Women are rising up the ranks throughout professional football, earning positions of power in a space that for too long was ruled almost exclusively by men. We're seeing more and more women breaking barriers in the sport, but what are the stories beyond the headlines? Who are the women shaping and influencing the NFL today? Answering those questions is the aim of the Next Woman Up series. While the conversational Q&As are edited and condensed for clarity, this is a forum for impactful women to share experiences in their own words. Without further ado, we introduce:
Tina Tuggle, Tennessee Titans
Position: Vice President of Community Impact
* * * * *
How did you get your start in a career in football?
I got my start in a very nontraditional way back in 1997. It was when the Houston Oilers just announced their move to Tennessee. I am originally from Memphis, and when the announcement was made that year, the organization decided they were going to do a cross-state training camp. The team spent time in various areas of the state trying to garner interest and get people excited about having an NFL team in the state of Tennessee. I worked at Rhodes College, and the Tennessee Oilers were coming there for three days leading up to their exhibition game.
I was leaving the office one day and overheard two Oilers coaches talking about not having all the technology or computer needs to print for practice. I offered up my office -- they came in and used my computer and were able to get what they needed for practice. Later that afternoon when I was in the cafeteria, a gentleman came over to the table I was sitting at with my co-workers and said, "Which one of you is Tina?" I raised my hand, of course, and he asked, "May I speak with you?" It was Jeff Fisher, then the head coach of the team. He thanked me for assisting his coaches and told me they hadn't brought any of their administrative staff with them and asked if I'd be interested in joining the organization. Granted, this was an era when there were no media guides, so in my mind, football had two positions: coaches and players.
I had no idea what working for a football team would mean, and he said, "Don't answer me right now, but if you could come back on Saturday and meet with general manager Floyd Reese, we'd like to talk to you about what this opportunity entails." So I came back on Saturday, August 2, and met with them both. ... I ended up accepting the position, and September 2, 1997, was my first day as the receptionist. I've been here ever since.
From starting as a receptionist to now being the VP of Community Impact, how has your role has expanded?
My mother always told me to take great pride in everything that you do and to autograph your work with excellence. She also told me, "Make sure they hear you smile through the phone." Every day I practiced, "Good morning. Tennessee Oilers. This is Tina. How may I help you?" I wanted to be memorable when they heard my voice. They may not have known who I was, but their experience was going to be pleasant because of me.
During that time, I remember an executive saying to me, "You're much more qualified than the position you're in right now." That was a challenge to me. From there, it was my responsibility to read the media guides and familiarize myself with everything I could about the NFL and inner workings of an organization. I would sit downstairs after work with the coaches to understand the game of football because I wanted my value to be far-reaching. I took great pride in every step along the way. There was no responsibility that was beneath me. I wanted to make that responsibility so great that other people who saw me doing it would want to do it, too.
So as the receptionist, I got to learn about media relations, public relations, player development, which is now player engagement, and that closely aligned with who I was and what I liked to do prior to joining the organization. Those two years really served as a junior rotational program because I worked in so many areas: the press box on game days, helping the coaches input plays during the evenings, helped the GM when there were new players in town. I got to shadow various responsibilities and learn, then determine which direction I'd like to carve out for myself.
What was your transition into player development like?
Transitioning to player development was a big one for me. It is everything that doesn't have to do with what happens on the field, so financial education, continuing education to career counseling, counseling services for the player and their families. Essentially, it is the transition into the NFL, the smoothness of the career and the transition to the next phase once they are no longer in the league. That position was previously never held by women. It was held by men and particularly former players. There was this mindset that it took someone who had been in the locker room to understand the challenges of being in the locker room. But I loved everything about it and I knew that's where I was supposed to be and would make it known every time that position came available.
I would say, "Pick me!" And they'd say, "That's sweet, but no." In that time, I was able to complete a lot of executive education courses that were offered by the league for aspiring junior executive level employees. The team would send me, which showed me that they had a desire to help me grow. I was very happy for the nos because when the opportunity presented itself to take that role of director of player development, I was ready.
I was the only woman doing that job when I was hired in 2007, and I think my want was the reason I was able to move into that space. I had worked really hard to cultivate relationships with the players, worked really hard to be trusting and to understand the difference in confidentiality, knowing what was important in value to share and to keep.
I worked diligently to assist players. If there was a player who we needed to help work through some type of issue, I used various non-profits and organizations that worked in those spaces to help that player. This was a way to cultivate relationships with the players and help them with their personal situations, but also teach them how to network, so when they were no longer in the NFL, they could lean on those relationships or skills they had learned.
Can you explain what it's like to form trusting relationships with the players, who are constantly being pulled in a million different directions?
You have to earn it. I often say trust should be given not earned, but in this particular situation, trust has to be earned. There are a lot of people pulling at them and that has preceded their time in the NFL.
