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Sam Rapaport, while playing women’s flag football recently in the New York area, for the Brooklyn Menace. SUPPLIED/SAM RAPOPORT
Sam Rapoport throwing a pass, on Canada’s first women’s tackle football team, the Montreal Blitz of the Independent Women’s Football League, circa 2001-03. SUPPLIED/SAM RAPOPORT
Rapoport submitted NFL resume on actual football
Here’s some good career advice. If you want a job badly enough, make sure the people doing the hiring know it.
For instance, you want a job in football? Then mail in your resume on a football. An actual football. And brag a little. Pop the lid off a Sharpie and squeak these words onto it:
“What other quarterback could accurately deliver a ball 386 miles?”
That’s what Sam Rapoport actually did, even if it embarrasses her now to say so. Yet it’s what launched her groundbreaking journey from an NFL-obsessed girl growing up in Canada’s capital in the ’90s, who’d quarterbacked Canada’s first women’s tackle football team in 2001, to a career stateside in American football, on the administrative side.
For the past four years, the 39-year-old Rapoport has served the NFL’s football operations in a job now titled senior director of diversity and inclusion. She has spearheaded initiatives to help place dozens of women into not only the NFL but U.S. college football too — in actual football jobs.
Not token jobs. Real football jobs. As scouts, coaches and in operations.
The two-day, women-in-football symposium that Rapoport now conducts at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, every February, has proven to be a key catalyst. It’s the first in-person event that connects league football leaders — executives, head coaches and GMs — with 40-50 leather-headed football keeners (including Canadians) who just happen to be women, not men.
And women of colour, too. Although Rapoport carefully tracks interviews arranged and jobs secured, she underscored time and again over two interviews, by phone from New York, that there is no quota system underpinning her work.
“We actually don’t place a target on any of the numbers,” Rapoport said. “What we want is for the interviews to happen. We want to give people who previously didn’t have a chance, the chance. We don’t hope people get the job, we hope that they get the interview.
“We’re not trying to appoint the first female GM, or the first female head coach. We’re trying to normalize women in football so we don’t have to talk about it anymore, because that’s how we will put women in the position to succeed most.”
Before elaborating on details and examples of her program’s successes, let’s back up. All the way back.
The whole story of how Rapoport got into this position at the NFL bears telling, beyond that crazy resume.
* * *
Samantha Rapoport (she prefers Sam) was born on the West Coast, in Vancouver. At age two her parents — mother Renee and late father Avrum — moved her and older sister Melissa to Ottawa, about 300 km (200 miles) due north of Syracuse, N.Y.
Every autumn, Avrum would watch NFL games on TV religiously, especially his beloved Miami Dolphins when they appeared.
“He didn’t try to push football on me at all. I just started watching kind of over his shoulder, and asking him a lot of questions. And I just fell in love with it. We must have a football gene, because he didn’t try to persuade me to watch or play it, and he didn’t even invite me to come watch him play. He was just kind of doing his own thing.”
Avrum did take her often to watch games of Ottawa’s then CFL team, the Rough Riders. For whatever reasons, she said, the NFL began to appeal more.
“I became a huge Dallas Cowboys fan, and I picked that team because my father was watching a Monday Night Football game, with the Dolphins against the Cowboys. So I just randomly picked the Cowboys when the Triplets were playing: Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin … On my first day working at the NFL, actually, Emmitt Smith walked by me in the hallway, just the two of us. I remember telling myself that I’ll never take for granted how cool my job is.”
By age 12 or so, Rapoport itched to start playing football herself, not just experience it on TV.
“It never crossed my mind that there would not be opportunities for me to play, as a girl,” she said. “My Dad found an article in the Ottawa Citizen about a touch football team that was starting, and they were looking for girls and for women … in the Ottawa Nepean Touch Football League.
“So I started playing in that. Our quarterback was in her 30s. I mean, it was a really funny mix of people who all just really wanted to play football.”
Rapoport said she had been “average” in every other sport she’d tried. But, as millions of average athletes can relate, if you finally find a sport you don’t suck in, the rush can be euphoric. Rapoport found she could throw a football really well. Her love for the sport deepened.
