Remaining intensely focused on whatever task was at hand and making no time to consider the path she was forming or the walls she was forcing down along the way. Though, from first glance at the career she built and name she made for herself, no one would ever know how humble Kathryn Smith truly was. She has been called a ground breaking trailblazer, and someone who is undoubtedly making history, shattering the glass ceiling alongside female politicians and activists.
Despite these titles, Smith has always insisted that is not the reputation she was going for when she started out on her career path. Since Smith became the first full time female coach of the National Football League, several women have followed in her footsteps and broken into the world of the NFL. But it took more than just wanting to be a football coach to actually become one at that level.
Smith was interested in sports from the beginning, but it was never really about being a football coach. For her, “It was more than ‘Oh, I’m going to specifically be a coach.’ I just got into football and I’m going to do everything I can to work my way and try to progress in this field, and fortunately it’s worked out the way it worked out,” she told one reporter. Still, being involved in the world of athletics didn’t hurt her cause.
She was a three sport athlete in high school, participating in lacrosse, swimming and bowling at the Christian Brothers School. Smith was not only interested in playing sports, but also watching and working in the field. She quickly learned a love of football from her father and, from the sidelines, assisted him in coaching her high school’s football team by keeping the team’s stats for him. From that point, her fondness of the sport would only grow, and unbeknownst to her, would lead to a ground-breaking career path.
KATHRYN SMITH - First Female NFL Coach
Breaking into the Business
After graduating high school in 2003, Smith went on to study Sports Management at St. John’s University in New York City. During her freshman year, she became the student manager for the men’s basketball team at the university. Later that same year, she would land her first internship opportunity.
Growing up in Dewitt, a small suburb outside of Syracuse, New York, Kathryn was a natural born Jets fan. So it was no surprise that when the time came for her to look for an internship, she sought one with the New York Jets. This was her first step into the NFL, and garnered her the title Game Day and Special Events Intern. She held this position for two years, until she was promoted to a College Scouting Intern in 2005. After another two years, Smith would graduate from St. John’s and become the Players Personal Assistant for the Jets.
While her college degree and internship experience had gained her a second promotion, Kathryn was far from the stage where she would end up standing. She remained a personal assistant for seven years until, in 2014, she finally landed a position as an Administrative Assistant, again with the Jets. It was merely a year after this significant jump, and twelve years after her start, that Smith would be stolen away from the Jets, and begin working for the Buffalo Bills as an Administrative Assistant for Rex Ryan. At this point, she was on fire and her momentum could not be stopped. Less than a year post team swap, a thirty-one year old Kathryn Smith would make history.
On January 20, 2016 Smith became the Special Teams Quality Control Coach for the Bills. Her name would go down in history that day as having been the first female full time NFL coach, but for her it was never about being the first. It was about being there and doing what she loved. Her relationship with the coaching staff and players was nothing short of professional. Smith recalls being treated as an equal always, saying that “Not a lot of emphasis was put on the fact that I’m a female and they’re all males.” Her male counterparts, including Ryan, have never spoken out about her in an adverse manner, but contrarily have praised her for her work ethic.
For Smith, it was always about working hard and doing her best, not necessarily becoming a coach in the NFL and certainly not about leading a feminist revolution; however, intentionally or not, that is a platform that she had a large role in and did not shy away from accepting her part in influencing change.
A Unique Inspiration
She is an inspiration in an unconventional sort of way. Instead of making noise about the barriers she busted down, she aims to normalize women in the workplace, for sports and the NFL especially, but also in other areas. Growing up, Smith’s parents always told her and her brother that they could be anything they wanted to be, but unlike most parents, they added in “regardless of your gender.” They began instilling a gender normalized belief system in her, and it would appear that it stuck.
Bravery is a large part of what allowed Smith to get to where she did, but this bravery is not something that is taught to most young girls the way it was to her. In her “Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection” TED Talk, Reshma Saujni delves into the performance gap between girls and boys in school. She notes that a overwhelming number of girls are afraid to try, because trying could mean failing. These girls are taught that they should be perfect, and failing is not perfect. Meanwhile boys are taught to take risks and to be brave. She beseeches her listeners, saying “We cannot leave behind half our population. We have to socialize our girls to be comfortable with imperfection.” This is what Smith’s actions have shown young girls and women of all ages everywhere.
Not Letting Anything Stop Her
For the entirety of her career, Smith has indirectly stressed Saujni’s point in refusing to allow her biological makeup to define what she could do. She was brave and unyielding, and undeniably made people realize that women are capable of more than they are allowed to believe. She was always battling for more than girls being allowed in an all boys world, and her quiet fight did not go unnoticed.
During an interview just after securing her position in both football and history, she was questioned concerning how she felt about making history. Smith responded, in her typical fashion saying, “I hope it’s leading to, honestly, to it not being a conversation. I hope it just becomes ‘This is the next coach of this team,’ but that’s the announcement, not that ‘It’s a female coach.’” She has never been interested in making history, but, again, normalizing women in the work force, regardless of their chosen field. Smith kept her head down, but her goals high. Despite her willingness to not make noise, her accomplishments have spoken for her- loudly! Kathryn Smith has paved the way for females around the world and the opportunities afforded to women show no sign of slowing down anytime soon, thanks to women like her.