When a player is drafted or picked up as a free agent, player development really has the opportunity to get to know them and build those relationships. You're talking to them or their families and talking about all things non-football, building a rapport and relationship of trust. You're also relying heavily on previous players who are already in the locker room to vouch for you and show players coming in that you are someone they can trust. It's a very delicate dance because you're the person they come to for everything -- rent a car or find an apartment or need assistance in an unfortunate situation or maybe they're having a difficult time on the field or transitioning into the league. You have to learn to be all things to all people, because when they trust you, they really rely on you to help them and allow themselves to be vulnerable when they wouldn't be with anyone else.
I still have relationships with players when they leave, and one of my responsibilities currently is working with the alumni of both the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans. I take great pride in seeing their successes and knowing I played a small role in them.
Would you say that's what you're most proud of in your career?
I have a lot of proud moments. Becoming the director of player development was one because I was told "no" so many times and I didn't give up. … I have a son who is the world to me. When he was younger, I divorced -- and, of course, that was difficult for him -- but I needed to show him how to persevere through hard times and still find your success and that you'll be OK. His little face pushed me every day. I learned so much from him and he's my motivation.
But professionally, I remember when I was first hired and they were building the stadium -- at the time it was the Adelphia Coliseum. One of the executives said, "I want everybody to look across the river and tell me what you see." People were naming random things and somebody finally said, "People?" He said, "Exactly. There are only 32 jobs like yours in the NFL. If you screw up, we'll hire someone else and they'll do just as good a job as you."
When I thought about that when I was the director of player development, being the only female and the only African-American woman, it was like, How amazing of an accomplishment is this, not only for me but for all of these people behind me?
I love that you were able to recognize that moment. Now, what would you say is the most challenging part of your job?
Right now, it's COVID-19. My job is to take the players out into the community to meet people, shake hands, hold babies, you name it. Everything now is smiling through a camera.
But in my life, I choose not to look at any challenge as a detriment but as something to get through. I don't like to categorize myself as a minority in any regard. I see myself as a person who belongs wherever I am. When I'm talking to young people and there are all of these naysayers or statistics that say why you shouldn't be here, I challenge them to focus on the reasons why they are there. We are in certain positions because we belong. It's not because you are the first woman or the first Black woman. It's because you have done the work, someone recognized and rewarded you for that, and now you need to prove to them that you are supposed to be in that space. I love what I do and love the opportunities that were afforded to me, but I did the work and I'm OK saying that.
You have accomplished so much in 20 years. What's next for you?
I have this little plaque on my wall that says "Be still" -- and the reason that's so important to me is because I'm a busy body. When I get overwhelmed, I have to stop, do a real self-evaluation and make sure I'm grounded where I am. I will be honest with you, every time I got to a place where I felt like I wanted to do more, the opportunity presented itself. I'm very intentional about not looking too far ahead because I feel like you lose something in the process if you do that. Once I've mastered what I'm supposed to be doing and learning in that moment, inevitably the next phase of my life happens. So I'm going to put everything I have into being Vice President of Community Impact, and when the next thing is supposed to happen, I'll know.
How have you seen the NFL change for women during your lengthy tenure in the league?
We used to have this scout that said, "Oh, you're just a secretary." And that was the role that women played back then, and it felt like, if I want to be here, that's what I'm going to be right now. I had to really look back to what that executive said to me, "You're much more qualified than the position you're in right now." I had to believe that. Then one day, opportunities started to happen. You would see a female coordinator, then a CFO and it kept going. That was a glimmer of hope that those opportunities are there because I saw women leave along the way that felt like they had hit their ceilings.
I felt like I saw this paradigm shift where, within the Titans organization, they started to hire people who were qualified, and that was the new requirement. That gave me hope that there was going to be an opportunity someday, so I had to exercise patience to get there. It took a few years, but one day, there was this push where organizations said we've got to put more emphasis on making sure there are opportunities for men and women and people of all races.
We decided it started at the college level, so the Titans sent me to talk to various admin programs to help pull people up into these roles. I think that's where the difference was. We got to a point where we wanted to make a difference in pulling up people who were qualified. The more people were pulled up, the more you started to see inclusion, and one day it felt natural to see people in positions that were simply qualified.
How did it make you feel to be part of the progress?
I'll share this story. I was at an NFL Legends Meeting in Phoenix and my son was at college. And everyone knows that when my child calls me, I don't care who you are, he comes first. He said, "Mom, I just met with my academic advisor, and she really helped me. I was telling her that I want to find my own way and carve my own path. I know I can rely on my mom because she knows a lot of people and she could get it for me, but I want to do this for myself." That was the theme of their conversation, and at one point, she stopped him and said, "Who is your mom?" He goes, "Well, my mom is Tina ..." And she cut in, "Tuggle?! Your mom is Tina Tuggle??"
She was a student at the University of Alabama and had to write her thesis on executive women in professional sports, and she wrote it about me. It was one of those things where I had never met this young lady, but I influenced her. How far-reaching your work is and the impact you may have, that feels really good to know that there's a whole generation of young women who are influenced by the work I'm doing. All I ask her and anyone else is to continue to pay it forward. All we need is one person to make it their responsibility to help one more person, imagine the impact and how far we'll go.