“So I asked Dad to help me find other ways I could continue playing, and he was really instrumental in helping me find opportunities.
“From there, in high school (at Sir Robert Borden High) I played on our girls touch football team. It was incredibly popular. It was all over Ontario. The boys high school football players would come to our games and cheer us on, and we would go to theirs and cheer them on. It was never seen as ‘Powderpuffs,’ which is a term used in the United States that I find very pejorative and offensive.”
By the time she was a senior at Robert Borden, Rapoport could barely think about anything else but football. She even picked NFL winners for her chemistry teacher, a Mr. Bergen, and was so good at it she won him “a lot” of money.
“It was football only for me. If you read my high school yearbook that’s all anyone wrote (messages) about. I wrote every high school essay about it, every high school poem about it. I was absolutely obsessed with, and in love, with the sport. I still am.”
* * *
After high school, Rapoport chose to study kinesiology with a minor in business at McGill University in Montreal. Again, she looked for a place to play football. Luckily for her, there was an intramural women’s flag league on campus — wherein to ‘tackle’ a ball carrier one must rip off one of two plastic strips, or flags, attached via Velcro on either side to a waist belt, which every player wears.
One day in 2000 during her second year at McGill, while playing a game “right on a main street in Montreal, Sherbrooke Street,” the owner of the first Canadian women’s tackle football team just happened to be walking by.
“And she saw me throw, and asked me if I’d be willing to come try out for her professional female tackle football team. I’d never played tackle football before. The chances of that are … What? Because there was no social media back then. And she just happened to see me.
“I remember calling my parents and saying, ‘Is this crazy? I don’t even know who this person is.’ I remember my Dad and a few of my friends saying, ‘What do you have to lose? Just go for it.’”
But here she was, in downtown Montreal, and the formative team — the Montreal Blitz of the Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL), which included U.S. Northeast franchises in New York, Maine, New Hampshire and Boston — was based in Kahnawake, a Mohawk Nation reserve in Quebec, 10 km southwest of Montreal. Given the city’s notorious traffic, that’s a long drive from campus.
“I had no car. But I just decided to find a way to do it. I requested rides from all my friends, called in all the favours. I tried out and I was named the starting quarterback. So I was quarterback on the first women’s team in Canada that played tackle football.
“We only played against those American teams. There were times when we had 13-, 14-hour bus rides each way. We’d get off the bus, we’d play, we would drink with the other team — then we’d get right back on the bus and drive right back another 13 hours. And that was normal.”
Although in name it was called professional football, don’t get it twisted. The women had to pay to play. The hardest part? The spring/summer league began in April — university exam time.
“Looking back on it, it was definitely crazy to do … We’d study on the bus, we’d write papers on the bus. But we just made it work because we loved the sport, and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat … I loved every second of it. My favourite part was the camaraderie. There’s no other sport where everyone’s job is to make everyone else look good, and on every single play.”
Rapoport played a second season with the Blitz two years later, in 2003. In the year off in between, she’d decided to act on her long-standing desire to some day work in the NFL — thanks to a loving shove from behind.
“My sister (Melissa) one day asked me what I would want to do for the rest of my life if money was not an object. And I said, ‘Work for the NFL or the Dallas Cowboys.’ So she said, ‘Let’s figure out how we’re going to make this happen.’”
Rapoport applied for a summer internship at NFL headquarters in the heart of New York City, on Park Avenue in Manhattan. Didn’t get it.
“The next year, during my university classes when I should have been paying attention, I thought, ‘How can I stand out and impress the people that receive this application? Because I have no connections and I’m sure everyone else does.
“So I decided to send a football with my resume on it. And on the football, in Sharpie, I wrote, ‘What other quarterback could accurately deliver a ball 386 miles?’ That’s the distance between Montreal and New York City. I still cringe when I tell the story now, but it stood out, and at least demonstrated to them how badly I wanted it.
“I don’t know where that boldness came from. It was just blind determination — that I KNEW that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in New York, working for the NFL. My Dad certainly had that general attitude in life, to do whatever needed to be done to accomplish something … Maybe it’s more stubbornness than anything.”
