‘Hire her’: The making of Callie Brownson, from Pee Wee football to the DC Divas to the Cleveland Browns

When Callie Brownson stood shoulder to shoulder with Jennifer King and Sarah Thomas before last September’s regular-season game between the Cleveland Browns and the Washington Football Team, she glanced around FirstEnergy Stadium, took a deep breath and smiled. It was the first time in NFL history that two women coaches — Brownson for Cleveland, King for Washington — were on the field along with Thomas, who was serving as a sideline official. The three women were honored and photographed.

Brownson grinned like a little kid. She felt like one, too.

“Nine-year-old Callie would have absolutely geeked out at that moment,” she says.

The 31-year-old Brownson doesn’t often think about the trail she is blazing in the NFL, but the Browns’ chief of staff knows she was given opportunities women don’t often get when it comes to football by key individuals who invested their time and energy in developing her as a coach.

Atop that list is her father, Bruce.

In the mid-1990s, Bruce was a single dad raising Callie and her older brother in Mount Vernon, Va., while also starting a new business in the basement of his house. He was enamored with his daughter, who “was always a bit of a tomboy, a restless ballerina and a willing paintball player.”

A graduate of the University of Miami, Bruce was also an ardent Hurricanes football fan with bravado befitting “The U.”

“Being a guy in his early thirties, I was a little braggadocious,” Bruce says. “And to have Callie sit there and take an interest at a really young age, it was great. It was fantastic.”

“That’s really where it started for me — watching games with him on Saturdays,” Callie recalls. “We’d walk down to the local high school and watch Friday night games as well. I just had a love for (football), and it was a bonding experience between me and my dad, so I just have really fond memories.”

Eventually, watching games wasn’t enough for her. At the age of 9, she asked Bruce — “annoyed him,” she says — if she could play Pee Wee football. Bruce was cautious but relented. He remembers riding in the car on the way back from a preseason practice one day, marveling at his daughter’s eagerness to wear pads and start tackling. And at the end of games, when she would take her helmet off and the opposing players realized they had been decked by a girl, Bruce swelled with pride.

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