Tessa Grossman was about to get into her mother's white Mazda on May 3 when a notification popped up on her cell phone. Home in California for a couple of weeks after the spring semester of grad school at Illinois State, she saw whom the email was from and started getting nervous before she even opened it.
Five days earlier, she completed a first interview with the Atlanta Falcons for a Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship during training camp. Her interviewers said they'd be in touch. This email from Sarah Hogan, Atlanta's assistant director of coaching operations, could be good news. Or bad.
It was good. Atlanta wanted a second interview.
"I remember sitting down in the car and going, 'Oh my god, the Falcons just emailed me for a second interview,'" Grossman said. "Basically, like, holy s---, this is crazy."
She took a deep breath. She had to plan to impress one more time. The email said to pick an interview time and Marquice Williams, Atlanta's special teams coordinator, would reach out with details.
What started as a cold email to Hogan on April 10 introducing herself and informing Hogan she had applied for the fellowship led to Grossman's selection as one of eight finalists for four internship spots in a program designed to increase the number of NFL minority coaches.
Processes differ from team to team, but all across the country calls and emails like this occurred for candidates for the introduction to the NFL through participation in training camps or offseason workouts.
It's a competitive gig -- often, like Grossman, potential fellows have full-time or graduate assistant jobs in college or high school. Venessa Hutchinson, who helps run the program for the NFL, said approximately 1,000 people applied this year.
Most years, the NFL has full participation. In Atlanta, this meant a comprehensive interview process run by Hogan and Williams, which whittled the Falcons' in-house database of 50 applicants to the four they selected: Grossman (strength and conditioning), Erick Capetillo (tight ends/running backs), Darryl Jackson (special teams) and Cliff Matthews (outside linebackers), a former Falcons player.
"The Falcons have been a team that has always been at the forefront," Hutchinson said. "Even when the old regime was there, they were bringing in female coaches and things like that, a lot earlier than a lot of the other clubs.
"They were always trying to be more progressive."
In one of her first conversations after head coach Arthur Smith was hired by the Falcons this offseason, Hogan brought up the Bill Walsh program. She had been instrumental in its implementation under former coach Dan Quinn and wanted to continue.
She'd represented the Falcons at league meetings about the fellowship. She had plans. Smith agreed. The process became hers.
Then she met with special team coordinator Williams, who received his NFL start with Bill Walsh fellowships in Chicago and Detroit. Hogan happened to have her database of potential candidates open. Williams asked about it. They discussed his experiences and how it helped his coaching growth.
"Right after that conversation [I told him] that, 'Hey, I talked to Coach [Smith] and I'm spearheading this thing. I'd love for me and you to do it together,'" Hogan said. "He was all for it. It made it so much better."
In years past, Hogan had worked with a member of the scouting department. Now, she'd be working with an assistant coach. She also implemented changes. Hogan had suggestions from her prior experience running the program. Williams had ideas from his own Bill Walsh experience.
Together they streamlined the process of name collection and took candidate suggestions from their coaching staff. They scoured the NFL database and did their own research. If someone -- like Grossman -- reached out cold and showed initiative beyond clicking the Falcons box on the NFL application, they received consideration.
Due to the timing of the program with FBS training camps and wanting fellows to receive the full experience, they decided they wanted one high school coach, one small-college coach, an Ivy League coach and a fourth wild-card spot. They wanted a woman to fill at least one role. Each candidate was logged into Hogan's tabbed-out, color-coded database containing information for this year and future seasons.
Williams and Hogan communicated regularly through email, text, phone calls and in-person meetings. Any time an idea came up, they fired off a note, working a handful of hours each week for about a month outside of interviews on the program.
Using their metrics, they narrowed down their database to 16 candidates who would receive 25-minute first interviews by phone. From there, they selected eight candidates to participate in Zoom interviews with Hogan and Williams. If he could, Smith would sit in. Otherwise, he'd watch recordings later.