Weeks later, her cellphone rang. She looked at caller ID. It was the number she’d remembered from when she’d cold-called NFL headquarters about the internship.
“I almost lost my mind in my college apartment.”
She got it. More than 10,000 and perhaps as many as 15,000 similarly football-mad, college-age applicants had applied for all league internship positions that summer, mostly men.
“It was in design marketing, which was creative,” Rapoport said. “And I knew nothing about that, but I just decided I was going to be the best creative intern they ever had. It was fun, and it was organizing things. I helped with the very entry-level components of NFL Network, launching that year. I mean REAL entry-level stuff.”
Before the end of that summer, 2003, the league’s then head of officiating and now TV officiating analyst for FOX, Mike Periera, asked Rapoport to bring some of her game tape from tackle football to the video command centre. He wanted to gauge the IWFL’s level of officiating.
So Rapoport brought him footage that included her favourite football play ever, “where I threw at touchdown pass while sprinting full speed to the left, and I threw the ball back to the right, to a receiver that was open in the end zone, for a touchdown. It was a good play.
“So Mike put it on … and there was a man standing at the back of the room … He was really quiet. And he was just watching the film. When we left he stopped me and asked, ‘Was that you who ran left and threw right?’ I said yes.”
On the spot, this man — the now retired vice-president of player personnel in the NFL, Joel Bussert — offered Rapoport a full-time, open-windowed internship starting the following summer, in football operations.
“So that touchdown play impressed someone enough to get me my first full-time job in the NFL. That’s really how it happened.”
* * *
From 2005-10 Rapoport worked in the Youth Football arm of the NFL, helping to oversee initiatives such as the popular Punt, Pass & Kick program. In that time Rapoport started something called the NFL Girls Flag Football Leadership Program.
“It was shocking to me that girls flag football was still incredibly popular in Canada and Mexico, but not in the country where the sport is king. It was (demeaned as) ‘Powderpuffs.’ There were jokes around girls playing football.
“There were so many American girls who wanted to play but there weren’t any opportunities. So I created a program to get girls flag football sanctioned in high schools around the country. We started with two states, and now I believe there are six or seven states that have it, with a state championship. Georgia just announced it.”
Rapoport left the NFL from 2010-16 to work for USA Football, the governing body at the youth and high school levels in America. Some of her administrative work there involved further entrenching girls and women’s programs nationwide.
Rapoport has been back at NFL headquarters since 2016, in football operations under the leadership of former player and executive VP Troy Vincent — from 2016-19 as Senior Director of Football Development, and since then in her current title and primary role to “normalize women in football.”
All the while, Rapoport has been able to remain living in New York City. She’s now married, to Rebecca Gitlitz, and the couple have a two-year-old boy, Jordy.
* * *
The success stories Rapoport has had in the NFL over the past four years keep stacking up. Her scouting-combine symposium has helped place about 100 women into football-centric jobs, in either the NFL or NCAA ranks.
With increasing annual frequency, females on the football side in the NFL are becoming less and less rare.
There’s Katie Sowers of the San Francisco 49ers, an offensive assistant for the past four seasons on Kyle Shanahan’s coaching staff. Sowers is the first openly LGBTQ coach in the NFL.
There’s Sarah Thomas, now a down judge — the league’s first female on-field game official, starting in 2015.
There’s Salli Clavelle of the 49ers, the league’s first Black female scout.
There’s Jennifer King, hired this year by new Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera as the first Black female assistant coach in NFL history.
There’s Jacqueline Davidson, hired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in July out of the New York Jets’ offices to become director of football research. She’s Black.
“Those are very important components to what we’re trying to do, “ Rapoport said, “because if you look across all the major leagues, certainly in the United States, they’re all celebrating a lot of firsts. But most of their firsts — if not all — are white women. And one part of our programming that’s critically important is ensuring that ALL women have equal opportunity for these jobs. So we’re proud about a lot of these firsts over the past couple of years.”
Four of this year’s nine symposium “alumni” who landed jobs in the NFL are women of colour. Four teams hired full-time female scouts.
