a student worker. The work wasn’t glamorous and often included tours and grunt work like massive mailouts to respective recruits that could span weeks. There was no gratification, no credit, Wade just put her head down and got it done.
Her work ethic is what set her apart. Hollis — who worked alongside Wade as a student and then became her supervisor and has now been the director of on-campus recruiting at Mississippi State since 2017 — noticed Wade’s love for the sport and desire to make this a career. Wade’s responsibility grew and so did her reach, whether she knew it or not.
“She was going to make sure that it was one of those things where her impact that she made as a student worker just really radiated out to the ones that were around her, the coaches that were around her,” Hollis told TDN. “I saw myself in her and I knew that she's one that's going to get it done.”
In the boy’s club that has been football, women seeing themselves in leadership or up-and-coming talent is becoming increasingly more common, but still not common enough. It, in no way, is to the point where a GM can say they see themselves in a female candidate for a coaching position, but in Wade’s case maybe one day — she doesn’t cap her goals, if GM is in the future, she said, GM it is.
Until then, Wade will continue her work at Louisiana and show up as her best self. Ultimately that’s what landed her the job and what left an impression with Davis, who eventually recommended Wade for her new position.
“It just emphasized the importance of just always doing your best … even when it was the small things that I didn't necessarily want to,” Wade said, “still going that extra mile and making a good impression with these people, because you never know when you're going to connect with them again, that administration left in 2017. And here it is 2020. [Davis] thought of me, gave my name to them. So, that just shows, you never know.”
Wade’s determination put her in a position to succeed. First at Mississippi State then at Louisiana and now across the table from NFL general managers and scouting directors.
The forum isn’t yet in a place to vet thousands of applications. Instead, Sam Rapoport, the NFL’s senior director of diversity and inclusion, and Venessa Hutchinson, senior manager of football development at the NFL, selected candidates to fill the limited availability. The two relied on partnerships with the NCAA, women's leaders in college sports and other organizations to share candidates. They also take recommendations from well-respected peers, but in Wade’s case, her invitation came from persistence.
Wade reached out to Hutchinson on LinkedIn — a website oriented toward business and employment. The message turned into a phone call and the phone call turned into an invitation, which is often how it goes for either Hutchinson or Rapoport, who are constantly connecting women in sports to their next opportunity.
“We pretty much take every conversation we have with anyone that reaches out to us and automatically consider them a potential for the forum,” Hutchinson told TDN. “Obviously, we get a lot of inquiries, and Sam had a bunch of conversations with women across football and everyone is kind of under consideration. If we think they’re a great candidate and they come with a great recommendation from someone who's well respected in football, all of those things go into consideration.
“But the people that are proactive and reach out as well are great indicators that they would be a great participant.”
Wade was able to hold meetings with the Browns, who declined to comment on the outcome of their Wednesday sit down, and put her resume in the hands of decision-makers who could one decided her future like Davis did to this point.
She made herself irreplaceable once, she hopes to do it again and again and again.
“You have to prove that you're irreplaceable,” Wade said. “You have to add value to wherever you are. It doesn't matter if you're in the smallest position or you're a top position. You have to just add value constantly and just prove that you're irreplaceable and they need you.”
This is the first installment in a three-part series feature women in football at the NFL combine. The next two stories will feature Heather Marini, Division I football's first female position coach, and Clavelle.