"We wanted someone who is a total go-getter, who would do anything and everything," Hogan said. "They would wash jerseys. They would pick up equipment. It had to be someone who was really enthusiastic about the whole program and the idea of it and learning.
"Someone who could take what we were teaching them and take it back to their current job. We weren't necessarily looking for someone just to take the internship to put on their résumé to say that they did it."
That was important to Hogan and Williams because of how they came up through the NFL.
Hogan grew up around football. Her formative years were spent in Merrick, New York, where her father, Greg Gigantino, was Hofstra's defensive coordinator. The closest she came to playing or coaching was in eighth grade at Merrick Avenue Middle School, where she and her best friend considered trying out for football after their track season was moved to spring. But they decided not to.
In college at James Madison, she had no intention of working in football. Her father told her he helped land her a job in the football office. She didn't think anything of it, just that she'd be going to help people they'd known over the years.
At the time, she didn't know anything about football operations. She thought the only gig for women in sports was athletic training.
"And then I just kind of really liked doing it," Hogan said.
Hogan interned with the Jets -- the team held training camp at Hofstra -- and changed her major to sports management and kinesiology. She went to grad school at Georgia State for sports administration and became the director of football operations at Northeastern and then Georgia State.
In 2015, she landed with the Falcons as the coordinator of scouting administration. Eight months later, Quinn made her the coordinator of head coach operations and she's now essentially the deputy chief of staff assisting Smith and director of coaching operations Brian Griffin.
She works with various staff members to coordinate logistics and put everything together -- from rookie travel to the Bill Walsh program.
"We just carry out the head coach's wishes and make it easy for him to get his agenda and get the team ready to win games," Hogan said. "That's my bottom line."
In working on the fellowship, she was also able to fulfill an objective she adopted from her father: taking interest in younger coaches and trying to match jobs with candidates. It's what she wanted to do: make a difference behind the scenes, ever since she moved from college to the NFL.
Williams could relate. Had it not been for the Bill Walsh program, he might not be where he is now.
Williams was a defensive line coach at South Dakota in 2013 when he wrote 32 letters -- one to each NFL head coach -- and mailed them along with a copy of his résumé and his business card.
A Fresno, California, native and former defensive back at the University of Mary in North Dakota, he had few connections to the league. He'd spent time in small colleges -- Winona State, Central Oklahoma before South Dakota -- when he decided to apply for the fellowship program.
He figured the personal touch could stand out, perhaps catch the eye of application collectors. The extra effort worked. He landed with the Bears in 2013 and 2014 and then in 2015 with the Lions under Jim Caldwell.
Working with the Bears gave him his first exposure to special teams under coordinator Joe DeCamillis. With Caldwell he gained insight into almost everything.
"I learned more about different ways on teaching the values and different ways to practice on presenting certain topics," Williams said. "Concepts and how to structure a practice, how to structure meetings. And Coach Caldwell did a great job of exposing us to the overall big picture of becoming a servant-leader."
Before Williams' Lions internship, Caldwell brought him for a two-hour interview. One hour was to interview as a linebackers coach and the other as a special teams coordinator. Williams thought it was for the internship, but Caldwell treated it like it was for a full-time job.
Essentially, his internship began during the interview, where Caldwell asked about Williams' approach as a teacher and communicator, quizzed him about his personality, asked how he installed plays and ran practice. He inquired about special teams philosophy and how special teams complements offense and defense.
"That helped me and to this day I still use a lot of the tools that I learned from that interview and then the feedback I got from that interview," Williams said. "When I interviewed with Coach Smith or whatever organization it may be, my base foundation came from that mock interview with Coach Caldwell."
In 2016, Williams became the assistant special teams coach with the Chargers and in 2018 was moved to a defensive assistant role. Then he spent two seasons back in Detroit under Matt Patricia as the assistant special teams coach before Smith hired him as his coordinator this year.
It started with the fellowship.