The thing NFL coaches, GMs and other front-office executives maybe like the most about the symposium, Rapoport said, is they otherwise wouldn’t know where to begin looking for qualified female candidates.
“They’re just not in those circles,” she said. “Now clubs are offering jobs almost on the spot, because they feel they need that competitive advantage to act that fast.”
Not all female interviewees get the job either. As Rapoport stressed, the whole point of the league’s actions in this realm is to just get qualified candidates an interview. One club took until this year to hire a female in a football job, she said, only because previous years’ interviewees got fairly beat out.
“That’s such a perfect example of this working, because we don’t want women placed in jobs because they’re women. And if we put a numerical target on it, that’s what we’d be looking to do, right? But this is all just about opportunity. The number of interviews is really the true metric, and we certainly try to track that as much as possible. That’s the ultimate outcome.”
Strong female candidates now often have multiple suitors.
A great example of that came at this year’s combine, Feb. 24-March 1, when one of the most forward-thinking and active clubs in interviewing female candidates for football jobs — the Buffalo Bills — felt they couldn’t wait until after the combine to pounce.
Specifically, Bills GM Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott.
“Brandon and Sean have been so instrumental in the success of this program. They both have personal and professional passions for including everyone in the talent pool,” Rapoport said. “This year’s program ended on a Wednesday at noon. Brandon and coach McDermott and ownership met after the program had ended, and two women were at the airport ready to leave Indianapolis. They called both and offered them summer jobs right there.”
In a phone interview last week, Beane said Rapoport’s “aggressive” pre-screening of the potential women candidates she brings to the combine is particularly appreciated by NFL clubs.
“She does a great job at that,” Beane said, “of finding the best talent, among females, to narrow down the pool. A lot of candidates might say they’d love to work in football, or in sports, but then maybe after you start talking to them about all the hours, all the weekends, all the nuances, and ups and downs of it, then they’re like, ‘Ahhh, I don’t know. I kind of like a Monday-to-Friday job.’
“Sam and her team have dug deep into what each person’s passion is, what their experience is. Can they do a training camp internship? … Can they do it for a whole season, or a whole year? She’s really done a great job.”
Rapoport even lets interested NFL clubs know beforehand about good candidates.
“She’ll say, ‘Tell me what you’re looking for and then I’ll send you some resumes,’” Beane said. “So the two of us kind of narrow down who I’ll spend my time with at the combine. Obviously I’m busy there, but I spent about 2½ hours this year, myself and (assistant GM) Joe Schoen, interviewing for football ops, player engagement, personnel. And then any women there to get into coaching, we set up for Sean and his assistant, Matt Worswick, to interview — all just to make sure we’re talking to the ones who are most interested in what we need.”
And you better believe it gets competitive, Beane said.
“I know there are some other teams taking it very seriously, as we do. And like anything — just like when we scout, we want the best players, or when we’re adding personnel staff or coaches, we want the best ones. So it’s no different here.”
A noteworthy success story on the Bills, Beane said, is Andrea Gosper. He hired her in June 2019 as an intern on the player-personnel side, and retained Gosper for this season.
“I told her this, ‘Imagine where you were 12 months ago. She is in a far different place with regard to personnel and how we do things. She has been exposed to more college scouting than pro, but she has been exposed to both.
“She’s now writing reports and things like that. Not a lot, because she still has administrative stuff to do for us. She’s a go-getter, and she’s got a future in player personnel in the NFL if she wants it.”
* * *
In 2017 People Magazine named Rapoport as one of its “25 Women Changing the World.” How’s that for a career honour?
In reflecting on her own journey to, and within, the NFL — including that audacious resume-on-a-football and its braggadocios introductory message — Rapoport said she’s no less thrilled today to be working in the league than she was in that dream summer of 2003.
“What I’m working toward now is making it so people who may feel disenfranchised from football don’t have to go to such lengths to apply for a job,” she said.
“They can just apply based on merit, and we’re all working toward that. I hope women don’t feel that they have to do what I did in the future, and they have the same ‘in’ as anyone else does.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020