By Mark Podolski firstname.lastname@example.org @mpodo on Twitter
Alex Hanna grew up in New Jersey, but has strong ties to Northeast Ohio.
Many in her family are scattered throughout the Cleveland area. Some of her fondest football memories as a young girl involved her father rooting for the Browns. As a native to New Jersey, her love of the Browns wasn’t exactly a hit among her friends.
“They were Giants fans, Jets fans, Cowboys fans,” said Hanna. “… I remember one of my first games watching with my dad was a Jets game. The Browns got killed and my friends the next day at school just ripped into me.”
Hanna has remained a Browns fan, and football found a way to her heart. It’s stayed there ever since.
Now settled in as a Northeast Ohio resident, she’s living her dream as a football coach. Two years ago, she was as green as could be but found herself among one of the best high school football programs in Ohio as a volunteer assistant at Mentor.
A year after that, she worked for the Browns in various capacities and assisted with organizing several youth camps and clinics. While working those camps and clinics, she meet Steve Opgenorth, who at the time was offensive coordinator at Baldwin Wallace.
In February, Opgenorth left BW to become head coach at Oberlin College in Lorain County. A few months later, Hanna landed the job of director of football operations and cornerbacks coach, one of the nation’s few female college football coaches.
So in a little more than two years, Hanna — who grew up a competitive dancer and then a rower in high school — has gone from volunteer high school assistant, to working in the NFL to a full-time college assistant at the D-III level.
And of course, she’s a woman in mostly a man’s game. Times, however, are changing.
“I don’t think there’s a better time for a female, or just a person in general, to get involved in something they might be the minority in,” said Hanna during a recent interview at the Oberlin campus. “With all the social justice initiatives and the movements happening, people are more accepting than they’ve ever been. Not once have I ever been faced with, ‘Hey are you capable of doing this because you’re a female? It’s been, ‘Awesome. You’re willing to help and do something positive? Let’s let you go.’ ”
Hanna’s timing to jump head first into football might have been perfect, but it has not been easy for the 25-year-old. Of course, there’s been some double-takes, and pushback but mostly it’s been positive, she said. First, though, a look-back at Hanna’s journey into football.
It began in 2013 when she left New Jersey for Florida Atlantic University, where her interest in the game led Hanna to FAU’s equipment room, where she became an assistant and more.
“How to set up a football practice. How to set up a drill,” said Hanna, who was born in Clearwater, Fla. “I’m observing, but I’m also setting it up. I’m like cool, ‘I’m starting to understand this.’ But I wanted to know more.”
Her responsibilities morphed into preparations for game days and then recruiting. Trust between her and coaches grew as a sophomore, and Hanna began watching film and grading receivers following practices.
Then tragedy struck. Hanna’a best friend from high school passed away. Before her junior year, she took a year off from college and decided to transfer closer to home at Delaware University. There, Hanna took journalism courses but her time and efforts quickly returned to football.
What spurred that return was an interview she conducted with former coach Barry Streeter of Division III Gettysburg College. Streeter retired in 2017 after 42 years at the college and is lauded as a successful coach (195 career wins) with high integrity and character.
“The things he said to me in that interview still resonate with me,” said Hanna.
At Delaware, she became a valued member of the football program — “But definitely more hands on. And more responsibility,” said Hanna.
With 750 internship hours needed to finalize her graduation from Delaware, Hanna had a plan. Her love for the Browns and roots to Northeast Ohio — her father was born in Euclid and her family spent holidays in the area — pulled her back. Hanna received a special request from Delaware to complete her internship via coaching. She moved in with her sister’s family in Willowick, but she needed a coaching gig.
A July evening in 2018 with her cousin at Spuddy’s Tavern in Mentor changed everything for Hanna.
“I told my cousin, “I wonder if I can get a job at Mentor.’ My cousin was like, ‘Oh, that girl over there is the freshman coach at Mentor,’ ” Hanna recalled.
A conversation between the two began, and by the next morning Hanna received a call from a Mentor assistant. That call eventually led to another call with former Mentor coach Steve Trivisonno. It didn’t take long for Trivisonno to give Hanna the green light.
“Zero hesitation,” said Trivisonno about adding a female to his coach staff for 2018. “I thought it was cool. One of my daughters played football for a year, and Alex just needed someone to take a chance on her. She jumped right in with us. She was great. She’s special.”
Hanna will never forget the enthusiasm shared on the other end of that call from Trivisonno.
“I think he heard in our first phone call the passion I have for this sport and for coaching,” said Hanna. “He really put his neck on the line for me.”
The year with Mentor was not without adjustments. Some Mentor players initially offered a double-take, and there were a few instances in which the opposition didn’t show proper respect, but Hanna was determined to see the 2018 campaign through as an under-study to Cardinals’ longtime defensive line coach Bob Berwald. Her first day was memorable.
“I was thrown into the pool, and let’s see if I can swim,” said Hanna. “I thought I would be observing, but they threw me out there. Coach Berwald then was like, ‘Have some drills ready tomorrow.’ “
Said Trivisonno: “It was like, ‘You gotta learn how to coach. Let’s see how you do?’ ”
As the season played out, Hanna became a valued member of the staff. Then, upon completion of her internship hours, she accepted a sales job with the Browns. As is her nature, she reached out to Darrell Taylor, director of Youth Football for the Browns, and volunteered to help with events.
That’s when Hanna met Opgenorth. When he was hired as Oberlin coach in February, Hanan and Opgenorth began discussions about bringing her on staff. When that was finalized in May, Hanna began hitting the recruiting trail, and one trip took her to Michigan. At the recruiting function, a fellow coach dismissed her presence there because she was a female.
“I know I’m the anomaly,” said Hanna.
Instances such as that have not stopped her, and it’s a huge reason why Opgenorth decided to hire her.
“There was no doubt early on this was an individual who was born to be in football, and was going to be very good at what she does and would be integral to my first staff at Oberlin,” he said. “I’m inspired by Alex. She’s tough. She’s probably taught me more than I’ve taught her so far. I’m lucky to have her around.”
Where the game takes her, Hanna’s not really sure. She knows one thing — her heart is with football and it’s there to stay. If she breaks barriers along the way, so be it. It’s not her driving force.
“Societal norms are if a girl is on a football field, she’s either (an assistant trainer), a water girl or a cheerleader,” said Hanna. “I hope that changes even more, but I’ve never looked at what I’m doing like I’m breaking barriers. This is just what I’m passionate about.”