"It was a platform to show who I am as an individual and show what I could bring to the table, but the bigger thing was it gave me the opportunity to learn the game of football," Williams said. "That's first and foremost."
When Williams spoke with Grossman on May 5 to set up final interview parameters, he said half of the 20-minute final interview would be a presentation on anything she wanted. Drawing from a lesson learned from his interview with Caldwell, Williams wanted the candidates to teach him and Hogan something.
"They wanted you to install a play or something that I run in my offense," Capetillo said. "And that was a little bit exciting, but also nerve-racking."
Capetillo explained an inside run play his Las Vegas High team uses frequently with him as the head coach. Matthews, the defensive line coach at Reinhardt College, presented on the concepts of blocks defensive linemen might face and how to counter them.
Jackson, the special teams coordinator and defensive backs coach at Brown, did a brief introduction of himself followed by a replica of a directional punt coverage presentation he'd use at a meeting with his players.
Grossman, an Illinois State strength and conditioning graduate assistant, practiced her presentation six times the morning of her May 6 interview. She talked about the concept of cognitive restructuring and the importance of positive self-talk over negative self-talk.
While Capetillo, Matthews and Jackson had years of playing and coaching experience, Grossman had never held a full-time job. She graduated from Dartmouth a year ago, her senior softball season wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic. She used material from her final presentation for Motivation and Sports last semester -- a presentation she got an A for -- in her interview with Hogan and Williams.
The four candidates were Hogan and Williams' first choices, and all four aced their final interviews.
The process worked. Hogan and Williams had their fellows. Williams and Hogan divided the calls to the candidates they chose not to hire -- but encouraged them to stay in touch and to apply again next year -- and the congratulatory calls.
There were reasons they chose to call the candidates they did: Capetillo was Williams' college teammate. Matthews had been to Flowery Branch before and Hogan was his liaison when he'd come to watch film. Jackson coached with Hogan's father. Only Grossman, who reached out to Hutchinson for preparation tips throughout the process, had been unknown to Hogan or Williams prior to the process.
Capetillo, 32, was at his high school's track practice when Williams called. He stepped aside for a minute and had to contain his excitement. He'd applied for the program before, but this was the furthest he'd gotten in the process.
He already had spoken to his wife -- they were high school sweethearts -- about the possibility of being away from home for three weeks. His goal, his dream, has been to work for an NFL team. This would be the first step on his path.
After he got off the phone, he quickly called his wife and went back to coaching track to unsuspecting kids who had no idea what just happened to their coach.
Jackson, 52, applied only to the Falcons. His connection with Hogan and his brother living in the Atlanta area made the Falcons an attractive possibility. He'd been part of the internship program before -- in 2007 with Jacksonville, 2003 with Detroit and 1999 with Philadelphia. He applied again not because he was looking for a way to the NFL, but to increase his knowledge base. He found out he got the job sitting in his office at Brown.
"It was time for me to branch back out," Jackson said. "Re-network and learn at the highest level and have an opportunity to listen and work with coaches and players at that level."
Matthews, 31, was in his suburban Georgia home working on his other passion: cooking. He was in the middle of making collard greens -- one of his specialties -- when Hogan called. Fancying himself a master chef, he kept cooking. When he hung up, he sat down, told his wife the news and called his head coach at Limestone to tell him.
Grossman, 23, had been told after the interview to expect a call from Thomas Stallworth, Atlanta's head strength and conditioning coach. They spoke for an hour while Grossman, still on Pacific time, was in her bedroom. At the end, Stallworth let it slip the Falcons were offering her the fellowship -- followed by a call five minutes later from Williams making it official.
"It was just really shock at first," Grossman said. "The whole experience felt like a bit of a fairy tale to be honest."
She had not expected this in her first attempt at applying, even though she interned with the Rams. Matthews and Capetillo had hoped for this since they entered coaching. For Jackson, it's a way to keep learning. It's an opportunity, a chance. All they need to do is look at Williams to understand where it could lead.