It was late in a May practice on a steamy Florida afternoon, one of those moments when overheated players and coaches crave a break and football’s discipline often dissolves in a haze of perspiration and weariness.
Ndamukong Suh, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman, a fearsome, 6-foot-4, 313-pounder whose peers once named him the NFL’s third-meanest player and five times voted him to the Pro Bowl, failed to pursue a running back who had slipped past him.
And in that instant, Lori Locust, a Philadelphia-born football fanatic who is in her early days as one of the NFL’s first full-time female assistant coaches, did what any of her colleagues might have done. She barked at Suh.
“You’ve got to run to the ball!” she yelled.
Like all rookie coaches, the 55-year-old assistant defensive line coach — the Buccaneers’ first full-time female position coach — is just beginning to navigate this universe of large, talented, and wealthy players. Suh, a nine-year veteran, might have sneered at this first-year coach’s lack of NFL experience, her audacity.
Instead, in an indication of just how quickly and completely the Bucs have accepted their new defensive line assistant, Suh did exactly what Locust demanded, chasing down a ballcarrier on the next snap.
“You can’t get caught up in who they are and what they’ve done,” Locust said a recent interview. “You’ve got to remember you’re responsible for them and their production. You can’t be intimidated. I don’t have a problem approaching any player.”
A former Temple student who grew up a Steelers fan in Harrisburg, Locust is one of just a handful of women working on NFL staffs. But it was no token hire when Bruce Arians asked her in March to join the Buccaneers.
“This didn’t just happen,” she said. “I might look like an overnight success from the back end, but this has been a long time coming.”
Locust is at the forefront of what the NFL hopes will be a pipeline of women entering coaching and front-office jobs. She is by most reckonings the NFL’s third full-time female assistant. The first was Kathryn Smith, a special-teams quality control coach with the Buffalo Bills in 2016. Last year, Katie Sowers was hired to work with the San Francisco 49ers’ offense.
Arians, who as coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2015 hired a female intern, Jen Welter, to work with his linebackers, has been a pioneer in the push for women coaches.
“The fact that their gender is different, who gives a [hoot]?” said Arians, who added a female strength and conditioning assistant, Maral Javadifar, along with Locust, to the Tampa Bay staff. “They’re good coaches.”
He recalled how his eyes were opened 25 years ago by Dot Murphy, a longtime coach at Hinds Community College in Mississippi.
“She was one of the best receivers coaches I’d ever seen,” he said. “So if anybody asks me if women can coach, I say, `Hell, yeah.’ I’ve seen it. It’s just getting the opportunity. And if they can’t do it, they get fired like everybody else.”
More than qualified
Locust inadvertently pointed herself toward the NFL nearly a decade-and-a-half ago. For 13 years, she worked in insurance and raised two sons alone while apprenticing in near-empty arenas and high school stadiums, in Allentown and Alabama, and as a semipro coach and an NFL intern.
“A lot of people think she was hired as a favor, but she’s more than qualified,” said Kevin Ross, the former Temple star who is now Tampa Bay’s cornerbacks coach. “You sit down and talk X’s and O’s with her, and you find that out pretty fast. Every coach here has accepted her. She’s very detail-oriented, very organized. She knows exactly what she wants out of her players. She demands respect. She’s just a good teacher. And she’s not afraid. She’s not afraid at all.”
Locust said she dreams of one day becoming a head defensive line coach or even a coordinator. But for now, she’s content to work with the Bucs’ defensive line for as long as they need her. Kacy Rodgers is the Bucs’ head defensive line coach. And while Locust is comfortable with the attention her hiring has attracted, please don’t call her a pioneer.
“It sounds bad to say, but that’s never been my motivation,” she said. “I haven’t come into this waving the woman card. That’s not me. If this helps broaden the path for others, great. But I want them to be qualified and experienced. I don’t want them to wake up on Thursday, decide they’re going to be a football coach and expect it to happen by Tuesday.
“I really value credibility. I feel like if we’re going to say this is a frontier for women, then we need to work for it and earn it and be great coaches. Then we should be able to get an opportunity just like anybody else.”
In Tampa, Locust has waded confidently into locker rooms and coaching rooms populated exclusively by men, almost none of whom has ever worked with a woman.
“They tower over me, and every once in a while I realize just how much bigger they are,” she said. “But there’s always been a mutual respect. I’ve never run into a problem with a player or coach. The guys get it. They’re accepting. If I’m authentic in my approach, they’re good with that. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Interest in football
Born in Philadelphia in 1964, Locust was adopted by a Harrisburg couple soon afterward. As a youngster, she developed an interest in football, attracted by its aggressiveness and physicality.
It was a curious choice and not just because she was a girl. While her parents took her to occasional high school football games, neither was a fan of the sport.
At 5, she started watching televised games, and she fell in love with the great Steelers teams of the 1970s. Whenever she played football in the backyard with neighborhood kids, she was Jack Lambert, Pittsburgh’s snarling middle linebacker.
After graduating from Susquehanna Township High School in 1982, Locust was steered to Temple by a guidance counselor. She departed Temple without a degree in 1984 when her father was diagnosed with cancer. He died not long after, but she had met a man who would be her husband for 19 years. Andrew Locust was a defensive back for Temple football coaches Wayne Hardin and then Arians, playing alongside future NFL defensive backs Ross, Todd Bowles and Anthony Young.
