PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- A year after the Buffalo Bills broke ground by hiring the NFL's first full-time female coach, Kathryn Smith, the organization continues to create opportunities for women.
Phoebe Schecter, a Connecticut native who plays and coaches football in England, will conclude a three-week internship with the Bills when they open their preseason Thursday night against the Minnesota Vikings. Another woman, Kathleen Wood, spent time with Buffalo's scouting department as an intern earlier in training camp.
"The Bills really have been at the forefront of this," NFL director of football development Sam Rapoport, who visited Bills training camp at St. John Fisher College on Tuesday, told ESPN. "Their attitude is that it's the best person for the job --
period. So it's not about gender diversity. It's about, ‘Should we consider everyone when we're trying to get the best talent in Buffalo?' And that's really what they've done. ... They walk the walk."
Schecter, 27, is among four Bills interns under the NFL's Bill Walsh minority fellowship program. The daughter of a British mother and American father, Schecter paid little attention to football while growing up in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
"I didn't think there was any opportunity for women to play," she told ESPN after Tuesday's practice.
That changed when Schecter moved to England and found a Facebook advertisement to play football. A full-time personal trainer, Schecter plays for the men's squad of the Staffordshire Surge in addition to helping coach both the men's and women's teams. She also plays linebacker for the Birmingham Lions women's football team and is the captain of Great Britain's women's football team.
Schecter attended the Women's World Football Games, an event organized by Rapoport during her time at USA Football, the national governing body for amateur football. The NFL hired Rapoport last year to help identify and train potential female candidates for football operations positions across the league.
Schecter's connection with Rapoport led her to participate in an NFL women's football careers forum at the Pro Bowl this past January. The forum was a networking event in which Bills co-owner Kim Pegula and Atlanta Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli were among the speakers. Rapoport later encouraged Schecter to apply for the Bill Walsh internship and recommended her to Pegula. The Bills owner forwarded Schecter's name to coach Sean McDermott but left the decision of whether to hire her up to him.
"We went through the process like we do with all the candidates back in the spring," McDermott told ESPN on Tuesday. "She did a phenomenal job."
Setting them up to succeed
Pegula has owned the Bills with her husband, Terry, since 2014. She would like to see more women involved in the game but does not want to set unqualified candidates up to fail.
"I told Phoebe, 'Hey, listen, we gave you the opportunity, but if you didn't pass the Coach McDermott test or [general manager] Brandon Beane's test, you wouldn't be here,'" Pegula told ESPN on Monday. "I was very happy to see her [at training camp] because it means she made it, she qualified, and she had the things that the coach was looking for."
Schecter's role for three weeks with the Bills included compiling play scripts for practice, assisting defensive backs coach Gill Byrd in running drills during practice and helping break down film from each session.
Wood spent nine days with Buffalo during training camp before she joined the Philadelphia Eagles for another scouting internship this week. A native of Philadelphia whose father has been an Eagles season-ticket holder for almost 60 years, Wood was inspired by NFL Films clips to follow football at a young age.
After 16 years as a private investigator, Wood sold her firm two years ago and began a mission to break into NFL scouting. She wrote a letter to NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent that led to a meeting with NFL vice president Rod Graves at the scouting combine. Wood graduated in December from a scouting education program offered by The Scouting Academy, a third-party development agency. She was later offered the NFL's Nunn-Wooten scouting fellowship with the Bills, who tasked Wood with evaluating a position during training camp and presenting her reports to McDermott and Beane.
"Everyone in the organization showed true openness and leadership, and they all really worked with me when I was there," Wood told ESPN. "It has been a great development process for me. The biggest thing I learned is patience and perseverance. Opportunities are happening, doors are opening.
"I just want to marry my investigative skills with my evaluation skills. I spent a lifetime of fact-finding and sourcing information as a career, and I'm trying to bridge that into my evaluations on backgrounds and character."
'Really just the opportunity'
The NFL is offering opportunities to women such as Wood and Schecter, who has only five years of background with the game, knowing that their levels of experience might not be on par with that of men who might have decades of exposure to football at the Pop Warner, high school and college levels.
"I'm not gonna lie. It's hard," Pegula said of finding qualified candidates. "Just because the traditional path that most coaches go through is very typically the same. There are a few outliers, but it starts in college. So I really do think, as much as we like to give the opportunity to women at this level now, just like the guys did, they're going to have to go back and start from the ground up through the college level."
Added Schecter: "As a woman, how do we come in and try to recreate these experiences but in a condensed amount of time? You get internships and fellowships like this that allow you [to] kind of play chutes and ladders and cut through. Yeah, is it a bit of skipping ahead in some way? Yeah, but how else is it gonna happen, unless it's the next generation?
"Now we've got girls that are 6 and 8 [years old], and they're playing football, which is amazing. So when they're older, hopefully people like Kathryn Smith, like [former Arizona Cardinals coaching intern] Jen Welter, any of these women that are involved, hopefully they'll be like, 'Oh, it's normal. I've grown up watching these women in sports. They're coaching, they're playing, they're officiating.' Then that's the norm. I think the only way to do it is to skip ahead in some ways because it's too hard to try and take 20-plus years of experience and be like, 'Yeah, I'm gonna live through that,' because we don't have that opportunity."
Smith, a former administrative assistant who filled a special-teams quality control role in 2016, was not retained when the Bills fired coach Rex Ryan last season. This summer, Schecter and Wood were among eight women in coaching and scouting internships across the league, spread among five teams: the Bills, Falcons, New York Jets, Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers.
Rapoport's goal is to normalize the hiring of women in football operations roles in the coming years.
"What's typically happening is that the clubs are calling the league office and saying, 'We want to consider a bigger pool,'" Rapoport said. "We just recommend people for interviews. Some of the women attended our program and got the job, and some didn't. That shows to me that it's working because nobody is being placed in any roles. Nobody believes in that -- the league office doesn't, the clubs don't.
"It's really just the opportunity to get them in front of people to interview. In this case, Phoebe did and was welcomed with open arms by this organization. I've heard from her that her experience has been nothing but welcoming, and she's one of the guys. It really is no different."
Schecter will soon return to England with the hope of one day coming home to the United States to coach.
As for the Bills, expect their trend of hiring women in football roles to continue. McDermott, who is involved with the NFL's minority fellowship program, has two daughters he wants to see afforded opportunities in the future.
"In our organization, we have females in ownership and executive [roles]," Pegula said. "And we have a lot of these coaches who have daughters who say,
'Hey, listen, maybe my daughter is not in football, but whatever it is, we hope someday someone gives them an opportunity.'
"They have to earn it, but the opportunities are there for them to have. I think that's why the support we have [at] all different levels has been really helpful."