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Football: Northwestern operations assistant follows NFL dreams at Women’s Careers in Football Forum

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Football: Northwestern operations assistant follows NFL dreams at Women’s Careers in Football Forum

Northwestern football operations assistant Ashley Cohrs. She was one of 40 women invited to this year’s NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum.

Northwestern football operations assistant Ashley Cohrs. She was one of 40 women invited to this year’s NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum.

Evan Robinson-Johnson/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern football operations assistant Ashley Cohrs. She was one of 40 women invited to this year’s NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum.

Evan Robinson-Johnson/Daily Senior Staffer

Evan Robinson-Johnson/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern football operations assistant Ashley Cohrs. She was one of 40 women invited to this year’s NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum.

Ella Brockway, Sports Editor

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When Northwestern football’s director of video operations Darby Dunnagan attended the NFL’s Women’s Careers in Football Forum in 2018 — a two-day event that connects women working in college and professional football — she said she left with one main message: help other women receive the professional opportunities that she had, and, to quote one of the speakers at the forum, “send the elevator back down.”

This February, Ashley Cohrs took the elevator back up.

Cohrs, an operations assistant for the Wildcats, was one of 40 women invited to this year’s forum, held in Indianapolis ahead of the NFL Scouting Combine. The event featured panels and guest speakers from organizations like the NFL, the NCAA and the CFL — including four head coaches, three general managers and a host of league executives.

“These programs are setting us up and helping us,” Cohrs said. “They’re guidelines to help us to get to the next level. And there’s a big push for it right now.”

Cohrs grew up in a football family — her father was a walk-on at Florida State, and she spent her childhood traveling around the country for Seminoles games — and when she herself entered college, she began to turn that love for the sport into a career. She spent two years as a recruiting operations intern at Florida State, and after graduation, wrote NU’s then-director of operations Cody Cejda a letter asking about an internship.

She was hired, and started in Evanston last April, working with the program through its historic, division-winning run in the fall and eventually being accepted to attend the forum in the winter. Along the way, she also experienced something many women in similar positions don’t always have the opportunity to do — work in a male-dominated sport with other women.

When Dunnagan was hired as NU’s director of video operations in 2013, she became the first woman to ever serve in that role in a Power Five conference, and is the president of the Collegiate Sports Video Association in addition to her current role with the Cats. Alex Knisley, who also attended this year’s forum, worked as an assistant director of video operations for two years at NU before she was hired as the head of video operations at Kansas in January.

“It’s really empowering,” Cohrs said. “And that just speaks to, you know, once you set your mind to it, it’s not impossible. There are people doing it and setting great examples for all of us.”

The increased presence of women in college football doesn’t apply to every area of the sport. The percentage of women working in support or administrative roles far outweighs those in strength and conditioning or on-field coaching positions — in 2018, Dartmouth’s Callie Brownson became the first-ever female full-time coach at the Division I level, and the breakdown by conferences makes NCAA-wide initiatives difficult.

But women who work in the industry say that events like the forum, hosted by the sport’s most influential entity, will help to spark top-down change and put more women in key positions.

“The biggest thing is making sure that women know about the job opportunities, and then that they are given the same fair shot as the men that are applying for the same position,” Dunnagan said. “The longer that you see women in these roles, the more natural it becomes, and organically you’ll see more women entering the profession that way.”

Kasia Omilian, a scouting assistant at the University of Washington, met Cohrs last year while visiting the Evanston campus. As two women working in a typically male-dominated sport, they connected, and eventually both attended the forum this February.

The forum gave them an opportunity to connect with other women from across the NFL and the college football world, a chance that’s not always available.

“As females in football, we continue to find each other,” Omilian said. “It’s a different medium and a different space to talk to one another and talk about certain situations that you’re in. If you can do the work, you can do the work.”

Two months after the forum, Omilian is working for the Indianapolis Colts, and Cohrs will soon head east to be a training camp intern with the Buffalo Bills — the same organization that made history in 2016 as the first to ever hire a full-time female coach.

The opportunities are there, Cohrs said, more than ever before. The next step is to enter the elevator and seize them.

“There are a lot of teams out there that want to help you. You just have to prove to them that you can do it,” said Cohrs, who aspires to one day be an NFL executive. “You just have to make yourself valuable … These people do want you in the program, you just have to put yourself out there.”

Email: ellabrockway@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @ellabrockway

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