Through Andrew, Locust befriended those players and became an unofficial member of the Owls football family. But, after leaving Temple and returning to Harrisburg, she said she did “what I was supposed to do,” getting a full-time job in the insurance industry.
She married Andrew, had two kids (Alex, 29, and Bryce, 22), divorced, and in 2004, at age 40, began to play women’s semipro football as a defensive lineman with the Central Penn Vipers. In 2007, Locust was the team’s captain, MVP, and sacks leader. A year later, she tore virtually every ligament in one of her knees.
“I never played again, but I started coaching them,” she said. “As much as the game made sense to me as a player, I began to see it from another angle [as a coach], and I really liked it.”
The more she coached, the more she enjoyed it and the more she was noticed. Locust’s old high school hired her in 2009 as an assistant coach, a job she kept for almost a decade. Four years later, she became an assistant with the Central Penn Piranha, a men’s semipro team. She also volunteered to coach at all-star showcase events — scouting combine-like auditions for top Division II and III players — in Florida, Canada and elsewhere.
By that point, her ambition was clear, and in 2017 she took a job guiding the defensive linemen, linebackers and special teams with the now-defunct Lehigh Valley Steelhawks of the National Arena League.
“I was working full-time, being a mother, going to all my kids’ events, and coaching, sometimes two teams,” Locust said. “I never expected to make it a full-time job, but I just kept getting more and more responsibility and more teams were asking me to coach.”
When she learned that the NFL was conducting a Women’s Careers in Football Forum in conjunction with its 2017 Scouting Combine, she drove to Indianapolis. She did so again in 2018.
Both years, she applied for a Bill Walsh Coaching Fellowship. She didn’t get one in 2017. But the following year, after using Bowles, Ross and others as references, she landed an internship as a defensive line assistant with the Baltimore Ravens.
“I was working with Terrell Suggs, Michael Pierce, Brandon Williams,” she said. “They made it clear there that I was just another coach, and everyone accepted that.”
Locust’s low point might have come when that one-year Baltimore internship ended. Not only was her tantalizing taste of the NFL over, but she was laid off from her regular job.
But, not long after, Samantha Rapoport, the NFL’s director of football development and its point person for efforts to bring more women into the game, called and asked if Locust would be interested in coaching Birmingham in the new Alliance of American Football (AAF).
Locust happily accepted. In March, as the doomed league’s only season neared its early conclusion, she attended a coaching clinic at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. One of the speakers was Arians. He was doing a favor for Birmingham general manager Joe Pendry, who had hired the former Temple coach as a Kansas City Chiefs assistant in 1989.
“I had no idea Bruce was going to be there, and I didn’t know that Joe had talked to Bruce on my behalf,” Locust said. “I’d never had a conversation with Joe about what I was trying to do.”
Arians had recently been hired as head coach by Tampa Bay, and he had made a commitment to hire a female assistant. Sowers, the 49ers aide, contacted Locust and told her she needed to reach out to Tampa Bay.
Locust emailed Arians, reminding him that 36 years before they had met at Temple.
“He answered me in a half-hour,” Locust said. “He said, `This is incredible. I was just talking with Joe Pendry about you.’ He said he’d be in touch. It was kind of like the planets aligned.”
Locust and Arians talked a few more times and, after checking out Arians with her former Temple friends, she accepted the position.
“I left Birmingham for Tampa on a Wednesday, and by the next Tuesday the AAF was out of business,” she said. “The timing was phenomenal, yes, but it took a lot to get to this point. I spent a lot out of pocket. I drove thousands of miles to attend conferences and put myself in a position to listen, learn, and network.”
Once in Tampa, she found that the Ravens’ internship had prepared her well. Arians’ daily structure, his assistants’ responsibilities, and the scripting and timing of practices were practically mirror images of how things were done in Baltimore.
Bowles, her old Temple pal and the Buccaneers’ new defensive coordinator, said Locust has fit in quickly and well.
“She’s tough,” he said. “She’s a grinder. She does everything the right way.”
Locust dived into her new role, absorbing the playbook, studying film, talking with the coaches and defensive linemen. Rodgers put her in charge of the rookies and free agents at her first offseason practices, advising her to make herself available for all their questions and concerns.
“For us, she’s just another coach we can learn from,” said Beau Allen, the Bucs tackle who was on the Eagles’ victorious Super Bowl team, “another set of eyes watching and helping us. She’s very detailed. You could have a perfect rep in your mind, and she’s going to find something to coach you up on. … That’s one thing about her that has stood out to me.”
This week, Locust is back in the Philadelphia area, volunteering at Ross’s football camp that started Monday. Both she and Ross hope the free Ross/Redman Football Camp — 6-8 p.m. daily through Friday at Paulsboro High School — will attract girls hoping to find a career in the sport.
“It takes guts for anyone, let alone a woman, to walk into a locker room. That’s why I’ve got Lori telling her story this year,” Ross said. “I figure there are other young ladies out there that want to be involved. It doesn’t necessarily have to be coaching. It can be public relations. It can be training, video, a lot of other avenues. I just want her to encourage them to be that same person.”